Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Interview with Clarissa Harwood, author of the gothic novel The Curse of Morton Abbey, set in 1890s Yorkshire

I'm glad to welcome Clarissa Harwood back to Reading the Past for an interview about her new historical gothic novel, The Curse of Morton Abbey, which is out today. The heroine is Vaughan Springthorpe, a woman trained as a solicitor, who arrives at the Yorkshire estate of Sir Peter Spencer to help prepare it for future sale in his absence. Her employer's invalid brother, Nicholas, doesn't want his home sold, though. Estate gardener Joe Dixon appears to support her efforts, but there are enough mysterious happenings around Morton Abbey to make Vaughan realize that someone wants her gone. Nonetheless, she wants to prove herself and presses forward with her task, uncovering uncomfortable facts about the estate and the town in the process. I enjoyed trying to predict where the plot would lead, and the story is dark and suspenseful without edging into horror.  If you like romantic suspense, put it on your list!  

How did you choose the time and place of late Victorian Yorkshire?

This was a no-brainer for me because late-Victorian Yorkshire is my happy place! The novels of the Brontë sisters were a formative influence from my young adulthood, especially Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I know I’m not alone in considering the Yorkshire moors the most romantic, evocative place on earth because of these novels. Of course, the Brontës were early rather than late Victorian, but I have a great love for late-Victorian literature because of my academic training. My doctoral dissertation focused on fin de siècle works such as Dracula and Heart of Darkness with their highly symbolic monstrous figures that represented widespread societal fears of the era.

Vaughan has an intriguing profession for a woman of her time, having been trained as a solicitor without the official designation (and with an expertise in conveyancing – a term new to me, but an important role). How did you research her career?

Because of Vaughan’s strong personality, I knew she needed to work at something unusual for a woman, but she’s definitely an introvert and wouldn’t want to be a leader or at the forefront of a movement like Lilia in Impossible Saints, so she needed something she could do quietly while still showing her determination and strength. Also, I needed a reason for her to go to Morton Abbey that didn’t involve childcare (she is not governess material). I taxed the patience of my university’s law librarian as I researched women law clerks and lawyers for months. Since women couldn’t officially practice law in late-Victorian England, it was difficult to find anything until I stumbled upon a real-life woman who was unofficially practicing law in late-Victorian England: Eliza Orme, who ultimately became the first woman to earn a law degree in England. I couldn’t resist giving Eliza a cameo role in The Curse of Morton Abbey.

I enjoyed how you combined classic gothic elements, like the English estate and family full of secrets, with feminist touches. Who are your influences in the genre of gothic fiction and romantic suspense?

There are too many influences to list them all, but I’ll start with the gothic novelists whose work I studied and taught: Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, Mary Shelley, and Bram Stoker. Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca is another iconic gothic novel, and I was scandalized by the way Netflix twisted it into a romance, which it isn’t! (I love romance, but I get testy when brilliant novels are adapted in ways that present them falsely.) For romantic suspense, Mary Stewart is a huge influence, and I re-read her brilliant novel The Ivy Tree regularly. More recent novels that draw on the gothic tradition while offering new twists include Kris Waldherr’s The Lost History of Dreams, Sarah Perry’s Melmoth, and Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic, which have contributed to the resurgence of interest in this genre.
The author visiting the Yorkshire Moors

The gardens that Joe Dixon maintains are beautiful and provide a restful atmosphere amid the mysteries of Morton Abbey. Do you have a favorite English garden?

This question made me laugh because I have no personal interest in gardens or gardening: in fact, my husband has banned me from working in our garden because I (unintentionally) kill the plants. For a while he let me do some pruning, but apparently I cut too much off the bushes. I do love sitting in a beautiful garden if the weather isn’t too hot, but I had to do a lot of research just to figure out what the names of basic plants were and what sort of work Joe would be doing in a late-Victorian Yorkshire garden.

What have been the most enjoyable and/or challenging aspects of independent publishing?

I feel as if I have the best of both worlds because my first two novels were traditionally published. If I’d started with indie publishing, I think I would have been completely overwhelmed, but because I knew generally how the process worked and how long it would take, I constructed a reasonable timeline for The Curse of Morton Abbey. Another advantage of having two published novels already under my belt was being able to draw on the knowledge and experience of my wonderful community of authors. They have saved me from making plenty of bad decisions!

The best part of independent publishing has been having control over every aspect of the process. It was especially fun working with my cover designer, Tim Barber at Dissect Designs (he was a dream to work with and I highly recommend him). The hardest part of independent publishing has been the stigma that still exists in the industry. It’s difficult and expensive to be reviewed by one of the big trade publications if you’re an indie author. The self-doubt that every author experiences from time to time is also worse if you’re an indie author because you don’t have the gatekeepers of the publishing world validating your work. What has helped me the most in this respect has been the support and encouragement of my agent, Laura Crockett. In fact, The Curse of Morton Abbey is the novel that first got her attention and prompted her offer of representation.

Thank you so much for inviting me to do this interview!

My pleasure, and thanks for answering my questions!


For more information about Clarissa Harwood and her books, please see her website, or find it on Goodreads here.


  1. I reviewed Harwood's previous novel, Bear No Malice, and was so impressed with the psychological depth of her characters. Looking forward to this!

  2. All three of her books are wonderful. Hope you'll enjoy this one!

  3. I like the setting and this period of time. I hope I can get to this book. It has just been archived - I missed it by a day on Netgalley!

  4. Hope you can find a copy! It must have been taken off just before publication day.