Shirley Jackson & Biography

I don’t often read biographies. I only have 12 books on my Goodreads shelf labelled “biography” that I’ve actually read, and a couple of those might be stretching the definition a bit (e.g., Kate Bolick’s Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, which includes biographical sketches as part of a more autobiographical project). Looking over the short list of biographies I’ve actually completed, it appears I’m primarily drawn to biographies of women, including the following: Rachel Carson, Judith Merril, George Eliot, James Tiptree, Jr. (aka Alice Sheldon), Rosa Luxemburg, Octavia E. Butler, and Shirley Jackson. The list also includes Rachel Ignotofsky’s Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World, which is a collection of short, illustrated biographical sketches of female scientists throughout history. There are only three books on the list that are about men (and here I want to mention Philippe Girard’s Toussaint Louverture: A Revolutionary Life, which I listened to on a long car ride and would highly recommend).

I’m not sure what it is that has me reading mostly biographies of women. It’s not a conscious choice to focus on women. Some of this focus certainly grows out of my scholarly interests; my dissertation was about feminist science fiction and feminist science, after all. Rachel Carson, Judith Merril, James Tiptree, Jr., and Octavia E. Butler are all relevant to that work. But my dissertation didn’t focus on any of these women and didn’t require biographical research anyway.

Certainly there’s also an element of admiration in my choices. All of these are biographies of women whose work I value: Rachel Carson’s scientific work as well as her writing about science; James Tiptree, Jr.’s brilliant and disturbing fiction, much of it reflecting on gender and sex; Judith Merril’s writing and editorial work and the way she helped shape science fiction as a genre; Octavia Butler’s revelations of power in her fiction (I especially love Dawn); Rosa Luxemburg’s fight for freedom and justice. And so on.

Another unfortunate pattern, however, seems to be that the biographies I have enjoyed most (is enjoyed the right word? perhaps not) are those of women who have led somewhat painful, constrained lives: Rachel Carson, James Tiptree, Jr., Octavia Butler, Shirley Jackson.

This pattern seems especially to be highlighted by Ruth Franklin’s recent biography of Shirley Jackson (Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, 2016), which I just finished reading. Franklin emphasizes Jackson’s always strained relationship with her mother, her feeling of never fitting in anyplace, the hurtful ways her husband (scholar Stanley Hyman) treated her, frequently lukewarm responses to her fiction with a couple of significant exceptions, the tension she felt between her life as wife and mother and her life as writer, her late-in-life agoraphobia and serious anxiety, and her early death. Despite some real success as a writer and what seem like largely positive relationships with her children, Jackson’s life is marked by pain, anxiety, and a sense of her lack of freedom.

Reading her fiction with this in mind is illuminating. For instance, her work frequently circles around the supernatural. She typically stops short of relying on the supernatural as an explanation, but it is always a possibility, and it was something she studied for years.

Witchcraft, whether she practiced it or simply studied it, was important to Jackson for what it symbolized: female strength and potency. The witchcraft chronicles she treasured–written by male historians, often men of the church, who sought to demonstrate that witches presented a serious threat to Christian morality–are stories of powerful women: women who defy social norms, women who get what they desire, women who can channel the power of the devil himself. (261)

Shirley Jackson didn’t identify herself as a feminist, but she certainly fits into a feminist tradition. And Franklin points out how her observations about her own life, as well as her fiction, presage Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Like many women of the time, Jackson felt she had little to no control over her own life, little to no say in what was possible. Witchcraft, even as a thought experiment, allowed a window out of that world of control.

Later, Franklin’s discussion of The Haunting of Hill House includes a significant, telling detail about Jackson’s sense of the book and, potentially, about her sense of herself. At one point, Franklin observes that, in her notes, Jackson referred to a particular line as the “key line” of the novel. This line comes after Eleanor has been clutching Theodora’s hand in fear as she hears a child crying for help in the next room. When the lights go on, however, Theodora is not in bed with her but in the bed across the room: “Good God,” Eleanor says, “whose hand was I holding?” This line always gives me chills but I hadn’t considered it as central to the book in the way Jackson apparently did.

Franklin’s interpretation builds upon Jackson’s biography:

The people we hold by the hand are our intimates–parents, children, spouses. To discover oneself clinging to an unidentifiable hand and to ask “Whose hand was I holding?” is to recognize that we can never truly know those with whom we believe ourselves most familiar. One can sleep beside another person for twenty years, as Shirley had with Stanley [Hyman] by this point, and still feel that person to be at times a stranger–and not the “beautiful stranger” of her early story. The hand on the other side of the bed may well seem to belong to a demon. (414)

This is an intriguing reading that I will have to consider when I re-read the novel. Whether I find it convincing as a reading of this line or not, however, it is a compelling take on Shirley’s mindset and the feelings about her marriage she struggled with for many years.

Franklin’s biography – as in these two examples – provides potentially useful ways of reading Shirley Jackson’s work through her biography. The next instance raises questions about the limits of such readings, however.

Late in her life, when she became (temporarily) unable to leave her house, she found herself also unable to write. Franklin writes, tying Jackson’s anxiety to her relationship with Stanley, “It was an issue of control, she thought. How could she wrest control of her life, her mind, back from Stanley? And if she could, would her writing change?” (477). Jackson wrote in her diary at this time, “insecure, uncontrolled, i wrote of neuroses and fear and i think all my books laid end to end would be one long documentation of anxiety.” Her books do all seem to wrestle with anxiety and fear, and this is the source of much of their power. Would she write such books if she were a happier woman? If the world made room for her to be who she needed to be? Likely not. But what other books might she have written instead? Her books gather force from her anxiety and fear, but to leave it there is to discount her talent and skill as a writer. I suspect that a less unhappy version of Shirley Jackson could still have been a brilliant writer, but she might have spoken to different concerns. Or perhaps she would still have reflected these fears, for they are not unique to her or to her situation as a woman in an unhappy marriage in the mid-20th century.

Some of Jackson’s commentary on her own writing from earlier in her life indicates the broader reach of her ideas:

In a publicity memo written for Farrar, Straus around the time The Road Through the Wall appeared–only a month before “The Lottery” was written, if the March date on the draft is accurate–Jackson mentioned her enduring fondness for eighteenth-century English novels because of their “preservation of and insistence on a pattern superimposed precariously on the chaos of human development.” She continued: “I think it is the combination of these two that forms the background of everything I write–the sense which I feel, of a human and not very rational order struggling inadequately to keep in check forces of great destruction, which may be the devil and may be intellectual enlightenment.” In all her writing, the recurrent theme was “an insistence on the uncontrolled, unobserved wickedness of human behavior.” (224)

I take this as a reminder that although her personal demons may have shaped her writing, these feelings and themes are not unique to her or to people with similar problems. In fact, this quote seems to sum up horror fiction in a nutshell: rationality attempts (and fails) to control that which is beyond rational, humanity attempts (and fails) to control itself or its “wickedness.”

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