London 1590. The Cursed Wife by Pamela Hartshorne starts with two un-named women in a room; one alive, one dead. And then follows the story of two women who meet as children, Cat and Mary, mistress and maid. Page by twisting page the story of Cat and Mary unfolds as, you can’t help but wonder, which one dies and which lives.
Mistress Mary Thorne sometimes forgets she is cursed. It is 1590 and she steps out into the rain to buy herbs for an ill maid, little knowing her life will be changed. Two stories are told in parallel; from 1562 when the two girls first meet, and 1590 when their paths cross again in London. There is a tug of power between the two as fortunes rise and fall; Cat is envious of what Mary has, while Mary feels guilt at every small slight she has made in her life.
In 1562, Mary is a gentleman’s daughter; orphaned by sickness, she is put into a cart to be taken to the house of a distant cousin where she has been offered shelter. Her solace is Peg, the small wooden doll given to her by her father. When a mob of urchins sets on the cart, one girl grabs Peg and in her haste Mary pushes her. The girl falls and dies. An old woman who sees it happen, curses Mary saying the truth of what she has done will haunt her for the rest of her life. Mary arrives at Steeple Tew, the manor of her relations, and there meets the daughter of the house, Cat. Mary is to be her maid. The two girls become companions, though a pecking order is retained as they grow into young women, until sickness again enforces a change of circumstances.
This is a novel about social mobility, up as well as down, and adjusting to life’s events. It is about destiny; making your own, or expecting it as a right. Cat is an over-indulged child who becomes a spoiled young woman used to everything in life. Though is too simplistic to say Cat is selfish and Mary a saint, you do feel that Cat will always be dissatisfied with her lot. Mary thinks, “Cat sees the world not through a window as others do, but in a looking glass that reflects back what she wishes to see.”
This is a dark tale of bitterness, blame, jealousy and resentment. The two girls are mirror images of each other, but inverted; both start as gentleman’s daughters, both are brought low by circumstances, one adapts, the other does not. This is a curiously modern novel with a young woman confident of her entitlement, regardless of her actions and choices. Everyone, the story makes clear, has choices and must live by those, accepting responsibility for one’s own life.
Hartshorne is a brilliant writer of atmosphere. When Cat marries George, the two girls move to Haverley Court. Though it is newly-built, Mary sees threats everywhere. “To me, the house was a living creature, watching me slyly. Its shadows tiptoed behind me as I walked through it. I would feel them like a breath on the back of my neck and my skin would prickle.” Adding to the haunted atmosphere is the doll Peg, a kind of bellwether, whose painted face changes its expression forewarning of events happening to Mary.
The Elizabethan setting is full of wonderful detail from food to under-garments, but there were times when it became a little too much.
Read more about Pamela Hartshorne’s novels here.
If you like this, try:-
‘The Penny Heart’ by Martine Bailey
‘At First Light’ by Vanessa Lafaye
‘The Knife with the Ivory Handle’ by Cynthia Bruchman
‘The Cursed Wife’ by Pamela Hartshorne [UK: Pan]
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THE CURSED WIFE by @PamHartshorne #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-3i1 via @SandraDanby