Sunday, May 29, 2011

To Have and To Hold by Mary Johnston

When his good friend John “the chap who married Pocahontas” Rolfe advises him to go to Jamestown to get a wife off the bride-ship from England, Captain Ralph Percy takes some convincing—but turns up anyway to meet the ship with a vague idea of some nice, gentle English milkmaid with a sweet disposition and a dab hand at butter-making.
Instead he ends up married to a beautiful, haughty runaway heiress, with the implacable enemy she was supposed to marry in the first place trying to kill him, the Jamestown authorities reluctantly obliged to clap him in irons, his own servant trying to assassinate him, and a long path set with dangers including but not limited to pirates, Indians, and poisoners.
When it first appeared in print, To Have and To Hold was published as a serial. Accordingly, something thrilling is contractually obliged to happen once per chapter. Although the story takes a few chapters to work up steam, it soon becomes an absolutely gripping affair full of romance and adventure.
Books like these are the reason why I write this blog. I myself stumbled upon it purely by mistake, having found it at the top of a list of AD1900 bestsellers, and had no way of knowing whether it would be any good or not. As it turned out, it was well worth the effort.
The story is set in colonial Virginia, just twelve or so years after the settlement of Jamestown. In some ways it is very similar to John Buchan's Salute to Adventurersso similar, in fact, that they could almost be responses to the same assignment: Write a thrilling tale of pirates, Indians, and romance in colonial Virginia. Include at least one duel and a no-holds-barred depiction of manly Christianity. Submissions to be returned no later than 1915.
Because the plot is so episodic, and takes so many, many twists and turns, I shall try not to give much of it away here. Instead I want to focus on a few of the main characters.
The narrator, Captain Ralph Percy, is of indeterminate age, but not longer very young. A hard-bitten gentleman soldier/adventurer, he spent several years fighting in the Low Countries before joining the very first ship of settlers to Virginia, which is where he's spent the last twelve years of his life, intermittently starving and trying to fight off Indians. At the time of the story, some measure of peace has come to Virginia, and some measure of prosperity as a tobacco-planter to Percy, but he has not unbent much—he mistrusts the Indians, is still the best blade in the colony, and retains his strong, silent demeanour. When King James I's favourite courtier, the wicked and hansdome Lord Carnal, arrives in Virginia to claim his runaway fiancee, he finds an insuperable obstacle in this plain soldier. Percy respects the wedding vows he made, even if nobody else does.

