October 31, 2007
Shirley Jackson: We Have Always Lived in the Castle
This is one of those books which was under the ‘personal recommendations’ sign at my local bookstore. The cover and title were so interesting I couldn’t resist picking it up, and then the blurb was so teasing (no synopsis or reviews, just a couple of extracts) that I couldn’t quite put it down. It’s a Penguin Deluxe Classics Edition – a bit misleading, as there isn’t as far as I’m aware a non-deluxe edition – published in the USA, but easily available etc etc.
I had never heard of Shirley Jackson, but Jonathan Lethem in his introduction assures us that we will have read several of her stories, including her most famous, “The Lottery”. Well, I hadn’t; but I have now read “The Lottery” and thought it pretty silly and predictable. Fortunately the same cannot be said for We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), which was Jackson’s last published novel before her death in 1965.
The cover gives a pretty good impression of the book. Two sisters, Mary Catherine (known as Merricat) and Constance Blackwood, live in a tired old house with their cat and their Uncle Julian. “Everyone else in my family is dead,” Merricat tells us. And “Everyone in the village has always hated us.” The connection between these two facts leads us through the tangled story at the heart of the book.
In some ways the Blackwood sisters are normal, or at least part of a tradition:
There were jars of jam made by great-grandmothers, with labels in thin pale writing, almost unreadable by now, and pickles made by great-aunts and vegetables put up by our grandmother, and even our mother had left behind her six jars of apple jelly. … All the Blackwood women had taken the food that came from the ground and preserved it, and the deeply coloured rows of jellies and pickles and bottled vegetables and fruit, maroon and amber and dark rich green, stood side by side in our cellar and would stand there forever, a poem by the Blackwood women.
In other ways they reveal unusual traits: “I can’t help it when people are frightened,” says Merricat. “I always want to frighten them more.”
It is impossible not to feel sympathy for them when Merricat braves the village to buy provisions or makes a token attempt to mix by having a coffee in Stella’s cafe (“If anyone else came in and sat down at the counter I would leave my coffee without seeming hurried, and leave”). When she does withstand the company of her neighbours, the atmosphere thickens:
“They tell me,” he said, swinging to sit sideways on his stool and look at me directly, “they tell me you’re moving away.”
“No,” I said, because he was waiting.
“Funny,” he said, looking from me to Stella and then back. “I could have sworn someone told me you’d be going soon.”
Jackson brings out slowly a Magnus Mills-ish sense of being an outsider (perhaps inspired by her crippling agoraphobia, which left her housebound for the last years of her life), and we empathise with the Blackwood girls even when Merricat is losing patience with a visiting cousin (“I was thinking of Charles. I could turn him into a fly and drop him into a spider’s web and watch him tangled and helpless and struggling, shut into the body of a dying buzzing fly … I could fasten him to a tree and keep him there until he grew into the trunk and bark grew over his mouth”). And the questions – why do the villagers hate them, why is everyone else in the family dead – are answered, though the answers are not always surprising and one putative revelation is visible a mile off.
More than that, when we do discover what has happened, we are not offered any explanation or reasoning, and there is not quite enough built in to make it satisfying anyway. However the ending is almost swooningly elegiac, which makes up for a lot. The Blackwood sisters too – obsessive and fearful, persecuted and dangerous, apparently sexually frozen – are characters one could spend a lot of time on, if not with.