Imagine being invisible and mute, watching your daughter forced into self-abnegation in your honour, “trying to make people know you are there, and nobody seeing you or hearing you or thinking anything about you at all”.
This is the premise of Dorothy Macardle’s intriguing 1941 ghost story, The Uninvited, in which the only hope for reprieve from the stifling hauntings of our forbearers is to recover voices that have been written-over, airbrushed and silenced.
It is a notion resonant with the forgotten mothers of history and literature, making this publication’s coincidence with Waking the Feminists and the Easter Rising centenary all the more poignant.
Recent outrage over the Abbey’s disregard for women playwrights has not only exposed the biases facing women writers, but turned long-overdue attention to the women omitted from our history. In the wake of the marriage referendum, the airbrushed-out figure of Cumann na mBan’s Elizabeth Farrell, a lesbian and nationalist activist, is becoming a symbol for institutionalized erasure of women from our history.
It all coincides beautifully with the reissue of this terrific novel: a gripping ghost story that warns precisely about the silencing act of history and the dangerous process of transforming women into symbols.
Macardle was a novelist, journalist, short-story writer, a playwright of now-disappeared plays, and a free-thinking activist dismissed for years as the mouthpiece of Eamon de Valera.
She is not one of those women authors totally forgotten, but her work certainly deserves far more attention than it has received. A nationalist, feminist, refugee worker and labour activist, Macardle’s politics alone make her a fascinating character.
She is perhaps best known for her anti-treaty history book, The Irish Republic, a rather out-of-fashion account of the emergence of the Irish state.
Although it is no more partisan than many histories written by academy historians of the time, the work was once widely dismissed as “unacademic”. However, it has recently enjoyed some vindication as a useful blueprint for transitions from revolution to non-violent politics.
The Uninvited is an entertaining piece of genre fiction with a Gothic element that the main narrative constantly plays against. Preoccupied with freedom and control, it was first published under the complex title, Uneasy Freehold and quickly became a success, distributed in America within a year and produced as a Hollywood movie in 1944.
Though Macardle’s prose is not particularly lyrical or exacting, the story swallows the reader up with clever timing, vibrant characters, great tropes and carefully turned narrative detail. In many ways it is just a successfully entertaining, spooky and enthralling ghost story, but as the tale unfolds a fascinating cultural examination comes out to play.
The story is narrated by Roderick, a half-Irish cultural critic living in London. Having extricated himself from an entanglement with a “kittenish” and “hysterical” nightmare of a woman, and with his own writerly ambitions brewing, he decides to move to the country with his sister, the happily unmarried Pamela.
Much is made of the integrity of these two, their down-to-earth values and unwillingness to compromise on them. They are not wealthy and finding a dream home for their arrangement proves challenging. Finally, they come across a perfect and weirdly affordable house by the sea, Cliff Edge, belonging to a charming young woman called Stella who will be their neighbour.
At first the siblings are delighted with the house. The tipple-happy and vaguely pervy Roderick becomes terribly excited by the prospect of bathing with the sweet, angelic Stella. He feels he will be able to write here, and his sister begins to blossom with good health.
Apart from Pamela’s contentment as a single woman, everything is so far deeply conservative and mawkishly romantic. But as the hauntings begin, the story develops into quite a complex commentary on the dangers of idealising flesh-and-blood women into symbols of the male imaginary.
While a nonsense romance between Stella and Roddy – who fall in love in the space of a few polite meetings and now fear they will die if they may not marry – carries on, this sort of sublimation of love is simultaneously undercut by the gradual revelation that idealised women are a “shallow fraud”, and the process of icon-making murderous.
Stifled under the thumb of her well-meaning and controlling grandfather, Stella has been raised to revere the dead mother who, she is convinced, roams Cliff Edge in a perpetual quest for her daughter’s love. Her bedroom is a shrine to the saintly, yellow-haired, blue-clad Mary, and her grandfather has made it his life’s goal to cultivate all that is Mary-ish in the girl.
