A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Somewhere in the East Coast of America, in a small town familiar to non-Americans from films such as Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry, the survivors of a highly dysfunctional family pretend that the abnormal is normal. I say survivors because in the years before the novel opens four members of that family – father, mother, aunt and younger brother – died from eating arsenic that had been put in the sugar bowl. Constance, the eldest sister, did not eat the sugar and was tried and acquitted of the murders; Mary Katherine (known as Merricat) survived because she had been sent to her room because of her bad behaviour and so did not eat any of the sugar and Uncle Julian did not eat enough of the sugar to kill him but enough to leave him in a wheelchair and with a mind that wanders. Constance maintains the rhythm of family life in the shadow of this horrible event by cooking and cleaning; Merricat shops for the family and endures the hostility of the townspeople who continue to regard Constance as a murderer and Uncle Julian obsessively writes and rewrites his account of the murders in his memoirs. Surrounded by memories of the dead, their love and care for each other never wavers.
Merricat is an outstanding literary invention. It is through her eyes and memories that we view these three strange individuals, outsiders from the norms of society as embodied in the lives of the townspeople that Merricat hates and that Constance views as beneath them socially – “You will not ask them…We do do not ask from anyone. Remember that” she tells Merricat. How does Merricat’s role influence the novel? She is feral, spending much time running shoeless and bootless in the large grounds in which the house stands with her cat Jonas with whom she seems to communicate effortlessly. She is eighteen years old but appears much younger and if she has had any formal education there is little evidence for it in her speech or behaviour. She is also, whether or not she would ever use the word herself, a witch. A practitioner of sympathetic magic, she hides objects that she deems to have value that goes beyond their physical forms. Some are quite obvious such as the silver dollars buried in a box by the creek but others have a more sinister tone such as her father’s notebook with the names of people from the town who owed him money and which Merricat has nailed to a tree. Her lyrical ramblings point to her as the dark twin of Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird.
As narrated by Merricat, the background to the novel (the deaths, the trial, the reactions from the townspeople) takes on a patchwork quality as memories, opinions, events, emotions become mixed together in her mind. Out of this undoubtedly unreliable narration, to which Uncle Julian liberally contributes, emerge details that do provide an underpinning on which to hang her jumbled and heavily opinionated ideas. The family, it emerges, was always dysfunctional: arguments were common between their parents, often about money; Uncle Julian, married to Aunt Dorothy who died in the mass poisoning, disapproved of his dead brother; Merricat was frequently sent to her room because of her behaviour. All this is presented obliquely as if the novel only reveals what it thinks we need to know according to the whims of the characters. I liked this quality of the novel: an initial disorientation which slowly clears but from which, it would appear, we as readers are never going to entirely escape. It is a sign of the quality of the writer’s craft displayed by Shirley Jackson that she draws us into the novel on its terms, making us forget, until almost too late, that if Constance is indeed innocent of the crime of murder, who put the arsenic in the sugar?
Then Cousin Charles arrives at the house and everything changes. By this I mean both the narrative drive of the novel and the style in which it is written. Cousin Charles is Uncle Julian’s nephew and following the death of his own father he has decided to visit his cousins. However, Charles is a villain. He believes that hidden in the house is money left there by the sisters’ father and he is prepared to go any lengths to get his hands on it. This includes sending Merricat away and marrying Constance. Merricat hates him from the word go. One thing, as often is the case, leads to another and before long the townspeople, like the villagers attacking Frankenstein’s castle, are on the lawn ready to vent their fury at those they regard as monsters. Unfortunately, up to this point in the novel one thing has not led to another and the change from an impressionist style of writing to one in which tension is firmly located in the linear arrival of unexpected events is one I found difficult to accept. Shirley Jackson was a master of describing character through dialogue. I believe Merricat deserves theses written about her. However, I was not convinced at all by Cousin Charles. Constance may be innocent as a result of her seclusion from the world brought on by agoraphobia, but would she fall for a man like him? He does all but twirl the ends of his non-existent moustache.
Would I recommend this novel? Of course I would. It is an incredibly powerful piece of mid-twentieth century writing, reflecting perhaps some of the darker shadows that were creeping into American society in the decade after the Korean War. Despite the optimism that accompanied President Kennedy’s election, it was also a country that was on the cusp of the struggle for civil rights and the world would watch aghast as old demons surfaced from its past.
There are few pleasures greater than reading books that live long in the memory. Up to now I have benefited immensely from reading novels whose characters have spoken to me in a way that has helped me to reflect on themes of identity, ambition or relationships. From reading We Have Always Lived in the Castle I have had the unfamiliar but very welcome experience of reflecting on what it is I as reader want from a book.
Shirley Jackson: We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Penguin Classics, 2009). ISBN 9780141191454. RRP £8.99.