It moved smoothly forward. The white, flowing shroud was a gown now and I saw hands. They were poised over the banister rail…as though the mist was crystallizing, the outlines were defined gradually…
Rarely had a ghost been described this directly, this unapologetically, in mainstream fiction. Dorothy Macardle’s Uneasy Freehold was published in 1942 in the British Isles. For its US edition, the novel would attain its more familiar title, The Uninvited.
Readers of the time were no doubt taken aback by an approach which must have reminded them of photographs from a medium’s parlour. The norms of supernatural fiction had long been defined by avoiding the obvious. Edgar Allan Poe, America’s most iconic master of horror, for instance, tended to employ dense allegories and explore themes of insanity. Poe’s fearful sights and sounds projected the psychological dysfunctions of the protagonists rather than sentient spirits returning from the dead. M.R James, perhaps Britain’s most famous ghost story specialist, was interested in malign supernatural forces. But typically he gave his readers only glimpses of visceral terror through the distance of secondhand narratives in the form of letters, reported conversations, and forgotten manuscripts.
Macardle’s ghost story with its coils of ectoplasm, seen by an undeniably sane protagonist in the modern age, represented a broadside attack upon the genre’s subtler conventions.
While Macardle’s frankness likely challenged reader expectations, it would be a mistake to imagine there was anything simple about either the story or its writer. Macardle was one the most sophisticated authors of her time, and Uneasy Freehold/The Uninvited is a challenging and, in many senses, political novel (I will avoid obvious spoilers).
The plot involves a literary critic and budding playwright Roddy Fitzgerald and his younger sister Pamela who leave their Bloomsbury home to seek a rural idyll in Devon. For years, we are told, twenty-something Pamela has been sole carer for an ailing parent who is now deceased. This classic ‘woman’s role’ for an unmarried daughter has left Pamela in urgent need of rejuvenation. She and her brother do find their refuge, or so they think, in Cliff End, an isolated house overlooking the sea.
After purchasing the property from austere retired naval commander, Commodore Brooke — who is acting for his nineteen-year-old granddaughter, Stella Meredith — they settle in only to discover that the rumors of disturbances at Cliff End have more substance than they might have wished.
Macardle invokes atmosphere slowly: The rain ceased; the last smoldering log crumbled and died into white ash. The curious, living stillness, with a tremor of the invisible in it, that de la Mare creates in his stories, possessed the place.
A grief-stricken moan is heard through the night. A night-light is seen in the former nursery, and an overpowering scent of mimosa pervades the home at odd hours of darkness. At other times the siblings experience a dreadful cold and a sense of evil on the main staircase.
While Roddy and Pamela theorize about past trauma seeping into the fabric of a home — a variation of the “stone tape” theory — one thing becomes clear. Every time Stella Meredith, now a friend of the Fitzgeralds, visits her former home the haunting seems to intensify.
Seeking an explanation, they discover that Stella’s mother Mary Meredith died after falling from the cliff near the home fifteen years before. A second death occurred in the house soon after. A Spanish woman named Carmel, model to Mary’s artist husband, succumbed to pneumonia while under the care of Mary’s friend, Nurse Holloway.
Gradually, through the testaments of the townspeople and former acquaintances, Roddy and Pamela build two character portraits. Model Carmel, they hear, was a volatile, spiteful homewrecker who’d been having an affair with Mary’s husband. Mary, in contrast, was revered as the ideal wife and mother.
To the elderly local priest, Father Anson, Mary was “almost a saint.” To Stella, her mother “never told a lie in her life.” To Commander Brooke, she was an “unstained, saintly spirit.”
Mary is said to have taken in the vicious Carmel, despite the affair with her husband, and to have willingly submitted to her artist spouse’s infidelities and cruelties. As a mother to Stella she was disciplined and rigorous, and Stella, with encouragement from her grandfather, idolizes her memory.
When the haunting threatens Stella, Pamela and Roddy believe it is the spirit of Carmel returned to seek vengeance on the daughter of the home she ruined.
The plot panders cleverly to the reader’s prejudices. When holes appear in these portraits of Mary and Carmel, when it becomes clear that Carmel was wronged and that Mary, far from being a saint, was quite deliberately building the myth of her own perfection, it is a sucker punch. We, like Pamela and Roddy, feel we have been fooled by our own expectations.
