Set in Elizabethan England, The Cursed Wife is a tale of two women whose lives are entwined from the day the newly orphaned Mary is brought to live with Catherine’s family. Years later, Mary has adopted Catherine’s identity and is happily married to Gabriel Thorne, a wealthy merchant, but her life changes dramatically when she is approached by a beggar woman in the street and is horrified when she realises it is Catherine.
Catherine tells Mary she has run away from her abusive husband and beseeches Mary to help her, and Mary reluctantly agrees even if it means her secret is in danger of being revealed. Catherine is brought into the Thorne household as a servant but she resents being treated as an underling and proceeds to undermine Mary’s life and everything she holds dear.
The Cursed Wife is somewhat of a departure for Pamela Hartshorne as she is more well-known for her time-slip novels, however this novel is set solely in the Elizabethan period with flashbacks to Mary and Catherine’s respective childhoods. Unfortunately, I can’t say I enjoyed this novel and it is my least favourite of Hartshorne’s novels to date.
The main problem I had with the novel was the narrative style as the story is split between both women and while each gives her own perspective of the same events it means there’s a lot of repetition. While Mary’s narrative is fairly straightforward, Catherine’s chapters are told as if she is addressing Mary directly and her manipulative character is revealed from the start. Catherine has no redeeming qualities whatsoever and having her reveal her true intent in this way, just makes Mary seem really naive. Mary is an intelligent woman who is quite perceptive about the people around her, yet she is completely blind to Catherine’s motives until it is far too late. As such, the reader is left in the frustrating situation of watching Catherine destroy Mary’s life while the latter remains oblivious.
I couldn’t muster any sympathy for Mary either as she is far too passive throughout much of the novel and she is also obsessed with the idea she is cursed. The title of the novel stems from an incident in Mary’s childhood when she pushes a child trying to steal her doll and inadvertently causes her death. The child’s mother curses Mary to an unhappy life which will eventually lead to her being hanged one day, and Mary has let the curse rule her life to the extent it causes her to act in certain ways, thereby fulfilling much of the prophecy.
When the story finally meanders towards the end, it all becomes very predictable and disappointing because I was waiting for a twist which would confound my expectations but it failed to materialise. The promised psychological aspects also fall flat as it would’ve been much more fun if the two women had been engaged in an intriguing battle of wills with Mary trying to foil Catherine’s actions while also ensuring her secret was not revealed.