Growing up with a Gem: The Domestic Novels of Shirley Jackson

Readers love a seldom-read story or an under-praised author.  To appreciate a less-known work or author is the a mark of a book connoisseur and readers delight in being seen as connoisseurs.    Without knowing it, my sister and I trained to be gourmet readers when we grew reading  the work of an under-appreciated writer.  You may  or may not have heard of Shirley Jackson but do you know about  her books Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons?

When Ms. Jackson’s work is recalled (which isn’t often enough) she is remembered for disturbing tales such as The Haunting of Hill House, We Have Always Lived at the Castle and the short story, “The Lottery”.   These are artful, unsettling, well-constructed narratives that leave the reader with the impression they would not want to meet Ms. Jackson in a dark alley.  The titles Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons may sound like more “tales of terror” but these are something different.  These stories would be called domestic humor.

Now domestic humor has never enjoyed a great reputation.  The same critics that sneered over the pulp paper tales of crime and science fiction in the 1940’s ignored the later stories about raising kids in the suburbs, largely because of it’s female target audience.. And though the detectives and space explorers have finally achieved a certain level of respect from the cognoscenti, domestic humor is still literature’s the unwelcome step-child.  So, like Rodney Dangerfield, this work “gets no respect.” But the snob who derides these books because of their catagory is a fool.

Yes, these are family stories, but they are told without sentiment or saccharine.  If anything, Ms. Jackson’s humor is tart, like a dry summer wine. The children are depicted as fully developed characters with individual voices and opinions.  Also, there’s a faint air of disturbance in these tales.  Blankets disappear at will, imaginary playmates send very real presents and a toddler changes names without notice (I sympathize with the child, now a man, who was Barry, B, Mr. B., Mr. Beekman and finally, Beekman to his family and all the world all before he entered first grade.)  There’s an air of logical lunacy in these stories that is familiar to anyone with children, bureaucracies  or a sense of the absurd.  And the prose is as clean as a whistle.

Like I said, my sister and I were raised on these stories.  At first, our Mom read them aloud, then we read them to ourselves at lunch or to each other for pleasure.  When I left for college, I tried to pack Mom’s collection of Shirley Jackson.  My sis tried the same thing years later but each time Mom stole them back out of our luggage.  That says something, considering Mom would lend us shoes, hose or money.  Her Shirley Jackson’s books were off limits. We had to find our own copies.  We did.  I hope, so will you.

There’s Always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm

So intones Judith Starkadder, at the beginning of Stella Gibbon’s comic masterpiece Cold Comfort Farm.  To Judith Starkadder this statement is a curse and a warning but it’s more of an opening salvo in the war of English novel types.   On one side are the moor, mud and fen school of Novels where the clouds are always lowering, the males are always glowering and life is eternally soiled.  Opposing this school of brooding romantics is the pragmatic, organized and cheerful Flora Poste, a Jane Austen heroine in 1920’s regalia.  Can an intelligent girl with a will of her own “tidy up” the morbid and moribund Starkadders?  Can she overcome their devotion to sukebind and jumping into the well?  And can she break Aunt Ada Doom’s preoccupation about seeing “Something narsty in the woodshed”?

Since this book satirizes many novels that aren’t widely read these days, I worried some readers might not get the joke. However my spouse (who mixes up D. H.Lawrence with T. E. Lawrence) got it immediately so read away.  It’s a hilarious satire of English literature but never mind that.  You’ll love the gloomy Starkadders who live in Cold Comfort Farm and the ridiculous, pedantic Mr. Mybug (his real name is Meyerburg but in rural accents that comes out “Mybug”) who wants to write a book proving the Bronte books weren’t written by three sisters but one brother.  Then you’ll cheer for the breezy heroine who threatens to clean up everything and turn the Starkadders into a semi-functional, if not completely respectable family.  It’s amazing what a determined woman can do.

If you haven’t read, this try it and look for the reasonably faithful film adaptation made in 1995.  And remember, avoid the combination of sukebind and summer evenings if you live in a place called Howling.  You’ll be tempting Nature to make things untidy!

The Book that gave us “The World…”

If you ever run across a group of serious readers,  those people who see books as magic carpets and TARDIS boxes that guide us to understanding, you will always find they accord certain books special significance.   “This book,” they’ll say, “was my world at one time.  This is the book I picked up, read and re-read for weeks.  This book dominated my imagination. It changed the way I looked at life, at least for awhile.  I’m a different person now for reading it then and reading some of it now takes back to when it was new.”  For me, one of those books is The World According to Garp by John Irving.

Garp’s first wave of popularity had already crested when I first picked it up.  It was one of the first “adult” novels I read as an adult.  As a precocious reader I had consumed many adult volumes before then (YA lit was a thing of the future) but I approached those stories from the perspective of a child with parents and authority figures to tried to regulate my reading.  I doubt if any of them would have recommended The World According to Garp .  Luckily, I didn’t have to sneak-read John Irving’s novel once I picked it up but by the came account, I couldn’t skip over the explicit and violent aspects of T. S. Garp’s life just because they were explicit and violent.  There was something about the narrative (like its hero) that demanded acceptance on its own terms. Oh, there’s plenty to laugh about in Garp (Doesn’t the adult life hold laughter?) but it is laughter in the face of experience, not the innocent silliness every age can enjoy.  Actually, one of the themes in The World According to Garp suggests is that laughter is a miracle that occasionally occurs in the face of life’s experiences.  One of the miracles that make us keep living.

Another great lesson in Garp is acceptance.  Garp has to accept his mother’s choices in life, the vagaries of fate, responsibility for his own mistakes, when they come, and the outcome of others’ mistakes as well.  It’s a hard lesson and one I need to relearn from time to time: mistakes are always going to be made.  What we do with that knowledge and how we react to it measures how much joy we allow to stay in our lives.

