In the summer of 1944, Eamon de Valera visited the Savoy cinema, Dublin, to catch a screening of The Uninvited (directed by Lewis Allen), based on a novel by his close friend, Dorothy Macardle. The film, lauded in William Everson’s Classics of the Horror Films as “quite possibly the movies’ best ghost story”, did not impress the Taoiseach: “Typical Dorothy,” was his cryptic response. The Irish Times was more positive in its review: “I doubt if even Hitchcock could have made a better job of it.”
Lewis Allen’s film was an adaptation of Dorothy Macardle’s first novel, Uneasy Freehold, published by Peter Davies in January, 1942, and bearing its more well-known title, The Uninvited, in the United States edition. The novel won critical acclaim and was an immediate commercial success, its inclusion in the Literary Guild of America’s books of 1942 greatly helping its sales. Following the success of the film, The Uninvited went into a Bantam mass market paperback edition and as late as the 1960s, was still in print in a Corgi Books “selection of fine reading” that listed Catch 22, The Ginger Man, and Lolita among its other attractions. Then, for all practical purposes, the novel disappeared from view, a development that is somewhat surprising as subsequent decades witnessed the rise of the women’s movement, the outbreak of the Troubles in Northern Ireland and, not least in the literary domain, a re-evaluation of the Gothic genre in fiction. Perhaps the reason for the novel’s neglect was Macardle’s own defiance of conventional categories: a feminist activist who was also a radical republican; a universalist civil liberties humanitarian who was also a nationalist; a defender of Irish neutrality during World War Two who moved to London to participate in the fight against the Nazis; a brilliant lecturer who held no teaching position; a journalist and historian who was a critic and novelist of distinction; a psychological rationalist who also put in a good word for the ghosts and extrasensory experiences.
Born in Dundalk in 1889 to the wealthy Macardle brewing family, Dorothy Macardle was educated at Alexandra College and University College, Dublin, where she graduated with a B.A. degree in 1912. Steeped in a love of literature from the outset, she moved to Stratford- –on-Avon to pursue her Shakespearean interests, before returning to teach English at Alexandra College, Dublin. This period in her life provided the milieu for several of her publications, including an edition of Sir Philip Sidney’s Defence of Poesy (1919), Selections from Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1922), and the posthumous Shakespeare: Man and Boy (1961). As in the case of the 1916 leader Thomas MacDonagh, this love of things English did not prevent her, however, from gravitating towards Republicanism in the Anglo-Irish war, and taking the anti-Treaty side in the bitter Civil War. Dismissed from her teaching post at Alexandra College, she was imprisoned in Mountjoy and Kilmainham jails, and participated in a mass hunger-strike protesting against conditions in the prisons. On her release, she published “Kilmainham Tortures”,’ an exposé of the ill-treatment she received with other female prisoners, which was followed by her first exercise in investigative journalism, a chilling account of atrocities in Co. Kerry during the Civil War, Tragedies of Kerry (1924).
Throughout this period, Macardle’s creative energies were devoted mainly to theatre, writing eleven plays, many of which are lost or survive only in manuscript form. Three of her plays were produced at the Abbey Theatre – Atonement (1918), Ann Kavanagh (1922-1932) and The Old Man (1925) – while one, Dark Waters, was produced at the Gate Theatre in 1932. This interest in drama led to her appointment as theatre (and sometimes film) critic for the new Irish Press, launched in tandem with Fianna Fáil’s accession to power in 1931/1932. Her work as a journalist also extended to social issues, not least the lip service paid to ideals of the family in Ireland while mothers and children, living in abject slums and in conditions of chronic unemployment, were reduced to poverty and criminality. In a series of powerful crusading articles in the Irish Press, ranging from “Some Irish Mothers and Their Children” to “Children and the Law: A Test of Civilization”, Macardle insisted that pieties about family life mattered little when working class mothers and children were deprived of the basic material conditions of life. “Irishmen are said to be sentimental about their mothers and no wonder. No wonder at all in a man who grew up in a small, struggling home and who, looking back, must realise what a miracle of patience and courage was the mother who kept the Grace of God about her children in such a pitiless world.” These issues surface again in her fiction, relating early damage to affective ties to subsequent emotional paralysis and the incapacity to love, but by no means limiting the nurturing of these ties to the family, as conventionally defined.
