What could tempt you to reenter a cursed house, where all that you loved had already been taken from you once before? For Clara, only the dismal prospects of being an unmarried Victorian woman without hope of employment could drive her back to Gravesend. This predicament opens the story of With This Curse by Amanda DeWees, a traditional-style Gothic novel which won the 2015 Daphne du Maurier Award. Amanda’s books were first recommended to me by an author I’ve talked about at length in many posts here, Leanna Renee Hieber. I knew I could trust such glowing praise from one of my favorite authors, and when With This Curse arrived in the mail and I saw its gorgeous and elegant cover, I was even more excited to read it. It took several months to make its way up my to-read list, but when I finally cracked the spine, I was not disappointed.
With This Curse tells the story of Clara Crofton, who as a young girl served as a chambermaid for the Blackwood family at their estate, ominously named Gravesend Hall. Despite having been warned that the estate is cursed, Clara enjoys her time there and indulges in a secret romance with Richard, the younger son of Lord Blackwood. But they are soon found out by Richard’s mother and Clara is dismissed in disgrace. Struggling to make her way in the world, Clara works as a seamstress, first in a grueling factory and then in the theater as the personal modiste for a famed prima donna. The story picks up eighteen years later when Richard’s twin, Atticus, reappears in Clara’s life and proposes a sham marriage. Initially insulted by his request, Clara is forced to reconsider when she suddenly finds her career as a seamstress in a precarious position. Though she has no love for Atticus, and Gravesend holds only memories of heartbreak and tragedy, Clara has no choice but to return to that cursed hall. Only when the curse threatens her again does she realize that she still has something left to lose…
For lovers of the traditional Gothic novel, With This Curse is everything. The writing is modern and fluid and the characters full of spirit and agency, but the story has all the trappings of the centuries-old genre. The most obvious trope in play is the Gothic setting. The tale takes place in a large manor house, laden with secret passages, whose atmosphere is clearly indicated by its spooky name. The estate also contains a set of artificial ruins—a fashionable trend among the upper classes during the Gothic Revival period when Gothic novels initially flourished—appropriately named the Folly. Apart from further adding to the sinister atmosphere, the Folly also serves as a sort of meta self-awareness of the genre: Writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries sat in their imitation-Gothic estates and wrote stories set in the romantic past of the medieval era. Now DeWees writes in the same tone of the Victorian era, which to our modern eyes has gained the same aura of fantasy and romance as the centuries prior had for the Victorians.
At the heart of every Gothic story is the core trope of the past haunting the present. The trope is epitomized in this book by the rumored curse haunting the estate, which allegedly dates back to the early 1700s. But it’s not merely the manor’s past that looms over Clara. Clara’s own romance and disgrace of long ago both haunt her every step after her return to Gravesend, where she must conceal her humble origins and navigate a complicated relationship with the man who looks so much like her lost love. Her past may even be literally haunting her, as she begins to suspect that she is being visited by Richard’s ghost.
Another aspect of the story that is deeply rooted in the Gothic tradition is the element of mystery and investigation. I’ve written before about how detective fiction has its roots in the Gothic. In With This Curse, the latter half of the novel continues in the vein of these early mysteries. In fact, I found it to be particularly reminiscent of Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone: in both stories, a crime takes place in the manor in the midst of a great party and all the individual members of the household are interrogated by law enforcement representatives. As in the best detective stories, a red herring appears that diverts the police, while Clara goes on to discover the real culprit herself. Though I could see the ending from a mile away, and Clara’s glacial pace in uncovering it herself at times had me shouting at the book in frustration, I still enjoyed the mystery immensely.
With This Curse also plays with various incarnations of the doppelganger trope, though to say much more might spoil the ending. And then of course, there’s the romance—which I also won’t get into except to say that the genre is called “Gothic Romance” for a reason. One thing I appreciated was that the main character in this story was in her thirties—quite a bit older than the heroines in most Gothic novels, but obviously not too old for new love and adventures! The rest of the characters were also fabulous, from the sometimes brooding but mostly good-natured Atticus to the vivacious Genevieve. But my favorite of all was the Blackwood patriarch Lord Telford, whose morbid hobbies include collecting death masks of strangers, celebrities, and family members.
All in all, With This Curse was exactly the kind of book I’ve been looking for, and it had me glued to every page. Now I’m simply dying for the sequel, Cursed Once More, and can’t wait to find out what new calamities afflict poor Clara. With This Curse is available in ebook, paperback, and audiobook. Be sure to check it out yourself, and let me know what you think in the comments!