Garp’s other certainty is death and the last line says “In the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases.”  Yes, but before there is death, there is life, lots of it, if we’re lucky.  Life, with all of its potential for laughter, sorrows, lunacy, serendipity, ambiguity, tragedy and ennui, perhaps  even transcendence and art.   It’s a heck of a ride, suggests John Irving.  Worth the price, according to Garp.

You Know You Make Me Want to….Shout!

For a now-decreasing segment of the population, the Beatles are a cultural reference point we share.  We grew up learning to twist to “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” or teaching ourselves to play instruments by mastering the licks and leads on their records.   Our parents hated their innovation (My mom snapped off the car radio in the middle of “Hey Jude” when I was 9 moaning, “What will they be playing when you’re in high school?”) but couldn’t deny the brilliance of the words and music.   We didn’t care what they thought and we didn’t understand the source of the brilliance; we just accepted the Beatles when the band existed and missed them after the group broke up.

Almost eleven years after the breakup came Shout, the first book that put the band and the phenomenon they created into a kind of historical/sociological context.  The book would have sold well if it had been published six months earlier: it’s an interesting, well-crafted book and there was a ready audience of hard-core Beatle fans.  Instead it came out in the aftermath of John Lennon’s murder, when much of the world seemed to be grieving and it sold like hot-cakes.  Shout didn’t assuage the emotional pain but it gave the world more information about the group we had loved (and now irrevocably lost) and put that information into historical context.

In a way, Shout became almost a code-breaker for mid-level fans of the Beatles.  (I mean those who loved and played their records but not so obsessed they hunted down the musicians and their family members.)   The references to Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields became clear.  What also became clear were the incredible runs of good and bad luck the band members faced during their chaotic ride into pop-music history.   On the plus side they lucked into a manager who cared about them and a record producer with the skills and imagination to create a lab space for genius.  They also met death and grief long before they knew success and at least some of their initial popularity probably came from two nations needing emotional relief from political scandal and assassination.

Shout‘s best work comes in showing how the world changed with the Beatles if not because of them and how those changes were reflected back in their music.  From the conservative post-war years when adolescence was viewed as phase of being “junior adults” to the late 1960’s when it almost seemed to be the tail wagging the dog of the Western Hemisphere, the Beatles were there, either experiencing it first-hand or writing about it in their music.  Like the rest of us, they were creatures of their upbringing and like most people (I think) they spent their time trying to cope with whatever life brought them.  It’s just that a combination of their talent and circumstances meant they had to cope with problems many of us manage to avoid and they had to do this in the world’s spotlight.

Sometime, long after I have gone, that spotlight will finally dim on the band from Liverpool and Philip Norman’s book will become just another collection of words filed away on some digital shelf.  But until then, people who want to know about the Sixties will take Aaron Copland’s advice and listen to the Beatles.   And people who want to know about the Beatles and the impact they made will read Philip Norman’s Shout.  And that’s all right with me.

The Book that Stays: Jane Eyre

Many people read the Bible throughout their lives.  It teaches and comforts them and never becomes tiring.  I like that kind of relationship with a story, where the characters are so developed and the narrative so strong that the book reveals different strengths as you re-read it at different points in your life.   I suppose the book I’ve had the longest relationship with is Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.

I first tried reading Jane when I was in junior high, too young to understand most of it.  The part I did understand was the child Jane of the first nine chapters.  Here was a fearsome little girl, capable of attacking a bully or standing up to adults when necessary.  Since I didn’t have the nerve to do either, I loved the little hellion and cheered her on.  I didn’t really understand her friendship with the gentle Helen Burns (like Jane, I have too much original sin to identify with the saint-like Helen) but I was sad to see her go, with an exit that still gives me a chill.  Imagine waking up next to a corpse!

Teens and twenties are high times for romance and that’s when I dwelt in the middle section of Jane Eyre.   Mr. Rochester is one of the mysterious, fascinating bad-boys of gothic literature that shy governess types are drawn to (He may be the prototype for that character) and for awhile I imagined every guy I was attracted to was a Mr. Rochester.  Most of them had nothing in common with Mr. R., especially his lethal secret.  But if you are a guy and you want to know why so many girls are fascinated by bad boys, take a look at Jane Eyre.   The reason shows up in Chapter 12 riding a big black horse.

Like all works of this type, the boy isn’t as much bad as misunderstood and the course of true love eventually runs smooth but the mechanism that gets them there is the spiritual side of Jane Eyre, a part I didn’t begin to understand until my 40’s.   I had read the book many times by that point  (“Yeah, here’s the prayer and pleas to Heaven…I’ll just flip past these exhortations”) but Jane’s reliance on her faith wasn’t something I could identify with until I’d developed some of my own.  Jane learns to set boundaries to protect herself, even with those she loves, and she has to accept she can’t control any actions except her own.  The fact that she does that and refuses to pity herself or act like her life is over when she’s alone makes her a hero of mine.  That’s the kind of character I want to emulate.

Jane Eyre’s story ends when she’s around thirty years old and her creator died at 38, two ages I passed a long time ago.  Still this novel comforts me and the heroine helps me every time I re-read it.  Home seeking and home loving Jane appeals to my domestic side.  Self-sustaining, courageous and independent Jane reminds me of the women’s movement.  Accepting, spiritual Jane points the way to redemption.  Either way, the lady is far ahead of me and I always enjoy hearing her story.  Jane Eyre isn’t the Bible but it’s a book worth reading.  It’s a book that stays.