It’s no secret that I love a true Gothic romance better than almost any other romance genre, but the problem is finding new ones to read — discovering a well-written Gothic published since Gerald Ford was in office is almost impossible.
And then there was Amanda DeWees, who has, in the course of just two years, managed to publish not one but two wonderful Gothics. I considered the first, Sea of Secrets, a revelation. Her latest, With This Curse, is even better.
Without further ado, here’s the synopsis, courtesy of DeWees’ website:
In 1854, seventeen-year-old chambermaid Clara Crofton was dismissed from Gravesend Hall for having fallen in love with Richard Blackwood, the younger son of the house. Alone in the world, Clara found a tenuous position as a seamstress, but she always blamed the Gravesend curse for the disaster that had befallen her—and for Richard’s death soon after in the Crimean War.
Now, more than eighteen years later, Richard’s twin, Atticus, seeks out Clara with a strange proposal: if she will marry him and live with him as his wife in name only to ease the mind of his dying father, Atticus will then endow her with a comfortable income for the rest of her life. Clara knows that he is not disclosing his true motives, but when she runs out of options for an independent life, she has no choice but to become Atticus’s wife.
For Clara, returning to Gravesend as a bride brings some triumph… but also great unease. Not only must she pretend to be a wellborn lady and devoted wife to a man whose face is a constant reminder of the love she lost, but ominous portents whisper that her masquerade brings grave danger. “This house will take from you what you most treasure,” her mother once warned her. But the curse has already taken the man Clara loved. Will it now demand her life?
As I was reading With This Curse, I thought over and over of how Dean James of Mystery Scene summed up the death of the 1970s Gothic Revival:
A fair number of [1970s-era Gothics] featured dimwitted heroines who went into that proverbial dark room at the head of the stairs with no thought to the danger within, and if they had been murdered, well, it would have been little more than they deserved.
I thought of that observation not because Clara is dimwitted, but because it crystallized the secret to With This Curse’s success — making the danger Clara faces real.
Just as I raved of Oriel from Sea of Secrets, Clara is a rare worthy successor to that grandmother of all Gothic heroines, Jane Eyre. We still talk about and read Jane Eyre today because Charlotte Bronte created a heroine that didn’t blunder into the proverbial dark room with no thought to danger, but because she was pushed into it. Every time she steps into the dark room — becoming a governess at a house with a bad reputation, marrying Rochester, running away from Rochester — it’s because of the limited choices available to her as an impoverished, unmarried woman. That’s the horror of Jane Eyre.
That’s also why With This Curse works so well. The book is so well-grounded in the setting — mid-Victorian England — that it’s easy to understand why Clara, too, goes to the dark room by agreeing to marry Atticus and return to a house where she has known little but unhappiness. So few so-called historical romances truly make the reader understand the limitations women faced in less enlightened eras — probably because we wouldn’t read them if they did — that when these limitations are used to create real drama in the plot, it’s surprising and refreshing.
WARNING: MILD SPOILERS AHEAD
It’s not just Clara’s plight that DeWees employs to create the almost stifling sense of doom that pervades the book. DeWees ratchets up the mystery in the book by imbuing the commonplace with portent. DeWees proves that you don’t need mummies rattling chains to make a horror story — Victorian England is scary enough.
Women who stray from the straight and narrow come to terrible ends. Children are mistreated as a matter of course. The hero’s congenital physical imperfection is seen as a mark of a curse, as is an ancestor’s madness. Atticus’ cretin of a father, in keeping with the ghoulish-to-us Victorian obsession with mourning, collects death masks. Neither the mystery that’s at the heart of the story or the other weird happenings that create a spooky atmosphere are supernatural; rather, they are horrible for how natural they are, how easily they could happen during the Victorian era.
Which is not to say that With This Curse is a joyless slog. As with any DeWees book, you are treated to beautifully written prose, excellent plotting and great characterization.
Clara is prickly, but in the best way possible, and like Jane Eyre, is witty and perfect in her imperfections. She’s a little older and wiser than most Gothic heroines, which makes her even more fun to read. Atticus quickly became one of my favorite Gothic heroes. He’s one of few heroes in the genre who is genuinely funny, kind and delightful, even as he struggles with the ghosts that haunt Gravesend Hall. Not Scooby Doo ghosts, mind you, but the real ghosts that haunt any home — memories and long-standing family dynamics that can stir up more trouble than a whole passel of the bedsheet variety of ghosts.
The romance that develops between Atticus and Clara is believable and touching; they complement each other so well, with Clara’s dryness the perfect foil to Atticus’ sweet vulnerability. They are both misfits, in their own ways, and it’s easy to see how these two are drawn together, and you are really rooting for their HEA.
I should end this review right here, but I can’t without mentioning Clara’s career as a seamstress for a famous stage actress. The brief foray we’re given into the Victorian theater world is fascinating, and for someone who could usually care less about suchlike stuff, the descriptions of the dresses are so engrossing — you owe it to yourself to visit DeWees’ Pinterest page to get an idea of Clara’s work.
I give With This Curse 5 out of 5 creepy death masks. Atticus gets 5 jaunty walking sticks, while Clara gets 5 dresses of her own design, sewn by someone else!
Enough of my yammering. Just read With This Curse already. But make sure you have several hours to kill, or don’t have anything to do tomorrow, because you won’t be able to put it down.
With This Curse
And when you’re done, read Sea of Secrets if you haven’t already!