No one ever mentions that a solid third of the Harry Potter series is just accounts of the gang doing homework. Or worrying about an internal school sport league. Yes, there’s a shady presence stalking the protagonist’s psyche and threatening racial genocide, but there’s also exams to be passed and essays to coerce your only female friend to write for you. And Voldemort respectfully tends to schedule his destructive plans towards the end of the school year. Despite its monsters and menaces, this world is not terrifying but comforting and coherent, at least from the reader’s bird’s eye view. It is, as David Shields describes the 19th century novel, “a entirely decipherable universe.”
This too is the appeal of Dorothy Mcardle’s The Uninvited, a gothic ghost story in which characters are concerned about, but never surprised by, the presence of the supernatural. Originally published 1942 and re-issued by Tramp Press in 2015, the novel concerns Roddy Fitzgerald and his sister Pamela, Anglo-Irish siblings who in an attempt to escape the London rat-race, purchase an irresistibly charming but inevitably haunted house on the Devon coast.
Entering their world feels like submerging yourself in a warm bath, such is the soothing security of wealthy lives. Even when the initial unaccounted sounds develop into full-fledged apparitions, the siblings’ blessed existence just seems too certain, too intent upon continuance, to be truly threatened by ghosts. Through all the ‘disturbances’, Roddy continues to send reviews and articles to London magazines (a veritable Hermione, forever undeterred from the task of homework) and the book’s primary sub-plot concerns whether his new play will be a success in Bristol. The Fitzgeralds’ social circle consists of artists and actors, who appear at their house-warming “like visitants from some far star” and strike up conversations about the deficiencies of the word ‘hike’ (“we have roved, we have rambled, we have wandered”) and whether the region’s clouds are worthy of painting. Peter, a dancer turned stage designer, remarks that the house has “marvellous potentialities…I’d do it in silver and geranium, with purples and just a streak of jade.” There’s a fly-on-the-wall enjoyment to encountering this eccentric world. It’s a pleasure to be invited.
The Uninvited also depicts a subtly specific attitude to supernatural presences. Although written in 1942, the novel is set in an undefined pre-war era, when artistic sensibilities were shaped by the growing interest in occultism, mysticism and spiritualism. In 1862, The Ghost Club, an organisation committed to psychical research was founded in Cambridge. Its members included literary figures such as Charles Dickens, W.B. Yeats, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Siegfried Sasson. Automatic writing, séance and communication with the dead were pursued with a sincerity that now seems quaint in a world where the paranormal have been relegated to the realms of fiction and conspiracy. What The Uninvited explores however, is not the grand artistic visions of the movement or the implications of new occultist existential theories, but the mundanity of these beliefs. When the existence of the supernatural is a given, there’s little to be shocked by. The discovery of a ghost in Cliff End is received as a moderately alarming piece of gossip. Some choice reactions:
it spoils a whole room in the house
what frightfully rough luck!
I’m not surprised you’re not looking well. No wonder the dog wouldn’t stay.
Roddy and Pamela’s discussions on the issue could easily be mistaken for conversations about a burst pipe or a bad case of damp. Perhaps most revealingly, the man called on to assess the situation and conduct a séance is not a cloaked mystic but a Dublin lawyer, who has carved out a legal niche in defending clients who find their new property haunted and wish to sue. “I went to prosecute some poltergeists” he explains “and discovered that they were privileged”. Despite Mcardle’s own supernatural leanings, it’s hard not to imagine her having a little giggle at the writers of the time.
Indeed, one of the most enjoyable aspects of reading The Uninvited is imagining Mcardle writing it. As Luke Gibbons’ introduction to the Tramp Press version outlines, she was a woman who defied conventional categories — a feminist, a nationalist, a lecturer, a journalist, a historian, a radical republican and, of course, a writer of gothic genre fiction. I first heard of her on a tour of Kilmainham Gaol, where she was imprisoned in 1922 during the Irish Civil War for her support of anti-Treaty factions. Fifteen years later, when Éamonn DeValera, a close friend of hers, was drafting the new Irish Constitution, she wrote to him:
As the Constitution stands, I do not see how anyone holding advanced views on the rights of women can support it, and that is a tragic dilemma for those who have been loyal and ardent workers in the national cause
I had heard the story of the 1937 Constitution many time before, had heard how DeValera and Archbishop McQuaid decided that women’s place was in the home and the church’s place was in everything. It was a revelation to discover that Mcardle had been there too. We thought we were fighting for an Ireland no one had envisioned yet and yet there she was, doing both the fighting and the envisioning without our help.
So how can you resist imaging her? See her hunched over her desk? She scribbles and crosses something out, smiling to herself at first and then furrows her brow in concentration as the lines run along the page. This rebel woman, deep in thought about what a new world would look like and, at the same time, what the ghosts might get up to next.