Roddy Fitzgerald is a writer & critic, living in London with his sister, Pamela, who has been nursing their father & is mentally & physically worn out. The Fitzgeralds are tired of London life & are on the lookout for a place in the country. On a road trip, they discover Cliff End, a remote, slightly dilapidated but beautiful Georgian house on the coast in Devon. Pamela falls in love immediately & can see the possibilities while Roddy doesn’t think they can afford to buy it. Surprisingly, the owner, Commander Brooke, agrees to sell it for a nominal price, leaving the Fitzgeralds to pay for renovations. The Commander, a gruff man, seems uneasy about the house but says little about its history. He lives with his orphaned granddaughter, Stella, who has led a sheltered life at boarding school. Stella lived at Cliff End as a young child until the tragic death of her mother, Mary, who fell from the cliff. Her father, the artist Llewellyn Meredith, left England & the Commander cared for Stella with the help of Mary’s friend, Miss Holloway. Mary’s death combined with the scandal of Meredith’s relationship with his Spanish model, Carmel, may account for the Commander’s dislike of the house but local rumour whispers of the house being haunted.
Pamela begins the renovations with local help & Roddy winds up their London life. He plans to write a book but soon begins a play. Lizzie Flynn, the Fitzgerald’s Irish housekeeper, completes the household. Lizzie soon picks up the local gossip & her cat, Whiskey, refuses to go upstairs. Stella is fascinated with the house & the Fitzgeralds are keen to invite her but her grandfather refuses absolutely, without reason, to allow the friendship to develop. Stella does visit the house & the manifestations seem to be stimulated by her presence. Stella’s reveres the mother she can barely remember but the spirit in the house seems to be both loving & vengeful. Is it trying to protect Stella or harm her? However much Roddy & Pamela love the house, there’s an unpleasant atmosphere in some of the rooms. Sobbing in the night & patches of intense cold lead to more frightening manifestations.
My hand groped, trembling, for the light switch; I turned it on and ran bare-foot downstairs. everything was as we had left it: a white cloth, thrown over the laden table, made it like a bier; the nursery was empty, the curtains closed; face powder strewed the dressing table; the scent of mimosa lingered, potent still.
I leaned against the wall, waiting for my heart to recover its natural beat, but a cold shivering had taken me and I longed for my own room. I turned the lights out and tried to go upstairs.
I could not do it; I trembled at the knees and shuddered convulsively, sick with the chill that seemed to shrink the flesh on my bones and wrinkle my skin.My breast was hollow and a breath blew over my heart. If I had not clung to the newel-post, fighting, I would have panicked; I would have shouted for Max or pulled the front door open and torn out of the house. I thought something was coming down the stairs.
The Uninvited is a genuinely creepy tale of ghosts & the influence that the past can have on the present. The familiar tropes of the ghost story – the remote, abandoned house, the noises in the night, patches of unexplained cold, the cat who refuses to go into certain rooms – are there but very much grounded in a domestic story of renovating a house, making a home. Roddy’s growing love for Stella is protective but his desire to rescue her from whatever is haunting the house is combined with a recognition that she is her own person. She has been stifled by her grandfather & by the image of the saintly Mary, encouraged by the sinister Miss Holloway (whose obsession with Mary reminded me of Mrs Danvers) as well as the locals. The Commander’s desire to root out any influence from Stella’s artistic, immoral father is almost pathological.
“She is her father’s daughter. She remembers him; that is the trouble. … She resembles him physically. The influence of that strain in her is so potent that it has been my life’s aim to break it down. God knows, I’ve left nothing undone! When Mary died I retired from the navy and dedicated myself to that purpose – to make Mary’s child the woman Mary would have wished her to be. I paid an exorbitant salary to Mary’s confidential nurse; I surrounded Stella with Mary’s pictures, gave her Mary’s books, sent her to the same school. It was a sacrifice: I missed her. But when she returned home a year ago I was pleased. She would always be without her mother’s grace, charm, beauty, but she was good. She was serious; she carried out her duties conscientiously; she continued her studies under my direction. I planned to take her abroad.”
To combat this stifling atmosphere becomes the goal of both Roddy & Pamela. In the course of this struggle for Stella’s future happiness, they are fighting not only her stubborn grandfather but also the uninvited inhabitants of Cliff End. Their determination to win through & release Stella from the ties of the past leads to a truly exciting climax.
The Uninvited was made into what is considered one of the best supernatural movies ever made, one of the first to treat ghosts seriously & not just as comic relief. Starring Ray Milland, Ruth Hussey, Donald Crisp (one of my favourite character actors) & Gail Russell as Stella, it has a screenplay by Dodie Smith (of I Capture the Castle & Look Back with Love fame). I watched the movie first & it was very close to the book. The friends who visit the Fitzgeralds, Roddy’s play writing & most of the locals are left out but that just heightens the solitary atmosphere of the house & the supernatural manifestations. The Irishness is also almost completely removed. Macardle was an Irish writer, very active in the Republican movement, & much is made of the Irishness of the Fitzgeralds in the book. Lizzie’s Catholicism is very potent & more than just peasant superstition (which it tends to be in the movie) & the local priest, Father Anson, has a greater role.
The lovely new edition I read is part of Irish publisher Tramp Press‘s Recovered Voices series (I reviewed the first of the series, A Struggle for Fame by Charlotte Riddell, a couple of years ago). It’s a beautifully produced book with French flaps & an informative introduction by Luke Gibbons.