It doesn’t tie any shoes

Madeleine Schwartz

  • Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin
    Liveright, 585 pp, £25.00, October 2016, ISBN 978 0 87140 313 1
  • Dark Tales by Shirley Jackson
    Penguin, 208 pp, £9.99, October 2016, ISBN 978 0 241 29542 7

‘I don’t think I like reality very much,’ Shirley Jackson used to say in her lectures on writing. It was an idea she returned to often. ‘Just being a writer of fiction gives you an absolutely unassailable protection against reality; nothing is ever seen clearly or starkly, but always through a thin veil of words.’ By the time she gave such talks in the 1950s and early 1960s, she had reached national fame as the author of ‘The Lottery’, a 1948 New Yorker short story about an imagined ritual stoning in a New England village that led hundreds to cancel their subscriptions in outrage. Her novels We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House, with their flat and measured descriptions of troubled minds, led to her reputation as a ‘spine-chiller’. She had established herself, in the words of one reviewer, as ‘a kind of Virginia Werewoolf among the séance-fiction writers’.

Shirley Jackson and her children in 1956.
Shirley Jackson and her children in 1956.

She often claimed to have magical powers herself. She played up her interest in the occult for the press, talking about Tarot and voodoo. She joked that she had cursed Alfred Knopf, who had had a skiing accident, because of a publishing dispute. In the small town in Vermont where she lived with her husband and their four children, she sometimes wore a necklace made of bird bones. During a party at her house, she once took a human skull off a shelf and began ‘to speak to it as if it were a child’, one particularly unsettled guest recalled. The jacket copy for her first book described her as ‘the only contemporary writer who is a practising amateur witch’, a characterisation she both encouraged and despised.

But Jackson’s novels feature no monsters, no demons, no unambiguous manifestations of the supernatural. What makes her work unsettling is the way it seems to open a door between truth and fantasy, suggesting that the boundaries between reality and illusion may not be as fixed as one would want. In Hangsaman, a novel about a college student who goes missing, it isn’t clear until late in the book that Natalie Waite’s best friend ‘Tony’ is imaginary. The two complain about dorm life and talk about their joy in stealing from the other girls. Natalie is thrilled to have finally found a friend. But when Natalie falls asleep in Tony’s room, she wakes up in her own; later Tony leads Natalie into the woods and then disappears. In The Haunting of Hill House, Eleanor Vance travels with a group of researchers to investigate the paranormal activity reported at a mysterious manor, but she’s the only one of the party driven mad by the house. While the other characters sleep soundly, she hears a child sobbing ‘Please let me go home.’ Jackson’s description in ‘The Lottery’ of the ‘clear and sunny’ morning of 27 June, ‘with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day’, seemed so real that some readers wrote to the magazine to ask where the stoning of Tessie Hutchinson had taken place. These queries tired Jackson. ‘The number of people who expected Mrs Hutchinson to win a Bendix washer at the end,’ she wrote to a friend, ‘would amaze you.’

Characters in Jackson’s stories often find themselves slipping between reason and madness, trying to understand where exactly they fit in. In ‘What a Thought’, one of the stories newly collected in Dark Tales, a woman called Margaret sits with her husband after dinner. She looks at him with pride, grateful for the care he takes in making her happy. Yet ‘an odd thought crossed her mind: she would pick up the heavy glass ashtray and smash her husband over the head with it.’ Margaret is ashamed at the thought. Maybe it is a ‘perverted affectionate gesture’. But it will not leave her mind. ‘The cord that held the curtains back made her think: strangle him … Drown him, the goldfish bowl suggested.’ She kisses her husband and tells him she has never loved him more. Then she strikes him. ‘Doctor … how do people tell if they’re going crazy?’ a woman in another Jackson story asks. ‘Everyone else seems to understand,’ she says. ‘I don’t.’

Jackson was born into a snobbish San Francisco family in 1916. As Ruth Franklin describes in her sharp new biography, Jackson’s mother, Geraldine, was a social climber who didn’t understand her unruly and unattractive daughter. She told her she was the result of an unsuccessful abortion; when the pill was introduced in the early 1960s she told her she wished she had had it in the early years of her marriage. Geraldine complained that Shirley didn’t share her interest in fine jewels and parties. She dressed her, a big-boned child, in heavy fabrics that made her look stiff and feel uncomfortable. Shirley was a redhead, which Geraldine considered unfortunate for a socialite.

