“The strength of Macardle’s writing lies in her attention to detail, so that what seems like unassuming, unpretentious prose strikes deeply.”
First published in 1953, Dorothy Macardle’s Dark Enchantment is a charming novel in both senses. It is the portrait of a French village called Saint Jacques in the postwar period and of Juliet, who has left her unfulfilling job at a boarding school. Her mother has run off to South America, and she and her father, a once-famous actor, are both aware of the financial ‘burden’ she now represents. What follows are the delights of domesticity, a romance with a visiting English botanist, and an examination of the changing role of women in the ‘50s. Caroline B Heafey brings out this angle especially well in her introduction; there are various role models of womanhood on offer to Juliet throughout, from the impressively adept yet embarrassingly superstitious Martine, to the chillingly efficient Alison.
Inevitably, however, there is a dark side to Saint Jacques, as there are to all things charming. In this case it is Terka, a half-blind ‘gypsy’, who is shunned as a witch by the same townsfolk who trade with her in secret for both objects and spells. She is beautiful, and was once adulterous; secrets and forbidden sexuality surround her. Juliet is entranced and then disgusted; the plot unfurls violently in its inevitability. You feel what will happen; you can’t look away.
The strength of Macardle’s writing lies in her attention to detail, so that what seems like unassuming, unpretentious prose strikes deeply. Take this description of a market: ‘Sweets and cakes and highly coloured syrops sold rapidly and so did stuffs and garments of all kinds. The pottery was neglected, waiting for tourists to arrive, and so were the flowers.’
It is the pottery that waits: the stuff of the town wants the tourists that trade depends on, but the inhabitants themselves are so indifferent – or resentful – as to be unmentioned here. (Juliet is the welcomed exception; Terka her mirror as the ostracised inhabitant.) Or there’s this description of Terka’s ‘pitiful’ cabin: ‘Twigs and bamboo-canes and a half-made basket lay on the floor; there were also a soldered kettle, a pair of broken boots and a piece of leather; a torn petticoat with a needle, threaded, stuck in it, and a ragged coat.’ Or this of the farmhouse: ‘The place smelt of soap and beeswax and piety…’ It is from such attention to language that a world is built.
Against the detail to smallness – and, Juliet suggests, the attendant small mindedness of a tight community – Macardle raises huge questions about magic, and religion. Some of it sits uneasily today – I wonder how differently readers will view Terka now, with all the connotations of racism and sexism that are carried within the fear she generates – but it also resonates. ‘Terrible, to live in a small, close, isolated community!’ Juliet’s father jokes. Dark Enchantment is being republished as part of Tramp Press’s ‘Recovered Voices’ series, a way of expanding the ‘small, close, isolated community’ of the Irish canon: its own preoccupations show exactly what there is to be gained.
Words: Alice Wickenden