In 1924, Macardle published Earth-Bound, a collection of short stories written mainly in prison, and which contained the classic “The Portrait of Roisin Dhu”. This story, a feminist reversal of Oscar Wilde’s A Picture of Dorian Gray, features a painter, Hugo, who sets out to depict Ireland as the mythic “Dark Rosaleen”, only to discover that the image on canvas drains life, vampire fashion, out of his real-life model, Nuala: “‘’Tis not good to be put in a picture: it takes from you.”’ This can be seen as a dress rehearsal for one of the key themes of The Uninvited – that the idealisation of the female, particularly the symbolic figure of the “Mother”, is often achieved at the expense of the actual experience of women in an unequal, patriarchal society. The Uninvited charts the tragic fate of two women, both artist’s models, whose deaths lead to the abandonment of an imposing house, Cliff End, on the North Devon coast: the “virtuous” Mary Meredith, once married to the bohemian painter Llewellyn Meredith, and the artist’s Spanish mistress and model, the “wild” Carmel. Cliff End is purchased fifteen years after their passing from Commodore Brooke, Mary Meredith’s still grieving father, by an aspiring Anglo-Irish playwright, Roderick (“Roddy”) Fitzgerald, and his sister, Pamela, both hoping to start a new life away from the pressures of life in London. The story (narrated by Roddy) revolves around the Fitzgerald’s attempts to make a success of their dream home, but the experience turns out to be closer to a nightmare. The Commodore is the over-protective guardian of a granddaughter in her late teens, Stella, who lived in Cliff End as a child but was orphaned when her mother fell to her death over the cliff behind the house. Roderick’s and Pamela’s dreams of a quiet life begin to unravel when local gossip, aided by their matter of fact but superstitious Irish housekeeper, Lizzie Flynn, hints at disturbances at Cliff End, and these begin to take effect when the melancholic Stella begins to visit her former home.
Though the story has its share of supernatural contrivances, what is most noticeable is the air of psychological realism, as if uncanny or spectral occurrences are themselves ways of dealing with gaps in the psyche, or profound psychological wounds. So far from psychology explaining away the extrasensory, Macardle notes in her Irish novel The Unforeseen (1946) – – a follow follow-up to The Uninvited – that even a rationalist such as Sigmund Freud “after stiff resistance to the idea of telepathy, has accepted it”. The extrasensory happenings at Cliff End in The Uninvited concern the violation of primordial attachments, the yearning of a daughter for her missing mother, but also with the obsessive desire of a mother, cut off in her prime, to be reunited with her own lost daughter. Drawing on Henri Bergson’s idea in Matter and Memory (1896) that perception of the world is not a function of the present but is also, in Bergson’s apt metaphor, “impregnated with memory-images which complete it as they interpret it”, objects and places at Cliff End are imbued with residues from the past: “I suppose it’s fifteen years or more alone since that tragedy happened, but stories like that linger in a lonely place.” Or as another character surmises: “Isn’t there a theory that violent emotion can impregnate matter, saturate floors and walls, and then, with a sensitive person in a receptive mood, it is reproduced?” The young Stella Meredith is that “sensitive” person, and as Roddy, Pamela and Lizzie are absorbed into her re-awakened world, they also succumb to the ghost. Questions of haunting, in this sense, have less to do with truth and illusion than with pain and loss, coming to terms with memories lodged in the physical – “hysterical” – body, already incorporated into the material world. Stella’s earliest memories relate to feelings of warmth and light, and being suffused by love and the smell of mimosa, and it is this scent that first hints at disturbances in Cliff End, followed by sounds of weeping and a mysterious light under the door at night.
It is striking that that the “sainted” Mary Meredith, whose memory is cherished by her daughter Stella and her father Commodore Brooke, is also revered by her austere friend, Miss Holloway, who took Stella into her care at the “Centre of Healing and Harmony” following the death of her mother. As in the case of Miss Holloway’s cold comfort, Mary’s virtue and piety leave a chill in their wake, not unlike the portrait of “Roisin Dhu” in Macardle’s earlier story. Perfection in this case, rather than redeeming reality, shows up its faults and is used to moralise on its transgressions. In this, it is difficult not to see traces of maternal ideals of the Virgin Mary cultivated by the confessional Free State in Ireland in the interwar years, and given institutional expression in the “veneration” of the mother, and the sanctity of the home, in de Valera’s 1937 constitution. Mary Meredith is indeed compared to the Madonna, and Stella’s room is described by Pamela as a “shrine” to her: “Pale blue walls – her mother’s favourite colour; marguerites on the hangings – her mother’s favourite flower; Mary’s pictures – Florentine madonnas … even a statuette of her mother – a white plaster thing. It’s a culte. Oh, the piety, the austerity, the pure virginal charm! Any sensitive girl would come under the spell – and I doubt if a man is born who could break it.” Nor would any man want to break it, a factor which leads Mary into a doomed relationship with the artist, Llewellyn Meredith: “Mary’s faith in her father would lead her to idealise men. Very probably she had romantic illusions about Meredith.” The representation of the longing mother again proves her undoing: on being confronted with Llewellyn’s strange portrait, Stella’s mother rushes out in a storm to hurl herself over the cliff.