Jackson wrote regularly from a young age, putting on short plays for her classmates and editing the school newspaper. ‘Writing used to be a delicious private thing, done in my own room with the door locked, in constant terror of the maternal knock,’ she later recalled in a lecture. Images of mothers or grandmothers rifling through desks permeate her work. In Jackson’s first novel, The Road through the Wall, a portrait of small-mindedness in a community similar to one in the suburb where she grew up, the mother forces the daughter to burn her writing. ‘The first book is the book you have to write to get back at your parents,’ Jackson once said. But revenge is a fantasy that tends to repeat itself. Jackson also told her children that she had burned all of her childhood work in front of her mother so that she would feel guilty.

The ‘belittling and the criticism to which Geraldine had subjected Shirley all her life’, Franklin writes, primed her ‘to accept a relationship with a man who treated her disrespectfully and shamed her for legitimate and rational desires’. After a stint at the University of Rochester, where Jackson had a mental breakdown and dropped out, she enrolled at Syracuse University. There she published her first short story in the student paper, a page-long dialogue in which a girl tells her friends about an attempted suicide. ‘Darn near killed myself this afternoon,’ she announces.

Stanley Hyman, a fellow student, read the story and declared that he was going to marry its writer. Franklin notes that, superficially, they may have made for an ‘incongruous pair’. Hyman was a Jew from Brooklyn, cocky and ambitious. Even in college he knew he wanted to be a critic and had early on developed a meticulous note-taking system – making tiny notes on a bookmark, then typing and filing them – that he would keep up throughout his life. But they thought of themselves as partners in genius, at least in the beginning. Hyman championed Jackson and bragged about her talent. When he ignored capitalisation in his drafts, she ignored capitalisation in hers. She began using yellow paper, so he used yellow paper too. For a while, they both wrote on a single typewriter, though Hyman wouldn’t always share. They would give each other leather-bound copies of their work, ‘to S with love from S’.

For two writers so enamoured of each other’s originality, the life they chose was rather conventional. They lived only briefly in Greenwich Village and moved to Vermont, settling in North Bennington, a town where residents ‘generally wanted nothing to do with you unless your family had arrived before the American Revolution’, as one inhabitant put it. North Bennington, lightly fictionalised, is the setting for many of Jackson’s stories. She examined the petty cruelties, as well as the racism and anti-Semitism, that drew these communities shut. In one, a woman called Adela Strangeworth, ‘a name honoured in the town for so many years’, mails letters to each of her neighbours spreading gossip. ‘Have you found out yet what they were all laughing about after you left the bridge club?’ ‘Even in a charming little town like this one, there was still so much evil in people,’ she thinks as she mails another letter. Franklin compares Jackson to Nathaniel Hawthorne, but the setting of the stories just as often recalls Thornton Wilder – if his plays continued after the audience went home.

Wives in North Bennington were housewives, so Jackson dressed the children, did the ‘cooking, washing dishes and clothes and mending’, while Hyman sat in the study and wrote. He was successful first, a New Yorker writer at 23. He clung to his achievement. He wrote his correspondence on New Yorker letterhead long after the magazine stopped accepting his work. He liked to carry a cane made of python vertebrae that had belonged to James Joyce. But where Hyman wrote ‘painfully’, Jackson was prolific, writing dozens of stories a year and, eventually, six novels. Her writing ‘flowed like you turned on a faucet’, one friend recalled. When she wanted to write, she would. She and Hyman hosted frequent parties at their house, which Jackson would leave midway if an idea occurred to her. She presented these flashes of inspiration as her own version of a work-life balance. ‘When I am making beds or sorting laundry or trying to find the six odd socks that have gotten down behind the children’s dressers, I am going over, endlessly, possible scenes and situations for a novel,’ she wrote in an essay. She may have also been needling Hyman, who took 13 years to write The Tangled Bank, a gruellingly pedantic study of Freud, Marx, James Frazer and Darwin. ‘It ought to make a very handy doorstop,’ Jackson told her parents.

