I first read Shirley Jackson a few years ago, and saw this biography advertised shortly after – and immediately wanted to read it. Even before I’d read Jackson’s work I was intrigued by her and her life, and of course a biography is the perfect way to explore that. If you’ve ever read any of her work you’ll know what I mean; when she was alive journalists used to say she was a witch (something she didn’t deny).
Having so far read three of Jackson’s novels (currently reading a fourth) and several short stories, I can confidently say that her fiction is filled with the dichotomy between the norms of everyday life, and the unknown horrors that lurk beneath it. Many of her short stories are about women who are in some way lost, or whose worlds are slowly unravelling. And in her novels, the central female characters share these traits, explored on a deeper level. It has been said before that Jackson’s life and personal experiences influenced much of her work, and Ruth Franklin explores this in A Rather Haunted Life. As she takes us along the story of Jackson’s life, she constantly makes links to her work, both fiction and non-fiction, and demonstrates how much of herself Jackson put in to some of her stories. There is no one character that is completely based on her, but parts of her self and experience are dotted throughout her various characters in one way or another.
Shirley Jackson was born in California, and began her life in a well-to-do suburb. When she was sixteen the family moved to New York state, where Shirley would later attend Syracuse University. This was where she met her husband, the literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, who would become a hugely influential figure in her life and work. Eventually they moved to North Bennington in Vermont, where Hyman taught at the famous Bennington College. Franklin takes us through the early years of Jackson’s life with a perfect blend of detail and overview, and highlights those all-important episodes that would later appear in novels and short stories. Jackson’s tricky relationship with her mother Geraldine is excellently established, and then highlighted very effectively throughout the book. Their relationship was always a source of tension for Jackson, as her mother was very critical and often withholding, but Franklin does not sensationalise this or demonise either one of them – she simply lays out the facts, often with quotations from letters, and shows us the impact and influence of the mother on the daughter, both personally and professionally.
The third chapter, “Intentions Charged with Power” introduces us to Stanley Edgar Hyman, with a bit of background on his childhood and adolescence, up to his meeting Jackson at Syracuse. Normally I would roll my eyes at a big tangent into the life of a man, when I’m reading a biography of a woman, but this chapter is not only necessary for illustrating Hyman’s character, but it is also just really entertaining and interesting. You see that he and Jackson both had ‘big personalities’, and knowing more about him gives you much more insight into their relationship and marriage, for better or worse – which in turn also gives you insight into much of Jackson’s work. They were both deeply flawed but I liked them both very much, and wished I could hear their conversations and see them in their everyday lives.
Franklin depicts them as having an intense and sometimes volatile relationship, with strong emotions on both sides. They obviously loved each other a great deal, and at the same time were capable of hurting each other deeply. Hyman became Jackson’s life long critic, reading her work first and offering searingly honest feedback. He pushed her to write as much as possible, and more than once we hear how he considered time she spent doing other things as a waste, because writing stories in order to earn money and be successful was the most important thing she did – in his opinion.
More than anything I enjoyed being immersed in Jackson’s world as I read A Rather Haunted Life. To me she is utterly fascinating both as a writer and as a woman. I adore her insightful and uncanny depictions of women battling with the ultimate dichotomy in their lives, as she did – the desire to be a good wife and mother, and still achieve things outside of this and be independent. It was a classic dilemma of Jackson’s era in the mid-twentieth century, but I think it is still relevant today, if in a slightly different form – perhaps more as the juxtaposition of our psychological inner life with our day to day existence of work and home, relationships, and everything in between. Shirley Jackson was perpetually torn between looking after her house and four children, and fulfilling her career as a writer (as well as being her own person with her own identity). Both were hindered by episodes of ill health, and her husband’s wonderful combination of not helping around the house but also berating her for not spending more time writing. There was also the fact that Jackson’s mother was never satisfied with her daughter, and seemed disappointed in every achievement that didn’t fit her narrow vision of what a woman should be.
What a woman should be. I think this is a question Jackson grappled with throughout her life and work, and something that I, and I’m sure many other women, still grapple with today. But luckily we have the work of Shirley Jackson to help us, and this wonderful biography to inspire us. I adored this book and its exploration of Jackson’s writing, as well as her personal experiences, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in her work. If anything it shows us that life is rarely easy, but it’s always worth the effort.
Published in 2016 by Liveright, part of W.W. Norton. I read the 2017 paperback (pictured above).