Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life
WW NORTON Hardcover, £25
Ruth Franklin out since October
Great writers deserve great biographies, and in Ruth Franklin, Shirley Jackson has a worthy champion. A Rather Haunted Life offers clear-eyed analysis of the conditions inspiring Jackson’s literary output via detailed descriptions of her daily life and private thoughts. Her research benefited from access to previously undiscovered material that amplifies our understanding of this complicated woman. Admiring, but not hagiography, this life dispels many myths — quite a few invented by the mischievous author herself. At various times Jackson lied to journalists, saying she was a practising witch, or that she was a housewife who tossed off bits of writing “during breaks from dusting.”
Especially commendable is Franklin’s emphasis on the way Jackson’s writing focuses on women’s roles — and what happens to women who cannot, or will not conform to expectations. Her body of work, writes Franklin, “is nothing less than a secret history of American women of her era.”
It’s sad, therefore, to acknowledge how contemporary Jackson’s themes feel. We have not come a long way, baby. If anything, women have lost ground in key areas. The persistence of the phrase “working mother” is a prime example of society’s refusal to shake off the notion that a woman’s rightful place is in the home.
Jackson got off to a bad start: she was not the child her mother dreamed of producing. Geraldine wanted a sleek, country club suitable daughter — Daisy Buchanan’s beautiful fool. Instead, in the words of Jackson’s daughter, “she got a lumpish redhead” — and an intellectual, to boot. From birth to death, Geraldine harped on Shirley’s looks and alleged failings, refusing to acknowledge her daughter’s talent and success unless pushed to it.
This unhappy relationship coloured everything. Though Geraldine’s approval was unobtainable, Jackson continually sought it, then repeated the pattern within her marriage. (There’s a book to be written about women who marry their mothers, psychologically speaking.)
Stanley Hyman was a Jew (perfect for upsetting her parents) and reckoned an intellectual giant. He vowed to marry Shirley after reading a story she published in the university magazine, and wrote her beautiful love letters. To his credit, he was one of Shirley’s earliest and most vocal fans — but he was hell to live with. Serially unfaithful, he insisted, “If it makes you queasy you are a fool.” Domestically he was worse than useless, expecting Shirley to handle the cooking, cleaning, and child-rearing while treating him like a king. All while earning the bulk of the family’s income. It goes without saying that Hyman was profoundly self-centred. He bullied and belittled Jackson, and saw nothing contradictory about living off of her earnings.
In a way, this is as much Hyman’s story as it is Jackson’s, and much space is devoted to this aggravating man, in effect, forming a biography within the biography. The pages are warranted; it’s vital to understand Hyman if we’re to understand Jackson. Good literature stands on its own two feet, and hers does, nevertheless we cannot ignore the fact that it was shaped by her relationships, notably with her husband and four children.
Jackson had her revenge on the page, where she unleashed all the emotions and ideas she hadn’t the courage to say aloud. (She wrote many angry letters that were never sent, but which remain in her papers as a searing testament to her distress.) Franklin notes: “All the heroines of her novels are essentially motherless. . . Many of her books include acts of matricide, both unconscious and deliberate.” Jackson would do much the same when portraying men.
Throughout her life Jackson suffered from mental instability, keeping multiple, simultaneous diaries named for her multifarious moods. These emotional swings were exacerbated by a reliance on alcohol and pills — both uppers and downers. She was also a heavy smoker, and overweight, all of which contributed to her early death.
(Still, it’s hard not to be charmed by her description of getting drunk for the first time: “I felt like a package of condensed giggles.”)
Most of her married life was spent in big, ramshackle houses in Vermont, where Stanley taught at Bennington College, once considered the most radical campus in America. Though she could be reclusive, and was certainly not found drinking coffee and gossiping with other campus wives (much less the locals), the Hymans maintained strong friendships, notably with Ralph Ellison, who credits them with helping him write The Invisible Man. Their acceptance of and hospitality for Jews, blacks, and homosexuals further distanced them from the conservative community.
It’s easy, therefore, to read The Lottery (1948) as Jackson’s chance to épater la bourgeoisie. The short story appeared in The New Yorker in May, to immediate acclaim and approbation. The magazine received more letters about it than ever in its history for a work of fiction.
Jackson claimed to have written it in a “white heat” in a matter of hours, and to have submitted it without revision. This is inaccurate. Nevertheless, says Franklin, “Details aside, it’s stunning to think that this story composed in only a few hours — on this all accounts agree — has proved to be one of the most read and discussed works of twentieth-century American fiction.”
Nineteen-forty-eight was also the year the Hymans’ third child (of four) was born. “For many years, Shirley maintained a running joke that she was conducting a contest between the number of children she produced and the number of books she wrote.”
Jackson was, by all accounts, an engaged, imaginative and eccentric mother who nurtured intellectual curiosity and creativity. She was also, her daughters report, prone to Geraldine-esque criticisms. Her volatility was renowned, and the children learned to watch out for, and adapt to, sudden shifts in climate.
The magazine articles Jackson wrote about her children eventually became the hilariously funny, hugely successful collections, Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons. “What is most evident in the stories Shirley told about her children is her deep pleasure in them,” says Franklin — and millions of readers have shared that pleasure since.
These depictions of family life were fictionalised, or as Shirley put it, “autobiographical but not necessarily true.” Thus they do not reveal that the harried housewife at the centre spent vast amounts of time hunched over her desk instead of dusting, and consistently out-earned her husband. But she surrendered the purse strings to his tight grip: he only bought a dishwasher to free up her time, enabling her to return to writing — and earning. If he caught her penning letters or scribbling in her diary, he berated her.
Many had, and still have, trouble accepting that Jackson could write in such different voices — domestic and dangerous — with equal facility. This biography should dispel that dissonance. Even in chapters about Jackson’s childhood, Franklin threads in the way experience and emotion erupted onto the page, always reminding us that we are learning about what makes a writer. And Jackson’s sense of humour resonates throughout. On her good days, she must have been great fun to spend time with.
Anyway, home is where the horror lives. Franklin shows us that the house is a central motif in Jackson’s writing. She once told students, “Prominent in every book I had ever written was a little symbolic set that I think of as a heaven-wall-gate arrangement. I find a wall surrounding some forbidden, lovely secret, and in this wall a gate that cannot be passed.” The trick, she discovered, was to start from the inside and work her way out.
And The Washington Post has noted: “In her novels and New Yorker stories, [Jackson] crafted a sophisticated version of the female Gothic, in which houses became metaphors for women trapped in claustrophobic prisons of maternity and dependency, and prey to hysteria, madness and supernatural invasion.”
But while writing The Haunting of Hill House, and then the bestselling We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Jackson “wrote” herself into her house. Suffering from agoraphobia and colitis, she could not leave home for a full six months, and eventually had to seek a therapist’s help. As she told her diary, “I think all my books laid end to end would be one long documentation of anxiety.”
The last quarter of A Rather Haunted Life grows progressively sadder. Jackson should have been basking in success — her work was thriving, her children were growing up gloriously, she was solvent — but her mental and physical health were in shreds. Secretly planning to escape her marriage, she was also writing a new novel when she had a heart attack in her sleep and died. She was 48.
It feels amazing that this women, who internalised and accepted so much of the criticism directed at her (blaming herself for being “fat and lazy”) should have produced work as good as any coming out of America in the second half of the 20th century — and better than some of what is considered classic. With any luck this beautifully written, thorough, and warm biography will pluck Jackson from the sidelines and restore to her the respect she’s due. Best of all, it does the most important job of any biography — it makes you eager to get back to the subject’s work. Read this, then run out and read Shirley Jackson. You won’t be disappointed.