Ethelwina; or, the House of Fitz-Auburne

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Ethelwina; or, the House of Fitz-Auburne by T. J. Horsley Curties (1799). Published by Valancourt Books, 336 pages.

I started off the new year with a resolution to purchase more books and stop abdicating my reading selections to the local library. I still love my library system (especially compared to other places I’ve lived) but I wanted to be able to read more books from smaller presses that don’t get purchased by the library. Valancourt publishes an improbably large number of gothic, horror, weird, and LGBT titles and I decided to pick an obscure gothic novel for my first book of the new year.

As a publisher of reprints, Valancourt does not have any representation in my local library, which is a shame as their physical copies can be quite expensive. I usually end up purchasing the electronic version, which are quite cheap (for ebooks), usually $5 or $7.

Ethelwina happens to be the most extreme version of this: the physical copy is priced at an institution-friendly $49.99, while the ebook is just $4.99. In fact, I ended up using Amazon Prime’s monthly borrowing feature and ended up paying nothing at all to read it. (While not quite in the spirit of my resolution to buy more books, I promise that all my disposable income goes toward purchasing books anyway, so any savings only increases the number of books I can buy).

The publication of Ethelwina is a great story and probably accounts for its exorbitant print price: there were only three copies held in libraries worldwide and Valancourt rescued it from near oblivion. The introduction by editor James D. Jenkins details the previously obscure identity of the author and illuminates his rather surprising career path. Thomas Horsley Curties wrote Ethelwina at age 19 and followed up with several longer (1,500-page!) gothic novels that were popular but also mocked. He abandoned literature at just 25 years of age when he joined the royal court as a member of the Yeomen of the Guard. He served there until retirement and was eventually knighted for his 34 years of royal service.

The editor also turns up a rumor that Horsley Curties was an illegitimate son of George III and once even had to impersonate George IV to calm an unruly mob. This alleged family connection could account for the unexpected career path of Curties. The introduction may be my favorite part of the book and could easily be the plot of a historical novel itself.

As for the book itself, it is conventionally but aggressively gothic. It tells you right in the book: “[The castle’s] gloomy Gothic battlements and great height frowned defiance on the valley below.” I counted 23 uses of the word gothic, mostly to describe the various “gloomy” architectural features, and perhaps also to remind readers just what genre we are reading.

Unfortunately, the book is a bit tame by today’s standards and often goes to strenuous lengths to set up its (overly) familiar plot components. Readers can expect lots of oblique threats and copious swooning. I hate to say it, but I was hoping for something a bit more scandalous. By the end I caught myself wondering if I did not in fact like the *idea* of gothic literature more than the actual thing. Despite the vibrant setting, a simple recounting of the plot would probably sound more interesting than it actually turns out to be. Suffice it to say there is kidnapping, ruined castles, Druids, and more secret passages and hidden doors than visible ones.

In general, though I cannot recommend Ethelwina, I can recommend the introduction. And if you are looking for a quiet, conventional gothic read, Ethelwina may be for you.