In her study of marriages between Victorian writers, Parallel Lives, Phyllis Rose suggests that love may be described as the temporary refusal to try to dominate another person. ‘Like an enzyme which blocks momentarily a normal biological process,’ she writes, ‘what we call love may inhibit the process of power negotiation – from which inhibition comes the illusion of equality so characteristic of lovers.’ The trouble with marriage isn’t that love may fade into affection, but that once it does, it can no longer contain two egos, two versions of reality, two notions of success. The illusion of equality quickly dissipated in the Hyman-Jackson household. Hyman resented ‘every minute’ his wife did not spend writing fiction, as it was their main source of income. Once ‘in a fury [he] figured out that considered in terms of pure writing time my letters are worth forty dollars a page,’ Jackson wrote to a friend. When he felt that housework was taking up too much of her day, he bought her a dishwasher. Bernard Malamud’s daughter writes in her memoir that her father once introduced the couple as ‘Mr and Mrs Jackson’. He was so embarrassed that he bought Hyman expensive cigars as an apology the next time he went to New York.

Hyman also cheated on his wife from the beginning of their relationship. He defended his infidelity with ideology – open marriage was a communist principle, and Hyman was briefly a communist. His professorship at Bennington, then a women’s college, gave him access to a steady stream of students. Perhaps out of deference to Jackson, or perhaps to preserve his own reputation, he observed a ‘hundred-mile rule,’ remaining mostly faithful in Vermont but visiting them in New York after graduation. ‘By the end of the first semester,’ Jackson wrote, ‘what I wanted to do most in the world was invite a few of my husband’s students over for tea and drop them down the well.’

As a teenager, Jackson kept two diaries. In one, she wrote in the voice of a girl scout about summer camp and making fudge. ‘O Boy!’ she keeps saying. In the other, she wrote grandiose and passionate letters to a crush (‘Lohengrin … our love song’). Each was a sort of performance, as Franklin notes, but a performance only for herself, as if she were trying out different ways of being to see which she liked best. She maintained the habit of splitting herself into personas throughout her life, naming her moods as if they were different people – ‘sharly (snarly shirley)’ and ‘shurley (surly shirley)’ – and trying to understand ‘that compound of creatures I call Me’.

Split personalities and doubles are common in her work. In The Bird’s Nest, Elizabeth Richmond discovers through hypnosis that she has four different selves. The two sisters in We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Merricat and Constance, are complementary: Constance is shy and uneasy; Merricat is outgoing, bold, superstitious and cruel. Their entire family has died of arsenic poisoning in an incident that has turned the villagers against them. By the end they have sequestered themselves in their decaying house as one kooky, independent unit.

Readers, too, wondered about the ‘two Miss Jacksons’ when she published humorous essays about being a housewife for women’s magazines. ‘One would sooner expect [Charles] Addams to illustrate Little Women than Miss Jackson to write a cheerful book about family life,’ one reviewer commented. The voice of her essays, collected into two bestselling books, Life among the Savages and Raising Demons, shares much with the one in her stories, as Franklin notes. She writes simply, employing repetition and unpretentious language (‘If your heroine’s hair is golden, call it yellow,’ she told her students). In these essays, she takes delight in her children (they complained that every month, the family ‘was exposed again in Ladies’ Home Journal’). She is free of Stanley, who mostly bumbles in and out of rooms. He refused to sit for the photographer one newspaper sent, so the promotional material for the book showed Jackson and her four children, assembled round the dining table.

‘Jackson was an important writer who happened also to be – and to embrace being – a housewife, as women of her generation were all but required to do,’ Franklin writes. ‘The tension between the two roles was both internal and external, based simultaneously in her expectations for herself and in the expectations of her husband, family, publishers, and readers.’ In The Feminine Mystique Betty Friedan described the way American women became ‘virtual schizophrenics’, forced to convince themselves that they loved to spend their days cooking and cleaning. Jackson enjoyed being a mother and frequently downplayed her own work, presenting herself as a sort of accidental novelist. Writing, she told the New York Times Book Review, is ‘great fun, and I love it. But it doesn’t tie any shoes.’ But she resented the idea that people might think her only a housewife, especially her neighbours, who knew how badly she kept house. In an essay called ‘Fame’ she tells a society reporter in North Bennington about an upcoming novel. When the piece comes out, there’s no mention of the book. It simply reports that ‘Mrs Stanley Hyman’ was ‘visiting Mr and Mrs Farrar Straus of New York City this weekend’.

