Dorothy Macardle's The Uninvited' - Period piece of perfection
The Uninvited, Dorothy MacArdle, Tramp Press, €15
Dorothy Macardle's The Uninvited is being put in the 'gothic' category in its re-published form. That conjures up wild and bloody imaginings, up to and possibly including disembowelling. And such a categorisation could not be more wrong. Second in the Recovered Voices series being brought out by Tramp Press, the book is a period piece of perfection - but it is more: it is close to perfection in any period.
A ghost story, a love story, and a psychological study of warped motherhood, The Uninvited was published in 1942, at the height of the Second World War, but it is set before those storm clouds gathered.
It opens in an apparently idyllic world of eternal, privileged summer, as half-Irish siblings Roddy and Pamela Fitzgerald abandon their romantic disappointments and their rackety London life and move to a pretty period house on the Devon coast.
They soon discover why the house has been uninhabited and for sale at an affordable price. A presence inhabits Cliff House, furiously dismissed as local superstition by the stiff-necked Commodore Brooke who sells it to them, but wistfully acknowledged by Stella, his abnormally compliant teenage granddaughter, who lived in the house as a small child.
The story hinges on Stella, who worships the memory of her dead mother, who was unhappily married to a profligate painter. Even her bedroom is a shrine to her perception of motherhood as coldly unyielding virtuous perfection: blue, white and immaculate, with a statuette image of the dead woman reminiscent of the Virgin Mary. And this myth of perfect motherhood is what Macardle sets out to undermine in The Uninvited, as the uneasy presence at Cliff End is experienced alternately as benign or malignant.
Macardle, an early feminist as well as a republican (who incurred her middle-class family's wrath by aligning herself with both causes), fell out with de Valera over the 1937 Constitution and its sanctification of motherhood into dependent powerlessness.
The novel is as psychologically triumphant as its representation of the spirit world as fact (even normal) is rendered almost mundanely logical. Its triumph of construction and thematic handling make its subversive theme (for the time, and for Ireland) a matter of also seemingly undeniable fact, as Roddy and Pamela (the former falling hopelessly in love with the increasingly disturbed Stella) decide to set the house free. To confront evil is to destroy it, Macardle posits, as she herself was later to confront and defy Fascism.
But perhaps the greatest pleasure in the book is its evocation of pre-war life, with effortlessly perfect portraits of intelligent, civilised people fighting to preserve an intelligent, civilised way of living that has nothing to do with wealth, and everything to do with values.
Made into a successful film, when de Valera went to see it, he commented "typical Dorothy". Some of Macardle's liberal intellectualism would probably have benefited the Long Fellow quite a bit.