It is a dark and stormy night at Sterne, the beloved family home of Charlotte Torrington Swift and her children, Clovis, Emerald, and Imogen, better known as Smudge. After Charlotte’s first husband, Horace, died, she quickly remarried Edward Swift, a lawyer with only one arm, whose relationship with her children has been less than affectionate. Edward is departing to Manchester on a most important mission: he must attempt to borrow enough money to safe Sterne or it will be lost.
And on this 1912 evening, preparations are underway for Emerald’s twentieth birthday dinner which is to be attended by her best friend, Patience, along with Patience’s mother. The housekeeper, Florence, along with her daughter, Myrtle, is busily preparing an elaborate dinner and birthday cake, and unbeknownst to everyone else, nine-year-old Smudge is plotting a “Great Undertaking.”
Patience arrives not with her mother, but her brother, Ernest. Soon friend of the family John Buchanan drops in unannounced bearing a birthday gift for Emerald. Before the festivities can get underway, they learn that thee has been a terrible train crash and they must provide shelter to some of the survivors until the railway can make other arrangements for them, throwing the household into confusion and squalor.
Thus begins a momentous evening during which Emerald and her family are joined by their uninvited guests, including the mysterious Charlie Traversham-Beechers whose presence causes Charlotte’s expression to be transformed “to something like horror” when she comes face-to-face with him.
The Uninvited Guests is a most unusual tale: part slapstick comedy, part paranormal mystery, part political commentary. It was described by USA Today as “Downton Abbey meets The Twilight Zone in [an] exhilaratingly strange and darkly funny drawing-room dramedy.”
The story is short on character development, but not fatally so. As the action proceeds, the various characters’ natures, to the extent necessary in order to appreciate the impact of the bizarre events that transpire, are revealed. Charlotte at first seems completely self-absorbed and vacuous, while little Smudge is left to amuse herself, largely ignored by her mother, stepfather, and older siblings. Her room is a disaster, but no one knows that she is planning an undertaking that will wreak complete havoc on more of the house than just her bedroom. Clovis is particularly at ends, appearing to have no occupation or ambition other than chiding his family members continuously, while Emerald frets about the prospect of losing the house while looking forward to seeing her dearest friend and enjoying her birthday celebration.
The plans for the evening are quickly derailed when news of the train crash reaches the house in the form of numerous dazed passengers who have nowhere else to wait out the terrible storm. They are a bedraggled bunch rescued from third class — with one notable exception — and Charlotte is determined that their presence not interrupt the birthday party, even to the point that she does not wish to provide them with either dinner or modest accoutrements to make their layover somewhat comfortable. Instead, in a scathing statement about class and societal standing, Charlotte instructs the staff to sequester them in the morning room, even begrudging the coal used to stoke the fire so that they can stay warm. After all, “[s]he had built her life so that she might avoid third-class carriages and she wasn’t going to wring her hands over those who made use of them now.” What happens to Charlotte later is indeed poetic justice, considering her behavior which shocks and horrifies the empathetic and compassionate Emerald.
With the arrival of Charlie Traversham-Beechers, a man with whom Charlotte, but no one else, is acquainted, the story segues from outrageous to truly bizarre and inexplicable, but decidedly more interesting and entertaining. As Smudge executes her “Great Undertaking,” the evening wears on and the combination of Jones’ inventive calamities, revelations about the characters’ pasts and relationships with each other, and some fanciful plot elements cause the book’s pace to rapidly accelerate to a satisfying conclusion. By the time the storm passes, everyone and everything at Sterne has been transformed — for the better. Walls have been broken down — literally and figuratively — and new alliances formed, while an old enemy has been faced and robbed of its power to destroy. Ultimately, the story is a clever social commentary, an allegory about Britain at a pivotal time in its history when it stood on the brink of change and, like the characters in The Uninvited Guests had no choice but to react and adapt in order to survive. With a richly descriptive narrative, The Uninvited Guests is clever, intricately plotted and constructed, and highly memorable.