Pamela and Roddy set themselves the task of lifting this spell, and it is perhaps this demythologising of sainted figures that lies behind de Valera’s remark, “Typical Dorothy”, in his response to the film The Uninvited. Macardle’s own disillusionment is evident here as, for over a decade from the mid 1920s to the mid 1930s, she had worked on her monumental history, The Irish Republic, telling the story of the Republican contribution to the fight for Irish Independence, and the defeat of the Republican cause in the Civil War. The publication of the 1000- page book by Victor Gollancz’s Left Book Club in 1937 coincided, however, with the introduction of the new Irish Constitution, awarding special recognition to the Catholic church, and restricting women’s presence in the public sphere and the workplace through “protection” (as de Valera called it) of her place in the home: when Stella attempts to break out of the confines of her home to visit Cliff End in The Uninvited, the Commodore asserts his control: “You’ll do no such thing.” Though Macardle was reluctant at first to criticise de Valera – The Irish Republic was, after all, dedicated to him – she joined with other leading feminists and Republicans including Maud Gonne, Hannah Sheehy Skeffington and Dr Kathleen Lynn in opposing what were perceived as betrayals of the commitment to equal citizenship in the 1916 Proclamation. Writing to de Valera, she expressed her dismay: “As the Constitution stands, I do not see how anyone holding advanced views on the rights of women can support it, and that is a tragic dilemma for those who have been loyal and ardent workers in the national cause.”
It was at this point that Macardle set her sights further afield, towards Europe and, in a deteriorating international situation, towards opposition to fascism. Having observed the League of Nations at close quarters in Geneva while covering its proceedings for the Irish Press, her growing internationalism led her to London at the outbreak of World War II, where she applied herself particularly to working with the Czechslovakian government in exile. In keeping with her life-long concern with the breakdown of familial attachments,. Macardle focused on the plight of dispossessed children in Europe following the catastrophe of the war, publishing in 1949 an early landmark in Holocaust studies, Children of Europe. A Study of the Children of Liberated Countries: Their War-time Experiences, their Reactions, and their Needs, with a Note on Germany. Working with psychoanalysts such as Anna Freud who stressed the importance of attachment and emotional bonding in childhood, this comparative exercise in applied psychology reiterates the themes of The Uninvited. For most damaged children, memory was repetition, reproducing the original hurt rather than offering an escape: “Many children who had been deported could hardly be persuaded to step on to a ’bus or a train.” Macardle concludes that there may be no cure for profound loss, and that certain kinds or surface calm belied deeper scars underneath: “Adults who rejoiced to see children apparently ridding themselves of neurotic troubles learnt, nevertheless, to be cautious about relying on the completeness of the cure. It was too much to hope that children could sustain experiences and separations of the sort that these had undergone without deep-rooted injury: impossible to say how much of the psychic trauma remained latent when immediate symptoms had disappeared for a time.” Even at that, the deepest scars had to do with the absence of affection: “Dr [Anna] Freud often finds a certain retardation in these children. In particular, they are all sometimes slow in learning to speak. Most serious loss of all, however, is the lack in their lives of individual cherishing love.” In recent decades as the sustained abuses of incarceral regimes in Ireland have come to light, it is precisely the violation of affective ties, the bond between care-giver and child, that throws the longest shadow.