The clash of these two personas in the press eclipsed Jackson’s own talent. ‘Housework Came First’ was one of the subheadings in her New York Times obituary in 1965. It also affected her reputation among certain feminists, who saw her as an apologist for traditional gender roles. Friedan herself singled out Jackson in The Feminine Mystique as an ‘Uncle Tom’ who encouraged women to embrace home life over intellectual pursuits. Writers like Jackson, ‘who all her adult life has been an extremely capable writer, pursuing a craft far more demanding than bedmaking’, she wrote, ‘deny the lives they lead, not as housewives, but as individuals’.

Franklin attempts to rehabilitate Jackson through a thoughtful reading of her books. She brings out the complexity of her work and compares her to more canonical writers such as Edgar Allan Poe. Some of the more affecting parts of the biography emphasise the couple’s commitment to anti-racist movements. At one point, Franklin describes the way Hyman and Jackson encouraged Ralph Ellison, a friend, to write when he didn’t yet trust his talent. (An earlier biography of Jackson by Judy Oppenheimer, Private Demons, takes a chattier approach and relies heavily on anecdotes provided by Jackson’s North Bennington neighbours and friends.)

Franklin suggests that in addition to the cultural pressures, it was the ‘fantasy’ of the ‘orderly house’ that so attracted Jackson. She once joked that ‘any kind of problem can be solved by putting it in a box and putting the box away,’ and her housewife persona proved a very large and often useful box for the disappointments of her life. It seemed to appeal to Jackson because of, not in spite of, its simplicity. Jackson wanted many lives at a time when women were usually only permitted a sanctioned few. Perhaps it was a sort of relief to set those aside and stick to a single performance. After all, it is sometimes easier to act out a character, displaying consistent feelings and wishes and desires, than to admit you’re a conflicted and confused person; easier to play a happy housewife than a ‘writer who, due to a series of innocent and ignorant faults of judgment, finds herself with a family of four children and a husband, an 18-room house and no help, and two Great Danes and four cats, and – if he has survived this long – a hamster’. Housewives, of course, are not the only ones occasionally to deny ‘the lives they lead as individuals’. ‘No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality,’ Jackson writes in the opening of The Haunting of Hill House. ‘Even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.’

When Jackson was in her mid-forties, Hyman began an affair with one of her good friends. The two families would dine together and sit in silence when Hyman and his mistress left the table. Jackson thought about divorcing him. His philandering, she once wrote in a letter to him, ‘leaves no room for other emotional involvement, not even a legitimate one at home … You once wrote me a letter (i know you hate my remembering these things) telling me that i would never be lonely again. i think that was the first, the most dreadful, lie you ever told me.’ The letter, and the divorce, never went beyond a draft. Jackson developed severe writer’s block. She tried to ‘write her way out’ by forcing herself to sit at a desk and type. ‘Plots will come flooding when I get the rubbish cleared away from my mind.’ She took the amphetamine diet pill Dexamyl to write. She compensated with barbiturates, antipsychotics and alcohol. For three years, she barely left home. ‘I have written myself into the house,’ she told a friend.

The only project she could work on was a novel called Come along with Me, a ‘happy book’ about a woman called Angela Motorman who moves to a new city after her husband dies, and starts over. There’s almost no plot. Angela Motorman just is, alone. ‘I had no pets, no address books, no small effects to set around on tables or pin on walls, I had no lists of friends to keep in touch with and no souvenirs; all I had was myself.’ Jackson died in her sleep before she could finish the story. She was 48. Franklin doesn’t speculate on the cause, but some have suggested that Dexamyl, consumed in ‘unhealthy quantities’, may have played a part. A few days later, one of Jackson’s friends received a letter from her. She said she was going on a wonderful trip.