The Lighter Side of Shirley Jackson

After reading about the dreams and disappointments of a Brazilian housewife, I simply had to return to Shirley Jackson’s delectable yet barbed stories of domestic bliss. Raising Demons is a sequel to her first series of snapshots of American middle-class family life, Life Among the Savages. That first book proved so popular that she was begged to do more in that vein – and it is such a contrast to her dark, disturbing fiction, you will hardly believe this is the same writer.

It is mostly a light-hearted affair, with a deceptively simple stream of consciousness style, as if a gossipy friend is telling us about her day. Yet I can feel a tension in these cheery accounts of moving house with four children, family trips to New York City, the joys and woes of Little League baseball and a broked-down refrigerator.

Shirley Jackson and her children (and dog) round about the time the book was published.

On the surface, this is the dream that women in the 1950s and 60s were supposed to aspire to… but it must have been difficult for gifted women to achieve those almost impossible standards of married bliss and domesticity (straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting) and still have the energy left to create art or literature or music. Yet many of them craved both – but had been taught to expect only minimal help from their husbands! We hear about these almost schizophrenic impulses nearly tearing creatives apart, from Sylvia Plath to Anne Sexton, Lee Miller to Frida Kahlo.

So there is an undercurrent of anxiety in Jackson’s stories. She alludes to financial worries and her husband’s complaints that they are all going to go bankrupt because of her extravagant shopping. You would never guess that her earnings from writing at the time were far outstripping her husband’s college salary. However, you might guess that he was controlling and tight-fisted when she jokes about the underhand ways in which she has to convince her husband to give her money for food ‘by a series of agile arguments and a tearful description of his children lying at his feet faint from malnutrition.’ Meanwhile, his coin collection grows and grows.

There are other hints of fissures within their marriage, with several sarcastic comments about the pressures of being a male lecturer at a girl’s college, or when he tactlessly announces the visit of an old girlfriend:

I said it was positively touching, the way he kept up with his old friends, and did Sylvia always use pale lavender paper with this kind of rosy ink and what was that I smelled – perfume? My husband said Sylvia was a grand girl. I said I was sure of it. My husband said Sylvia had always been one of the nicest people he knew. I said I hadn’t a doubt. My husband said that he was positive that I was going to love Sylvia on sight. I opened my mouth to speak but stopped myself in time.

My husband laughed self-consciously. ‘I remember,’ he said, and then his voice trailed off and he laughed again.

‘Yes?’ I asked politely.

‘Nothing,’ he said.

There is an even more pointed reference to her husband Stanley Hyman’s infidelities in the story of how he got invited to judge a Miss Vermont beauty contest.

‘Daddy is going to see a lot of girls,’ Sally told Barry. She turned to me. ‘Daddy likes to look at girls, doesn’t he?’

There was a deep, enduring silence, until at last my husband’s eye fell on Jannie.

‘And what did you learn in school today?’ he asked with wild enthusiasm.

This is the Shirley Jackson we know and love, always ready to plunge the knife in stealthily, when you least expect it.

I have no doubts some of the incidents have been exaggerated for comic effect, but many of her exploits and rants will sound very familiar to weary mothers everywhere.

Finally, after a good deal of worry I went out and bought a couple of epicure magazines, and leafed through them all morning looking for something exciting I could serve for dinner, and I found a recipe for a casserole dish based on stuffed cabbage with ground round steak and cashew nuts which I thought I could try… I decided to leave out the onion in the recipe because Sally would not eat anything so highly flavoured… I could not mix the ground round steak with rice because Laurie loathes rice. My husband could not bear tomatoes in any form, Jannie would not touch cabbage, and no one in the family except me cared for sour cream. When I had finished eliminating from the casserole what I had was a hamburger studded with cashew nuts, which was undeniably a novelty, although I am afraid that on the whole my casserole was not a success. Everyone carefully removed the cashew nuts and set them aside, and Laurie asked irritably if we always had to have hamburger for dinner.

