We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (thoughts upon rereading)
Squeaking in under the wire, I’m doing a Saturday review-ish post to join in the fun of the Shirley Jackson Reading Week, which ends today.
I first read We Have Always Lived in the Castle during a lazy Sunday morning in 2008, because another book blogger told me to. It’s a slim book, hovering between a long novella or short novel, so it only took me a few hours, but what magical hours they were! Merricat quickly became one of my favourite narrators, and seven years and two or three rereads later, she easily remains on that list. She prefers books of fairy tales or history, she’s half feral, and she uses much of her will and intelligence to try to control her world with sympathetic magic or comfort herself with imaginary scenarios to distract herself from her essential powerlessness. In other words, she’s creepy as hell, in a way likely to make many a homebody bookworm squirm a bit, and seeing the story unfold through her eyes is what makes it such a gothic masterpiece. Here is how the book opens, which ought to convince you to read this in case you haven’t already:
My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.
The last time I glanced at the library books on the kitchen shelf they were more than five months overdue, and I wondered whether I would have chosen differently if I had known that these were the last books, the ones which would stand forever on our kitchen shelf.
The entire book is written in that same sure voice, and reading it again, I was left in awe of Shirley Jackson’s power. Everything about We Have Always Lived in the Castle is perfect, and if you’ve yet to encounter it, you are in for a treat. You should also stop reading now, so that you can uncover the story at Jackson (and Merricat)’s pace. I’m about to discuss a couple of themes in the book, and while I won’t give away everything, I personally think the less you know before your first read, the better. Oh, and I should say now that I read it as an audiobook this time and was very impressed with Bernadette Dunne as the narrator, so I would recommend that format as well as the print version.
It’s funny how different the same book can appear upon multiple visits! When I first read it, I was young, and brash, and while I loved it, I mainly read it in terms of the characters, and their individual strengths and failings and quirks. This time, I noticed much more of the systemic themes explored in the book, especially the performance of female-ness, and being a young woman in a patriarchal society. Constance, the older sister, takes care of their ill older uncle and cleans and gardens and cooks, she is sweet and accommodating and never loses her temper, satisfying every whim of Uncle Julian’s and Merricat’s regardless of the work it will make for her. She always seems to agree with whatever they’re saying too, or pretend in an interest in their obsessions, rather than put up a fuss. We’re told early on that she’s beautiful, the gold & pink & cream type of beauty beloved of fairy princesses. Even her book preferences run towards cookbooks; she finds deep fulfillment in the cycle of growing, cooking, and preserving food, which she tucks into her day around the multitude of little tasks required to keep a large house and two dependent adults all living well. The kitchen and the garden are the seat of her power (sidenote: I love that Jackson allows for the pleasure of traditionally feminine skills, instead of dismissing them, and would highly recommend Jo Walton’s Lifelode for a similar view), and she’s happiest when they’re orderly and sparkling in the sun; in fact, she never leaves them. Merricat runs whatever errands are needed outside of the house. When a cousin appears, a thirty-two-year-old man used to getting his own way and never compromising for the pleasure of others, Constance incorporates his new demands and obsessions into her routine without a problem. She’s used to adjusting herself to the desires of others. She’s also excellent at finding the little pleasures in a difficult life, and I love her for that.
Merricat, however, is at 18 fulfilling none of society’s expectations for young women. She pays no attention to her appearance, or acquiring any skill in the ‘domestic arts,’ or the opposite sex. In fact, she barely seems to acknowledge any other people really exist in the world, except for her or Constance, unless she’s either tormenting them or, in the case of the villagers, hiding from them. She spends much of her time outdoors, crawling into burrows or digging in the ground or hiding in fields. While she likes her house, her power is found on the grounds of the estate, especially the wilder places like the woods and meadows. While she does try to disappear while she’s in the village, on her home turf she is constantly trying to change things to suit her best, through magic or demands or whatever seems best suited to the occasion. Even her approach to the villagers, pretending they’re not there, and hiding from them whenever possible, is an act of will, a refusal to accommodate them and allow them to torment or even gaze upon her. She loathes the cousin who comes to visit, as he tries to change all of their lives to suit his own preferences, and force her to become a typical young woman. As his interference escalates, she fights back, trying to drive him out of the house by (almost) all of the means at her disposal. The world she lives in, a world with magic possibilities and pitfalls, owes everything to her imagination, not society’s strictures. Even on the occasions when she must adjust a bit to others, in order to get food at the grocery store or books from the library, she curses them inwardly. Her voice sounds younger than her eighteen years, more child-like, precisely because of this adherence to her own version of reality, as well as an utter lack of sexuality. She seems far more child or crone than maiden or mother, like a dark female-version of Peter Pan. Because of course, when girls hit puberty (and the rest of her family died when Merricat was twelve), they are expected to begin shouldering the male gaze and take on all of the other burdens patriarchy demands of women. What might happen if they didn’t? Merricat is many of the fears of uncontrollable women come to life.
Of course, we only ever see Constance through Merricat’s eyes, which are notoriously unreliable and certainly influenced by a diet of fairy tales full of mirror-image sisters. But in the story we have, the two sisters are like two sides of the same coin of woman-ness, the angel of the house and the unrepentent witch. The irony is that, due to the suspicion of Constance as poisoner, her very domesticity is also viewed as suspect and something to be feared, as displayed by the disgust and hate the villagers show to both of the sisters. Neither is acceptable to the traditional patriarchal order, and so both become bogeymen. Their wealth and upper class status and white skin preserve them from physical violence by the villagers, and allow them to live in a little world of their own. But they pay dearly for that isolation, especially Constance.
Well, that is just one of the themes that really struck me this go round, but I’m already over twelve hundred words, so I’ll close this post for now. I’d love to continue the discussion in the comments, especially with those of you who have already read the book, so the spoiler-averse readers might want to avoid the comment section this time! Or be careful at least. I’ve decided I haven’t quite had my fill of Jackson yet, so I checked out the ebook of The Lottery and Other Stories and will be diving into those soon. She’s also made me crave Margo Lanagan, another writer who masterfully blends genre fiction with a deep questioning of societal mores, and Elizabeth Nunez, who uses the gothic genre for the same ends. Just in case you’re looking for some companion reads! ;) There’s always Jo Walton’s Lifelode too, as I already mentioned, in which a Constance-like woman has found herself in a considerably happier situation. I can’t think of too many Merricat-like characters I’ve encountered in other books, more’s the pity.