Ruth Franklin’s biography of Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson has always been one of my favourite writers, although I had only read some of her short stories and her two most famous novels before last year. I now want to read pretty much everything she wrote, even her lighter pieces about being a mother and housewife, and this is in no small part thanks to this magnificent, well-researched and sensitive biography written by Ruth Franklin.

I haven’t quite finished reading this yet, but I’ve been reading it everywhere: during my commute, during my lunch break, in bed and any spare minute, as eagerly as if it were one of my most exciting crime novels. It is fluently written and very accessible despite the innumerable minute details. Yet, at the same time, it is quite sad and ‘haunting.’

Just like I used to imagine parallels between Sylvia Plath and myself when I was a self-dramatising teenager, I now see some similarities between Shirley Jackson and myself as I approach the age at which she died. Needless to say, Shirley outranks me in every category. It’s like a larger than life version of my pallid little life.

Domineering and overly critical mother? Check.

Feeling like an outsider at school because of a family move? Check.

Prone to anxiety and depression? Marrying a clever man because of his brains but then growing to hate him because of  his lack of kindness? Unexpectedly enjoying being a mother but resenting the time it takes away from writing? Enjoying one’s food and putting on weight? Check, check, check.

Now I just wish I could concentrate on my work and write at least a tenth as well as her. That economy of style, every sentence perfectly crafted. That subtle double meaning throughout most of her work. The never-quite-explained ending. Motivations left open to interpretation. The memorable characters. But she wrote and wrote and submitted and got rejected many, many times before she found success. Even when she started selling well, she was probably misinterpreted and misunderstood, as she was rather ahead of her time, as well as of her time (which her biographer demonstrates rather well).

I wrote about rereading Shirley Jackson for Crime Fiction Lover. And I am curious (and rather nervous) about the upcoming film of We Have Always Lived in the Castle. But if you are a fan of her writing, then this biography is a superb read.

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21 thoughts on “Ruth Franklin’s biography of Shirley Jackson”

  1. ooooh. I started reading her lesser known novels last year (did u see my review?) and am head over heels and am planning firmly to read the bio after reading all of them.

  2. I really like Shirley Jackson’s work, too, Marina Sofia. What a fascinating person, wasn’t she? I’m glad you found that this biography did some justice to her work. And I know what you mean; I wish I wrote with even an iota of her talent…

  3. I wanted to read Shirley Jackson’s biography after reading We Have Always Lived in the Castle. A few years back I read the The Haunting of Hill and I love her writing so I’m really pleased to read your review.

    1. Two other writers that I often compare with her and whom I also love (although they each have different styles, but there is that same spare, carefully crafted darkness in their work): Tove Jansson and Jean Rhys.

  4. Oh that feeling of being swept away by a book and wanting to read it everywhere, how wonderful that you’ve found this in this biography and it will motivate you to go on and read more of Jackson. And to write like Jackson, as in never stop and never give up!

  5. I first encountered her writing only a few years ago but have read a few now. I’m not sure if I will read a biography of her but will be interested to see what your final thoughts on the book will be. I think my next jackson book will be The Bird’s Nest.

  6. I have read quite a few of Shirley Jackson’s short stories and two of her novels. I have been meaning to read more for ages. This biography will have to be added to my wish list.

  7. I’d never read her until last year (shame on my) but like you ended up wanting to read more of her work. Not sure about the film version of We Have Always Lived in the Castle – it will be tough to bring out the unreliability of the narrator

    1. I’m not a big biography fan either, especially of writers, as I think it sometimes puts you off their work if you know too much about their life. But this one helps you to understand some of her work better.

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