What begins as easily dismissed gossip, soon turns to undeniable creepiness, and it becomes apparent that there is something sinister underlying Stella’s existence and the history of the house. Stella repeatedly approaches the house, seeking resolution for her mother-loss, but there is something more sinister blowing through it – is it really the saintly Mary, or could it be her nemesis, Carmel, the dark-haired, scented mistress, cast aside by Mary’s husband and hell-bent on revenge?
Macardle does a wonderful thing with her careful attention to food, warmth, shelter and clothing here – the need to eat, the need to sleep, all serve as a reminder of the material nature of the characters’ existence and act as great vehicles for revealing the horror of the objectified woman. There is an un-living thing breaking into the living world, it will not be ignored, and it is after Stella.
Predictable as it may be, the splitting of this spectral mother figure into good mother vs bad mother, virgin vs slut, angel vs witch, golden-haired vs dark, and Mary vs Carmel works brilliantly here, as these very ideas take on a life of their own and threaten to destroy the minds that created them. Having “given her heart to this myth”, Stella’s mind begins to break down.
So begins a peeling-back of layer upon layer of story, to fill in the gaps in the house’s past and free Stella from its grip.
In her short stories and journalism, Macardle worked to expose what Eavan Boland calls, “The power of nationhood to edit the reality of womanhood.” It was not with any blind acceptance that Macardle worked within nationalism’s gendered discourse of sacrifice, and she was deeply aware of the harm that such structures were doing to her sex.
Her short-story collection, Earth-Bound focusses largely on the damage that notions of “Mother Ireland” and the “yellow-haired virgin” were doing to women. It was during this time that she campaigned vociferously against the sexualised abuse of women in Kilmainham – the misogynist flip-side to the virgin/whore dichotomy.
The best known of her short stories, The Portrait of Roisin Dhu, demonstrates in rather stark terms what Gerardine Meaney calls the author’s “acute awareness of the dangers of women’s symbolic function in nationalist ideology”.
A kind of feminist Dorian Gray, it tells the story of a real woman sacrificed through the creation of her image. An idealised portrait of her will be used to incite nationalistic feeling for years to come. This transmission of woman to image, however, destroys the flesh-and-blood muse that the painting is modelled on.
The Irish Free State came into being just a few years before the publication of Uneasy Freehold, and Macardle’s dissatisfaction with the role of women in the Constitution was still fresh. Turning her hand to genre fiction, with nationalist politics left at the door, Macardle presents here a far more widely palatable examination of the sundering and splitting of the male imaginary and the need for male participation in its ousting.
Macardle’s brand of pragmatic and non-misandrist feminism is applied here with great conviction. The old man, Stella’s grandfather, is equally victim to the lie of the iconic woman.
The novel contains another Roisin Dhu, this time outside the specifics of Irish nationalism. It is revealed that the adulterous husband, Stella’s father, kept the ravished Carmel in the house just so that he could use her as a model.
While this is an early reveal in the novel, the implications of it are not outlined until the finale. Like the model for Roisin Dhu, the real Carmel is rendered mute and haggard by the artist. All that Pamela and Roderick have to recover her by are the very voices that silenced her, “a distorting mirror”.
Through the Distorted Mirror
There is not the room here to discuss the complexities, subtle contradictions and so on of the case, but ultimately and to put it crudely, the sought-after antidote to the horrific and stifling hauntings, is to restore the missing parts of history, grant voice to the silenced and empower the next generation of women by freeing their mothers from silence.
In The Uninvited, sister and brother must join forces to oust the “shallow fraud” of the iconic woman. It is only men and women together who can change the culture that thwarts and threatens to destroy its daughters.
In 1989, the Women’s History Association of Ireland was set up to promote research into the history of women in Ireland. Mould-breaking historians like Maria Luddy and Mary Cullen have for decades worked to recover the woman-shaped gaps in Ireland’s history.
As part of their Recovered Voices series, Tramp Press are now restoring Dorothy Macardle to our bookshelves.
The Uninvited by Dorothy Macardle (Tramp Press, 2015)