These rants seem to be written in an effortless blurting out style, without any technique. But of course that is not the case. Shirley Jackson was a master stylist, carefully deliberating every word, and even if these stories were churned out much faster than her darker stories or novels, they are still full of rhythm and little darts landing in precisely the right spot.

Jackson certainly does not romanticise motherhood, and clearly longs for some time away from her brood. She is an inept housekeeper and pokes fun at herself for that. Behind the fatigue and exasperation, however, we detect a sense of wistfulness, a fear that they are growing up too quickly, and an ear well-tuned to her children’s vocabulary, fears and wishes.

The barbs are fully in place when she describes the ‘joys’ of being a faculty wife. So much so that the college president told her husband off for allowing the publication of the book.

A faculty wife is a person who is married to a faculty. She has frequently read at least one good book lately, she has one ‘nice’ balck dress to wear to student parties, and she is always just the teensiest bit in the way… She is presumed to have pressing and wholly absorbing interests at home… It is considered probable that ten years or so ago she had a face and a personality of her own, but if she has it still, she is expected to keep it decently to herself.

I was not bitter about being a faculty wife, very much, although it did occur to me once or twice that young men who were apt to go on and become college teachers someday ought to be required to show some clearly distinguishable characteristic, or perhaps even wear some large kind of identifying badge, for the protection of innocent young girls who might in that case go ont o be the contented wives of furniture repairmen or disc jockeys or even car salesmen…

I put in four good years at college, and managed to pass almost everything, and got my degree and all, and I think it was a little bit unkind of fate to send me back to college the hard way, but of course there were things I might have done – or, put it, people I might have married – which would have landed me in worse positions. Bluebeard, anyway.

We know that Jackson suffered from depression and agoraphobia later in life, that she and her children felt occasionally ostracised by the small-town community. In these stories, however, she shows us her funny side, the imaginative and quick-witted mother that her children would remember with delight.

18 thoughts on “The Lighter Side of Shirley Jackson”

  1. Oddly enough, I was looking at Life Among the Savages just the other day with the intention of earmarking it as a possible read for the future. Does Raising Demons work as a standalone or would I really need to read Savages first? Any thoughts on that would be gratefully received!

    1. Yes, they are quite separate books/stories although of course the children are smaller in Life Among the Savages. I think the first one has less sharpness and satire, it’s more light-hearted – perhaps reflecting Jackson’s growing disenchantment with her marriage and faculty wife life!

  2. Great review, and these quotes are making me want to re-read this immediately! I agree, the books are SO funny, but you can see hints of darkness through the humour. I think it’s interesting that her domestic memoirs and her gothic books share the feeling of being trapped in the house…

    1. Trapped, yet also finding comfort in the house. From her biography, it becomes apparent how fond she was of houses and turning them into homes. And of course, she suffered intermittently from agoraphobia, especially in the last few years.

  3. I must read this one, Marina Sofia. I’ve always liked Jackson’s writing, and I can see how she’d be quite good at adding in that layer of tension, even though these are not, of course, her darkest stories. It’s interesting how often wit and darkness can be woven together in a very effective blend…

    1. I’m so glad to see she is having a bit of a revival now – she was way ahead of her time, I think, even with these ‘American as apple pie’ fake wholesomeness type of stories!

  4. Both books sound fascinating, Marina, and might be a way for me to get past my fear of Jackson! That particular time period put so much pressure on women, struggling to juggle the various realities and possibilities. I’ll keep an eye out for the books.

  5. I read a lot of Shirley Jackson short stories and essays in a large collection called Let me Tell You a few years ago. There were quite a few darkly domestic pieces which I thought were brilliant. Both these books sound excellent.

  6. I’ve never read her because I only knew about her gothic fiction and that’s definitely not for me.
    This sounds to suit me a lot better. She’s funny but elle rit jaune.
    Her description of the faculty wife reminds me of Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner.

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