The Fitzgeralds are not randomly chosen in terms of background and culture. Half English, half Irish, they are international in outlook. Bohemian friends from London visit Cliff End and articulate one of Macardle’s themes. Artist Max complains that they live in an era when “life is reduced to some crude, fanatical party creed.”
He is referring, of course, to the rise of Fascism across Europe, but Macardle had her own brief which lay closer to home.
A feminist and Irish Republican, Macardle viewed the newly-minted Irish Constitution in 1937 as a betrayal of the ideals of the 1916 proclamation. The earlier document had promised to deliver gender equality in Ireland. Macardle was critical of the Constitution’s focus on the role of the mother in the home, a kind of faux-veneration which served only to disempower women in practical terms.
In a recent edition of The Uninvited published by Tramp Press, an excellent introduction by Luke Gibbons, Professor of Irish Literary and Cultural Studies at Maynooth University, expands on Macardle’s theme of motherhood. Gibbons takes the reader to the premiere of the 1944 movie of The Uninvited at the Savoy Cinema, Dublin. The showing was attended by none other than Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Eamon de Valera, close friend of Macardle.
“Typical Dorothy,” de Valera was heard to say after the screening.
De Valera apparently saw the story’s take on the “cult of the saintly mother” as a riposte to his own work as the Constitution’s sole author. There was no love in any of Mary’s acts of apparent self-sacrifice, Macardle seems to tell us. This is a challenging message in a novel with several other subversive twists.
In the end it is Pamela who pieces together the true story while her brother provides the novel’s narration. The reader, firmly in Roddy’s point of view, is encouraged to view Pamela as he does — as illogical, vulnerable to hysteria, and in need of his special protection.
Pamela is, in fact, way ahead of Roddy and all his friends in terms of understanding the haunting, but she must pussyfoot around their egos as they (in modern parlance) “mansplain” to her that she is deceived by a too active imagination.
The 1944 movie that seemed to irritate de Valera is remarkably faithful in most regards to Macardle’s novel. Directed by Lewis Allen with a screenplay by Dodie Smith and Frank Partos, the Paramount production reduces the number of characters, eliminates the priest, Father Anson, and turns Roddy (Ray Milland) into a composer, which allows for the melodic theme by Victor Young to heighten the romantic elements of the story.
Gail Russell gives an appropriately otherworldly performance as the troubled Stella, and Donald Crisp is her forbidding grandfather, renamed Commander Beech.
The film has a very special kind of cult status among genre filmmakers. Movies often play conscious tribute by having characters quote directly from the 1944 screenplay. Ghost Stories, the 2017 Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman supernatural thriller is the most recent example.
One aspect, somewhat underplayed from the novel, is Pamela Fitzgerald. Ruth Hussey, though well cast as a demure, intelligent Pamela, is not given the scope afforded to her character in Macardle’s original.
When, in the novel, Pamela explains to Stella and her grandfather that she is a namesake of a famous Irish rebel, Commander Brooke is not amused. Later in the same conversation he disparages the Celtic Welsh with an unfavourale comparison with the more reliable Devon stock.
Commander Brooke and Pamela Fitzgerald are polar opposites. The Commander represents an insular Anglo-Saxon point of view complete with unhealthy emotional repression. Pamela is a half Celt with global interests and a respect for the intuitive senses. It’s possible to see in Pamela an aspect of Macardle’s younger self.
By the time Macardle wrote Uneasy freehold/The Uninvited she had already led a remarkably dramatic life as an activist as well as a leading journalist and author. She had been imprisoned during the Irish Civil War in 1922 after opposing the Anglo-Irish (partition) Treaty, and had also been on hunger strike. In the 1930s she worked as a journalist with the League of Nations and became a vocal opponent of the Nazis. During this time and later she became an advocate for children who had been psychologically traumatized by occupation and war.
One aspect of supernatural fiction is a sense of being closed off in a world with rules quite separate from real life. This can be one of the genre’s comforts and sometimes one of its limitations. The most striking quality about Uneasy Freehold/The Uninvited is the extent to which Macardle’s varied life is in evidence in the novel.
The Uninvited is a rare thing, a ghost story with its finger on the pulse of society and world politics.
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Paul Butler is the author of The Widow’s Fire (Inanna) and the forthcoming Mina’s Child (Inanna, slated for 2020).