Jocelyn, the proud beauty he married, is not such a well-drawn character. Ralph Percy can't seem to lay eyes on her without going into rhapsodies about how pretty and fearless and queenly she is, but let's be honest: running off to Virginia disguised as a waiting-woman, marrying a chap she almost openly disdains at first, and thereby embroiling him in some very hot, very deep water is pretty selfish. Ralph Percy may have imagined the ideal frontier wife as someone who can churn butter, care for children, and load muskets in case of an Indian attack, but when he marries Jocelyn, he ends up having to hire her a maid so she can sit around looking pretty and making daisy-chains. Even though later on, she begins to show signs of remorse for the succession of completely hopeless situations she causes to befall her husband, one still gets the feeling that somehow housework is below any really intelligent woman.
As I say, Jocelyn changes throughout the novel. She relents. She becomes perhaps a little less selfish, and she apologises a couple of times for putting her husband in such danger of life and honour. But I have the feeling that Mary Johnston, a women's rights advocate and suffragist, did not see anything fundamentally wrong with her heroine's sense of entitlement.
The flipside of the unsatisfactoriness of Jocelyn is the incredible wonderfulness of Captain Ralph Percy. The man is absolutely It. He is resourceful, brave, gentlemanly, and a splendid swordsman. Although he is clearly intrigued by Jocelyn from the moment he first sees her, it is not so much love as honour and duty that forces him into open defiance of the King and the King's favourite.
"I'll fight for my own to the last ditch," I continued. "I married her knowing her name, if not her quality. Had I known the latter, had I known she was the King's ward, all the same I should have married her, an she would have had me. She is my wife in the sight of God and honest men. Esteeming her honor, which is mine, at stake, Death may silence me, but men shall not bend me."
As he assures his wife (whom he doggedly addresses as Mistress Percy, even when everyone else insists on calling her by her maiden name, Lady Jocelyn Leigh), what is his is hers—including his honour. The one thing he will not do is break his vows to her—even though she has made something of a farce of the marriage on her end.
What is mine is yours: it's little beside my sword and my name. The one is naturally at my wife's service; for the other, I have had some pride in keeping it untarnished. It is now in your keeping as well as my own. I do not fear to leave it there, madam.
This is going above and beyond the call of duty. Jocelyn is his wife only in name, but Ralph doesn't care—he married her, didn't he? He may have to wait. He may have to suffer. He may have to fight pirates and the most powerful man in the kingdom. But he fully intends to win his wife's heart. You might wonder whether he recognises Jocelyn's faults, or whether love has blinded him as regards her selfishness and pride. But you can be absolutely sure that if a little thing like chains and the stern displeasure of the King doesn't matter to him, her own shortcomings don't either.
If I have a complaint about Captain Percy, it's that he's a little too perfect. That's sort of like complaining about a pumpkin pie being a little too much like manna from heaven, but in this case I have sneaking suspicions. I'm not a man myself, so he looks pretty good to me. But if there's one thing I've learned through reading an incredibly large quantity of melodramatic vintage novels, it's this: never trust a woman to write a convincing male character. I remember there's a place in The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope, where the hero finds himself lurking in a cold moat just before the climactic showdown:
I crouched down in the shadow of the great pipe—I tried to stir it, but it was quite immovable—and waited. I remember that my predominant feeling was neither anxiety for the King nor longing for Flavia, but an intense desire to smoke; and this craving, of course, I could not gratify.
This inability to be constantly thinking of the beloved is something that few lady novelists have ever been able to comprehend. If they were a shade stronger in their practical theology, they might realise that women live for their men, but men live for their work. A man's calling is the love of his life—his wife generally comes second. Her calling is to help him, but his is to carry out the vocation he has been given. For the lady novelist—and for Mary Johnston in particular—it is hard to imagine a man in love who can be wedded to some other calling than that of loving his wife. In To Have and To Hold, Captain Percy seems not to have a calling much higher than to woo and win his wife. His life revolves around her and she absorbs that attention without giving much back. At the end, they go off together—for what? Children are not mentioned; farming is not mentioned; dominion over the wilderness is not mentioned; the characters head into some vague and undefined wedded bliss, and their lives might as well be over. This is the basic fault of the lady romance novelist: this temptation to make love, even a noble and inspiring love, an end in itself.
This review is already much too long, but there is so much to talk about in the book. Apart from the quibbles just noted, To Have and To Hold is edifying fun. Jocelyn really is brave and poised and the second half of the book goes a long way to redeeming the deficiencies in her character. Mary Johnston really did do a good job of depicting a smashing, manly, and courageous hero; we need shining examples of goodness in our books, and though he has some token faults to keep him from sprouting wings and a halo, Ralph is pretty inspiring. I defy anyone of either sex not to fall into open-mouthed admiration at the way he extricates himself from all the perils he goes through. If nothing else, you should read the book simply for the sake of the chapter entitled In Which I Change My Name and Occupation, in which he gets off a desert island by what must be the most ingenious yet flat-out crazy strategem ever employed.
I haven't even spoken about the supporting characters yet. There's Master John Rolfe, who is yet another preux chevalier, but unlike Ralph Percy, he's still mourning the death of the love of his life, the Lady Rebecca—who is better known to history as Pocahontas. There's Lord Carnal, the black-hearted villain, who nearly makes treachery and low cunning look just as much fun as Ralph Percy's crazy, dauntless bravery and loyalty. There's Diccon, the faithful manservant with the spicy past, whose loyalty is nearly as passionate as Ralph Percy's own. There's Nantauquas, Pocahontas's noble brother, torn between his loyalty to his people and his love of the English and their God. But the very best of them is Master Jeremy Sparrow. Sparrow is a minister of the gospel, who at first sight seems a mite hypocritical:
"And you are Master Jeremy Sparrow?"
"Yea, a silly preacher, -- the poorest, meekest, and lowliest of the Lord's servitors."
His deep voice, magnificent frame, and bold and free address so gave the lie to the humility of his words that I had much ado to keep from laughing. He saw, and his face, which was of a cast most martial, flashed into a smile, like sunshine on a scarred cliff.
"You laugh in your sleeve," he said good-humoredly, "and yet I am but what I profess to be. In spirit I am a very Job, though nature hath seen fit to dress me as a Samson."
But as it turns out, Sparrow is pure gold right through. He befriends Ralph, sticking with him through thick and thin, whether it means taking care of Jocelyn while Ralph is off facing torture and death at the hands of the Indians, or swaggering it as the bloodthirsty mate of a pirate ship.
Oh, yes. I did mention there were pirates, didn't I? I didn't mention that the minister plays a pirate part, though? How remiss of me. Jeremy Sparrow is no dry, dull formalist; he is no canting fanatic, repulsive and hypocritical; he is no coward and as Ralph soon finds out, nobody could be better to have around in a fight. At the same time he is gentle, sincere, and true-hearted:
During those hours of thirst and torment I came indeed to know the man who sat beside me. His hands were so fastened that he could not loosen the cords, and there was no water for him to give me; but he could and did bestow a higher alms, -- the tenderness of a brother, the manly sympathy of a soldier, the balm of the priest of God.
There are many men of God in fiction; quite a lot are admirable; very few are as downright heroic as Jeremy Sparrow. The French have a proverb that there are three sexes: men, women, and clergy. The clergy have, perhaps through some fault of their own, gained a reputation for effeminacy. Sparrow isn't a perfect man—surely no minister should lie so unblushingly as he does at one point—but if there is one thing he most certainly is not, it is effeminate or ineffective. Instead, he is exactly what a clergyman ought to be: tender-hearted, hard-working, full of spiritual counsel, and handy with a cutlass.
I'll admit that I could go on about this book for a good while yet, for I love nothing so much as carefully dissecting a good story. But perhaps you should pop off and read it for yourself, instead.
Librivox recording (This was the version which I just finished listening to with my sisters. The reader is a little stilted, but you do get used to it. Vision Forum has published a 'revised' edition, which is an interesting idea--as I pointed out, there were definitely elements of the book that could have been improved. On the other hand, if I'm going to read a book, I prefer to read the book the original writer wrote.)

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