The Uninvited by Dorothy McArdle was first published in 1942 and was recently reissued as part of Tramp Press’s Recovered Voices series. It was a good choice for that female-led publisher, as what starts out as an easily recognizable gothic haunted house tale, morphs into a fascinating exploration of the dangers inherent in labelling women as one type or another.
The Uninvited is narrated by Roderick, a literary critic based in London, who decides to move to the county along with his unmarried sister Pamela. The aim is to give himself space and time to write his book but the siblings’ financial situation is very much against them and their dream of country life seems out of their reach.
Until they come across Cliff End, a seemingly perfect house by the sea in Devon which is strangely affordable. Stella, a beautiful young woman who lives close by with her grandfather, owns the house. The catch, because of course there is a catch, is that the house has lain empty for 15 years, since the death of Stella’s beloved mother Mary in mysterious circumstances. Others have tried to live in Cliff End since, but strange happenings have driven them away, however Roddy and Pamela feel that the house is too good a bargain to let slip by due to gossip and spooky stories.
Their new life in Devon begins well – Roddy is inspired to write a play, while Pamela’s health improves as she works on redecorating the house. They host friends and a rather mawkish romance springs up between Roddy and Stella. However, they soon start to experience some unusual happenings.
She smiled at me, but I could not respond. I was filled with foreboding. An hour ago all had been well; we had stood together on the edge of immeasurable happiness, but now something dark and chilling had fallen between us – a shadow out of the past. I ought never to have brought Stella to this house.
Guests are terrified but cannot say why. There is the sound of a woman sobbing, mysterious lights and cold spots around the nursery of the house. Eventually, the happenings manifest in the appearance of a misty apparition that could very well be Stella’s dead mother Mary.
Stella becomes obsessively drawn to the house, convinced that the beloved mother she never knew, is looking for her. As her health wains under the stress of the hauntings, other questions start to come to the surface. Is this really the ghost of the saintly Mary, looking for her lost daughter? Alternatively, is it her husband’s mistress and rival Carmel, who was cruelly dumped by Stella’s father and is now taking her revenge?
As Stella becomes more and more ill and the house more uninhabitable, Roddy and Pamela decide to fight back, as it were and to wrestle back control of their beloved home from the spirits who seem bent on chasing them away. This is both the strength and weakness of The Uninvited, depending on what you are looking for as a reader.
It is ostensibly a ghost story, but aside from a few deliciously creepy moments, it is not very scary. This is probably due to the reaction of the characters to the haunting. Roddy and Pamela set about researching the history of Stella’s family, to see if the story of the blameless, beloved mother and the foreign mistress really stacks up. Their sensible, no-nonsense approach to the apparitions dilutes some of the suspense, but also sets up what is most interesting about McArdle’s novel.
As the story develops of what has gone on in Stella’s childhood, McArdle reveals a complex commentary on the dangers of idealising women into the perfect symbol of motherhood. Stella adores her mother and has been told all her life that Mary was perfect. The shrine she keeps in her bedroom to her beloved mother means that all subtlety and nuance has been wiped from her story and has given her an impossible role model to live up to.
They subordinate the whole to the part. It is no longer life they are celebrating, nor nature, but some crude, fanatical party creed.
The dichotomy between the two women in Stella’s fathers’ life – the blond, good mother and the dark, wild mistress – only serves to emphasis the danger in seeing things in such a narrow light. The truth, as it appears to Pamela and Roddy, has the strength to destroy Stella, such is the power of the mother-myth she has been forced to believe. However, facing this truth is the only thing that will free Stella from the grip of the forces that roam through Cliff End and allow them all a settled life.
This, to me, is what makes The Uninvited such a successful novel. It features all the tropes of the Victorian haunted house novel, but breaks them down in such a clever way as to show that the real thing we have to fear is not otherworldly apparitions, but unachievable human standards that paint women as one or the other and not the complex humans that they really are.
It is interesting also, that Dorothy McArdle’s work has been reissued as part of Recovered Voices, which is exactly what is happening in The Uninvited – in order to see the true picture, it is necessary to recover the voices of the past that have been silenced over the years.
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!