Book cover

Revisiting women of St. Jacques

Caroline B. Heafey.

Page Turner / By Peter McDermott

“The novel begins with the problem of what to do with a woman.”

So writes Caroline B. Heafey in the introduction to a new edition of “Dark Enchantment,” by Dorothy Macardle, published originally in 1953.

It was at the time marketed as a kind of “book club” novel, primarily for a female readership. Fellow writer Evelyn Eaton labeled it in the New York Times “perfect escape literature, especially for those who have at any time (preferably years ago) turned a tourist’s eye on the south of France.”

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In Heafey’s perspective, the notion that it’s aimed at the “bourgeois housewife, eager to take her mind back to the European tours of her youth” hasn't dated well. Rather, she writes, “in the nostalgic depiction of a French village, a deeper reading of ‘Dark Enchantment’ provides a critical commentary on the opportunities for women during this historical moment with regard to socioeconomic mobility and agency.”

Heafey, who is pursuing a PhD in English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, told the Echo that the novel “is about a young woman, Juliet, who finds herself living in the French Alps. As she becomes acquainted with the townspeople, she soon hears local lore of uncanny happenings. There is a witch who tells fortunes and is said to be the source of evil in the village. I would argue, though, that the novel is really about social outcasts – who becomes Othered or scapegoated and why. The novel explores socio-political division in the aftermath of the Second World War, and so much of it feels all too relevant to the division we’re feeling in the United States at the moment.”

Macardle was born in 1889 into a wealthy Catholic family in Dundalk, Co. Louth, that was prominent in the brewing industry. Her mother was English and the future writer was well-traveled in England and the Continent. Her first novel, “The Uninvited,” was set in Cornwall, and the film version, a 1944 psychological thriller starring Ray Milland, is still highly-regarded. Likewise, Macardle could create for her third novel, “Dark Enchantment,” the fictional St. Jacques, which, says Heafey, is “quaint and charming, encapsulating the facets of fairy-tale France one might expect: buildings constructed of carved stone and wrought iron, fountains, squares lined by pepper trees, and an old church, centered as the town’s focus.”

But it was as a student and teacher in Dublin that Macardle encountered the defining influences of her life. “She lectured in a series that included W.B. Yeats and later lived with Maude Gonne,” Heafey writes. She was a member of the Gaelic League and through Cumann na mBan became active in the independence movement. She opposed the Treaty of 1921 and was imprisoned during the 1922-23 Civil War. She joined Éamon de Valera’s new Fianna Fáil party in 1926, and he wrote the preface to her history “The Irish Republic,” first published in 1937. De Valera considered it the “only really authoritative account” of the revolutionary period and Macardle still tends to be remembered for the book, which has been reissued many times. However, while she remained personally close to the Fianna Fáil leader — who was taoiseach for most of the 20-year period through her death in 1958 — she wasn’t at all happy with some features of independent Ireland, not least the subservient position to which women were consigned. Macardle once said in a radio address, “so captivating, yet so enraging this nation’s ways can be.”

Heafey, who has a Master of Arts in Irish and Irish-American Studies from Glucksman Ireland House, New York University, writes that early in “Dark Enchantment” the novelist “outlines how imposed domestic roles ultimately become the ruin of marriage and the idealized family life that these roles are meant to uphold.”

Juliet doesn’t like teaching and there are few other options for someone of her class, but her father, Frith, a well-known though now impoverished actor, decides she should work with the village innkeepers, René and Martine. The wife is pregnant with their first child and, for Heafey, she “wholeheartedly embodies the domestic.”

Juliet is drawn to Michael, a young Englishman whose mother Alison is “affluent, elegant and financially solvent because she is a widow. She has learned to navigate her world independent of her marriage, but still through the economic resources she has gained from it.”

The book’s “witch,” or “gypsy” or “sorceress,” Terka, presents another contrast Macardle plays off. “She is a self-sustaining woman,” Heafey says, “though at the expense of acceptance from the townspeople within the village.”

Cast out by her own Romany community, she is a pariah due to an alleged affair with a married man. She lost an eye in an attack by the wife and other townswomen, but is still considered beautiful. Michael expresses his sympathy for her and Juliet shares it. “That is,” Heafey writes, “until strange events begin to overwhelm even her sensible mind.”

Heafey said that the contemporary reader might consider “Macardle’s depiction of Terka and her engagement with the occult and the supernatural as an exploration of power, and the critique of the systems of authority present within the novel.”

Caroline B. Heafey

Place of birth: Springfield, Mass.

Residence: Massachusetts

Published works: Introduction to “Dark Enchantment,” which has been reissued as part of Tramp Press’s Recovered Voices series, as have two other novels by Dorothy Macardle, “The Uninvited” and “The Unforeseen.”

What is your writing routine? Are there ideal conditions?

My writing routine has varied, especially now working from home. I used to do the initial drafting in public spaces – coffee shops or parks – and I love to write on airplanes. Now I am writing from my den exclusively. I find that I’m a better writer at night, or first thing in the morning when the house is quietest. Additionally, I try to keep a journal about the writing that I do, logging work from day-to-day. I write notes to myself in order to digest the writing I’ve done that day and to free write some thoughts that I’d like to keep working through tomorrow. That process has been especially helpful just to keep track of time since March, and generally to keep myself organized between drafts.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Read everything aloud to yourself. This is an old trick but a good one and advice I give to my students constantly. The ear will catch what the eye misses. As well, find friends and colleagues who you trust with your work to give you different forms of feedback. I have a works in progress group which meets twice a week. We start the week by doing some Pomodoro sessions together (virtually for the moment) and conclude the week with a check-in to set short-term and long-term goals. I think a lot of people view writing as a solitary process, when in reality, you need people to hold you accountable, provide kind and honest feedback, and to be supportive as you work through your thoughts, research, and the writing process. I think that a large part of writing feels as though you are searching around in the dark – and that’s okay. Lean into your process, whatever it may be, and seek help when you need it.

What book are you currently reading?

I am always reading several books at once, both for research and for pleasure. For research, I’m revisiting a lot of Elizabeth Bowen’s novels and short stories, namely “The Heat of the Day” and “Eva Trout.” My current research focuses primarily on the presence of radio in Irish novels, so Emily Bloom’s “The Wireless Past” has been integral to that project so far. For pleasure, Fernanda Melchor’s “Hurricane Season,” Sinead Gleeson’s newest anthology “The Art of the Glimpse,” and Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s “A Ghost in the Throat” (the latest from Tramp Press) are also on my night table.

If you could meet one author, living or dead, who would it be?

This one is easy – Dorothy Macardle.

What is your favorite spot in Ireland?

Bewley’s on Grafton Street in Dublin has always been a special place for my family and me. I’m hoping it will open back up soon. As well, my father and I take walks on Sandymount Strand whenever we back are in town. He lived in Sandymount many years ago and I think there’s nothing quite like the sea there.

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