It is clear from this why Macardle takes issue with placing motherhood on a pedestal, as in the norms implicit in the 1937 Constitution. Stella’s problem in The Uninvited is that the perfect mother is motivated by virtue rather than love, the chill call of duty and discipline: “I thought mother loved me a little bit just because she was good and did her duty, but it isn’t that: it is really loving [that is required], as if she – as if she delighted in me and wants my love, too.” Return to home in this sense has more to do with the capacity for love in the present, notwithstanding dislocation and loss. This underlies Macardle’s “realist” novel, The Seed was Kind (1944), which opens at the League of Nations as a young girl, Diony, joins her Irish grandmother and French grandfather to attend school in Geneva. Diony’s grandfather, Louis de Chauvigny, an eminent French thinker, is completing a book, After Guernica, warning about the imminent death of the League and the sleeping sickness overtaking France in its hour of danger. We are told that “neither his long residence in Geneva nor the internationalism of his creed had weakened his attachment to France”, and it is this desire to reconcile national attachments with displacement and internationalism that presides over the novel – and, indeed, much of Macardle’s writing.
Considered in this light, the “exile” of the Fitzgeralds in England and their summoning up remembrances of things past in The Uninvited may be viewed as a commentary on Macardle’s own divided loyalties. Though the action is set in Devon and features quintessential aspects of English life, it can also be seen, in Elizabeth Bowen’s description of Sheridan Le Fanu’s Gothic classic Uncle Silas , as “an Irish story transposed to an English setting”. As if with Macardle in mind, a letter to Pamela in the novel from a cousin reminds her that “you might find Dublin your spiritual home”, to which Roddy adds: “Well, that’s always a refuge if all this becomes too much for you.” Irish allusions and references abound in The Uninvited, and no more so than in the name of its protagonists. “Pamela Fitzgerald!” Stella exclaims, when she learns the name of Roddy’s sister, on their first meeting with the Commodore. “The Commodore hasn’t heard of my famous ancestress,” Pamela responds, before going on to explain:
“She is said to have been a daughter of the Duc d’Orleans,” she told him, “and an exquisite girl. She married Lord Edward Fitzgerald, who led the Irish rising of ’ninety eight. She was not really an ancestress of mine, I am afraid, but I am charmed to have been named after her. I don’t know any story more full of heroism and romance.”
“I am afraid,” the Commodore answered stiffly, “that I am not well acquainted with Irish rebel history.”
The invocation of the memory of the dead might have ended there, but the subsequent gloss on the relation between haunting and home prefigures much of what is to follow later in the novel. Roddy seeks to change the subject, as Pamela continues:
While I tried to divert our host with journalistic small talk, she was telling Stella how Pamela had actually been seen at Frescati, her old home near Dublin, in broad daylight, at a garden party a short time before.
Stella was enthralled.
“I am not really surprised,” Pamela went on. “You see, she had been happy at Frescati. I am sure that, if spirits walk, it is in spaces that they have loved. That is why it seems foolish to be afraid of them.”
Having no homes to go to, ghosts are led back inexorably to worlds they have lost. It is for this reason that the unrequited ghost remains hidden at Cliff End, and only returns to her one place of happiness through the “medium” of the present day Pamela Fitzgerald. Pamela makes a habit of re-appearing and when she moves to Ireland in Macardle’s subsequent novel, The Unforeseen, she announces a house-warming party for her new home in Donnybrook: “Her husband, giving her a quizzical grin, said she would have no uninvited guests.”
Writing of uprooted young Jews unable to live with loss, Macardle wrote in Children of Europe: “Disillusionment and nostalgia threw them back onto tragic memories. They were some in whom melancholy brooding had spread deep roots and the habit of sorrow was ineradicable.” The Uninvited, however, raises the possibility that disillusionment itself may be liberating, if by that is meant dispelling romantic illusions and hopes of “spiritual” salvation. The “disillusionment” of Republicans following the shattering experience of the Civil War is often commented on, but Macardle may be suggesting that the best way of revisiting Frescati is to return to the present, free from the enchantment of Romantic Ireland or, indeed, of the island of saints and scholars. In a mood reminiscent of Beckett’s Murphy (1938), Roddy muses at one point in The Uninvited when Stella seems to be losing her mind: “This situation was atrocious; it could not go on. It had been bad enough already. The cult of the sainted mother, this fixation on dead virtue, dead standards, dead taste. What ordinary mortal could hope to interest Stella while she worshipped that pattern of perfection?” This kind of ghost, like the idealised portrait, reduces the living person to a still life, frozen in time and space. By contrast, the paranormal in The Uninvited works to unsettle the normal, and the extrasensory to bring people back to their senses.
Luke Gibbons is professor of Irish Literary and Cultural Studies at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth. The essay above is the text of the introduction to a new edition of Dorothy Macardle’s The Uninvited published by Tramp Press, which will be launched at the Dublin Book Festival on November 13th as part of their Recovered Voices series.