The Uninvited by Dorothy Macardle (1942)

This novel was initially published as Uneasy Freehold. In 1944 it was made into a film titled The Uninvited and starring Ray Milland.

At the beginning of the novel Roddy Fitzgerald and his sister, Pamela, tired of London life, are driving through Devon looking for a house to buy. They come upon Cliff End by chance, fall in love with it and buy it from the owner, Commander Brooke, in spite of his warning Roddy that the last tenants left abruptly some years previously after experiencing certain ‘disturbances’. As Roddy and Pamela do the house up they learn more about its unhappy history. The Commander’s daughter, Mary, and her artist husband,  Llewellyn Meredith, had lived there with their daughter, Stella, as had Carmel, the artist’s model and onetime mistress. Mary died falling over the cliff edge and Carmel died of pneumonia soon afterwards. There is some uncertainty as to how Mary came to fall. Stella, then three years old, went to live with her grandfather.

Roddy and Pamela haven’t been at Cliff End long before various disturbances do occur. A sighing is heard at night; there is a smell of mimosa; a sensation of cold emanates from the studio upstairs, becomes a mist and then the form of a woman; a visitor, staying in the same room, sees a horrible image in the mirror and so on.

The Fitzgeralds don’t want to be driven out of a house they love and their response is a very practical one. They believe that the root of these occurrences lies in Stella’s family history and that if they can establish exactly what happened, the ghost will be laid to rest. The rest of the story shows how they do this.

The Uninvited contains all the essential elements of a traditional ghost story right down to the cat hiding under furniture and snarling rather than enter a certain room, but for all that I didn’t find it particularly chilling. In fact in some ways Macardle seems to be subverting the supernatural element in the novel.

At the beginning is a letter from Roddy to a friend, Garry, introducing his narrative of the strange events of the summer. The tone of this letter suggests that nothing very terrible has happened; it finishes with

‘What strange interweaving of destinies began with the reckless mood of that April morning when Pamela and I first saw Cliff End!’

It’s that exclamation mark which is the giveaway.

This fits with the generally cheerful quality which pervades the book in spite of the ghosts. Roddy and Pamela are delighted with the house and thoroughly enjoy the project of doing it up. This down-to-earth, practical approach also determines how they respond to their supernatural experiences; although frightened, they see these as another problem to be solved. They think about what information they need in order to solve the mystery and where they might obtain it. As they learn more they discuss different possible explanations for the phenomena; at one point Pamela writes out a kind of timeline of events. Some of their techniques are supernatural, for example, they use a ouija board and hold a seance, but some are totally conventional, such as asking an artist friend to send photographs of paintings by Stella’s father. All this gives a rather detective story-like quality to the novel as they piece together the story.

I found the characterization a bit uneven. The story is narrated by Roddy, who therefore has a strong presence, while the others are less vivid. This is most obvious in the portrayal of Stella and the romantic relationship which develops between her and Roddy. Stella is young, straight out of boarding school. At eighteen she still feels the loss of her mother keenly and yearns to know more about her. She has long idealized Mary and is certain that the ghostly phenomena at Cliff End, which she also experiences, concern her. Roddy and Pamela are worried that their activities may result in some harm to Stella and don’t want to involve her completely but she is obsessed with her mother and her response is to say,

‘I have been longing all my life for my mother, and she came to me, and you are separating us.’

The investigation forms the centre of the story and the discovery of what actually happened is a necessary resolution for Stella but there is little sense of her character developing and the romance with Roddy seems a bit perfunctory. We have seen the growing attraction she has for him but, while he has come to love her, she has been almost entirely focused on her mother; there is little leading up to her admission towards the end that she loves him.

Motherhood is an important theme and Macardle opposes two mother-figures, Carmel and Mary. The conventional wife, Mary, is portrayed as almost saint-like in her virtue and is conflated with the Madonna. Stella’s bedroom is described as a kind of ‘shrine’; it is decorated in blue and there is even ‘a statuette of her mother – a white plaster thing’. Carmel, on the other hand, is not conventionally virtuous, having been Meredith’s mistress, but she is warm and loving. It comes as no surprise that it is Carmel rather than the rigidly dutiful Mary who turns out to be Stella’s mother and who is held up as a maternal exemplar, while Mary is described by Pamela as ‘a cold, hard, self-righteous prig’.

I enjoyed this as a novel but didn’t find it wholly satisfactory as a ghost story. In addition to a tone which is a little too cheerful to be chilling, the solution to the mystery is rather obvious and many readers will get there before Roddy and Pamela. This also detracts from the suspense.  Overall I found it to lack the truly uncanny quality of the best ghost stories.

 

 

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5 thoughts on “The Uninvited by Dorothy Macardle (1942)

  1. I like the original title better. The film is available on YouTube, I see, though the quality doesn’t look great. The Wikipedia entry on the film suggests quite a few plot changes and also that the film may be scarier than the book. Must watch it one day when I’m feeling brave.

    • Yes, I agree that the original title is more effective. I think it was renamed for the US audience – perhaps freehold wouldn’t work there. I must have a look at the film – I can imagine that with the right lighting, music, sound effects and so on it could be a lot scarier than the book.

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