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Review: "To Have and To Hold" by Mary Johnston

To Have and To Hold may be downloaded for free from our ebook catalog. This review was originally published at Edwardian Promenade.

To Have and To Hold by Mary Johnston was the bestselling book in the U.S. in 1900, and it’s not hard to see why — it’s awesome. It’s the same sort of book as Janice Meredith: adventure, American colonial history, etc. To Have and To Hold just has more pirates and, I don’t know, general craziness. I kind of love it.

The story is set in the early years of the Virginia colony and follows the fortunes of Captain Ralph Percy. He’s not wealthy and he’s not politically important and he’s not a real historical figure, but he’s friends with all of those who are. For example at the beginning of the book, Pocahontas has been dead for three years. Percy remembers her fondly, is best friends with her widower John Rolfe, and respects her brother Nantauquas more than any of the other members of the Powhatan tribe. Although — well, that’s not saying much. Percy has a high opinion of the Indians’ cunning, but a low opinion of their honor.

The story begins when Percy, mostly unwillingly, takes part in a sort of mail-order bride arrangement and ends up married to a young woman who is clearly more than she professes herself to be. How much more isn’t clear until the arrival by ship some weeks later of my Lord Carnal, the King’s favorite. He reveals that she is Lady Jocelyn Leigh, a ward of the King. The King wanted her to marry my Lord Carnal, but she hated him, and so she ran away. It’s hard to blame her because my Lord Carnal isn’t very nice and Captain Percy is. Clearly she will eventually fall in love with her husband. But first, adventures!

Many weeks of everyone pretending they don’t know very well that Ralph and Jocelyn are going to be sent back to England to have their marriage annulled culminate in the couple escaping in a tiny boat. They mean to go alone, but they end up with three additional passengers:

  • Ralph’s servant Diccon, with whom he has an extremely prickly relationship owing to that one time when Diccon tried to kill him
  • Jeremy Sparrow, minister, former Shakespearean actor, and good-natured hulking giant who has appointed himself Ralph’s new best friend
  • Somewhat inconveniently, my Lord Carnal

Fortunately they manage to leave behind my Lord Carnal’s sidekick, an Italian doctor who is much given to a) lurking, and b) poisoning people. Then: shipwreck, pirates, a makeshift courtroom scene, jail, lots of Indians, and an assortment of atmospheric descriptions of scenery.

There’s enough plot for three different adventure novels here, but none of it feels gratuitous or hastily tacked-on (except perhaps the end). I like the characters, too.  Jocelyn should be profoundly irritating, and sometimes she is, but in a human kind of way rather than a tying herself into knots in order to obey the constraints of the story kind of way. Ralph Percy is lovely and self-deprecating and heroic, and while Jeremy Sparrow comes out of nowhere and all of a sudden everyone is like, “Oh yeah, I remember seeing you in Twelfth Night,” I don’t mind because being a pious minister and a big, burly adventurer at the same time is tough. He makes it work. I’m less enthused about the villains. My Lord Carnal is disappointingly one-sided, and I can’t really see the point of his creepy Italian poisoner sidekick. But I loved how they all — minus the creepy Italian poisoner — went off on piratey adventures together.

I started this book thinking it was going to be a miserable slog, but once I got a few chapters in, I couldn’t put it down. It’s nice to be able to agree with all of those book-buyers of 1900.

Visit Melody’s blog, Redeeming Qualities, for more vintage reviews and commentary!


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