The Cursed Wife
by Pamela Hartshorne
Mary is content with her life as wife to Gabriel Thorne, a wealthy merchant in Elizabethan London. She loves her husband and her family, is a kind mistress to the household and is well-respected in the neighbourhood. She does her best to forget that as a small girl she was cursed for causing the death of a vagrant child, a curse that predicts that she will hang. She tells herself that she is safe.
But Mary’s whole life is based on a lie. She is not the woman her husband believes her to be, and when one rainy day she ventures to Cheapside, the past catches up with her and sets her on a path that leads her to the gibbet and the fulfilment of the curse.
I received an eARC of The Cursed Wife from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
TW: I will be discussing sexual assault in this review.
Tell me a book is a thriller set in Elizabethan England and it’s a book I want to get my hands on. Sadly, I didn’t enjoy The Cursed Wife as much as I thought I would.
This novel has a lot of potential. Mary lives in Elizabethan London with her merchant husband, their children and their servants, but that’s not the name they know her by. To them, Mary is Catherine; a noblewoman who joined their household years before as a widow with an infant daughter.
After an accident in Mary’s youth, she has convinced herself she’s been cursed and is going to end her life on the gallows. When she’s unexpectedly reunited with her childhood friend, Cat, who knows her secret, things begin to spiral out of control.
The Cursed Wife is fairly short as historical fiction goes – my edition is just under 250 pages – so it’s a quick read, which works for the kind of novel that it’s trying to be. I love a good chunky book, but I tend to prefer shorter thrillers because it’s hard to maintain the suspense throughout 400 pages of novel, and The Cursed Wife gets into the nitty gritty of the story almost immediately.
It doesn’t hurt that Hartshorne’s writing is very readable. There were certain ways in which she brought the Elizabethan era to life, whether it was mentioning a certain type of clothing or how Mary bought her goods at the marketplace, that I really enjoyed, but I can’t say I felt like I was in London. I’m not actually the biggest fan of London as a setting simply because it’s probably the most used setting when it comes to books set in the UK – especially historical fiction – and I’d much rather read about somewhere else, but if an author is going to choose London as their setting I’d like to feel like I’m in London.
Personally I felt like The Cursed Wife could have been set anywhere, and with Mary as a prosperous merchant’s wife I got more of a Netherlands feel than a London feel, which just goes to show how much of an impact the setting in Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist had on me.
My biggest problem with this novel, though, was the characters. Mary I liked; my favourite parts of the novel were the quiet, domestic scenes when she shared what her duties were as a wife and mother. In a way I wish Hartshorne had written a historical romance novel because I was so intrigued by the relationship between Mary and her husband, Gabriel, and I’d’ve been happy to read 250 pages of Mary pottering about her house because the domestic scenes were the scenes Hartshorne wrote best.
Instead we have a historical thriller about the toxic relationship between Mary and Cat and, honestly, I found the whole thing incredibly frustrating. It’s easy to see where the novel’s going; from the prologue we know one of the women is dead by the end of the novel and it’s easy to see how we get to that turn of events fairly early on. I wouldn’t have a problem with that if it was done well, but I found it hard to believe that Mary could be so naive.
On top of that, Cat is awful. I love unlikable women so Cat should have been the kind of character I could get behind, especially because I’m sure we’re not supposed to warm to her, but she’s not unlikable – she’s just plain nasty. Hartshorne tries to make us understand her, and there are things she goes through that will make any reader empathise with her, but for the most part she’s horrid to the point of feeling like a caricature rather than a character. I couldn’t understand how Mary didn’t see right through her.
I’m so bored of historical fiction involving women being mean to each other and sexual assault. Sexual assault is an important topic and there are so many authors who handle it brilliantly, but I didn’t like how it was handled here. There’s a fairly graphic scene of sexual assault – by which I mean the whole event is described to us, rather than hinted at – so please keep that in mind if you find that kind of content difficult to read.
What frustrated me, though, is that the man who carries out the assault is yet another caricature I often see in historical fiction and, while I don’t doubt that men like him did (and still do) exist, I think it’s lazy to fall back on this trope. Anyone who has experienced sexual assault has dealt with it in a different way, and I don’t want to suggest for a moment that the way Mary overcomes it is disingenuous, but it seemed brushed under the carpet far too easily for the sake of the plot.
Later, when Mary is happily married, she tells the reader how passionately she and Gabriel love one another. Considering we got a full description of her assault, I think it’s a shame we didn’t get a whole scene of her having happy, consensual sex with her husband. Not only to take the sting out of how horrid that earlier scene is to read, but also because there was the chance there for Hartshorne to explore how Gabriel makes sex safe and enjoyable for her when her only previous experience has been violent.
Sadly there’s no time for any of this nuance because the plot rushes along so quickly that the characters are running to keep up. They tell the reader a lot of things to make up for the fact that Hartshorne has no time to show it, so by the time the novel reaches its conclusion I was left rather underwhelmed. What’s most frustrating is that there are the bones of a really good novel in here, but it’s not the novel we get.
Ultimately I wish Hartshorne had given me a historical romance about Mary and Gabriel, the only characters in the book who actually feel real, rather than a thriller about women’s friendship turned sour. Women being unnecessarily mean to one another in a setting that’s already inherently misogynist is not something I’m interested in reading anymore.