It was a ﬁne April morning when I came out of the library; the sun was shining and the false glorious promises of spring were everywhere, showing oddly through the village grime. I remember that I stood on the library steps holding my books and looking for a minute at the soft hinted green in the branches against the sky and wishing, as I always did, that I could walk home across the sky instead of through the village. From the library steps I could cross the street directly and walk on the other side along to the grocery, but that meant that I must pass the general store and the men sitting in front. In this village the men stayed young and did the gossiping and the women aged with grey evil weariness and stood silently waiting for the men to get up and come home.
By a comfortable margin, Shirley Jackson's (1916-65) beguiling short novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962) was the best thing I read last year. It was also the thing that I most enjoyed the process of reading: while, viewed objectively, the tale it's telling is far from a cheery one, I found myself curiously uplifted by how well-crafted and absorbing Jackson's writing is. Every page had an observation or a turn of phrase that made me grin with delight: moments of character insight and/or plot hints, delivered so precisely and succinctly and yet with such a light, entertaining touch. I was captivated from the opening lines:
My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.
Mary Katherine - or Merricat, as Constance calls her - is the very definition of an unreliable narrator, and this opening paragraph gives a strong flavour of how she is unreliable, if not yet why. She is eighteen, she tells us, and yet her tone and her preoccupations - listing "washing myself" among her dislikes, for example, or the repeated use of that overly precise, almost talismanic "my sister Constance" - sound like those of a much younger girl. Her werewolf comments suggest some fuzziness over the dividing line between fantasy and reality: this is something she has "often" thought. And then we have that oh-so-casual little juxtaposition at the end: the deadly mushroom whose Latin name she lists in the same breath as her sister and a long-dead king, as if it too were a person, and the bald statement that the rest of the family is dead. (Could these two facts, mayhap, be related? Yes, yes they could.)
The question I was left with - the mystery that drove me through the book, battling against my impulse to not gobble down the delicious prose too quickly, lest it be over too soon - was not so much who was responsible for the fatal conjunction of family and mushroom that happened (as we soon learn) six years before, but rather: how self-aware is Merricat? Is her narration knowingly arch, or eccentrically naive? Put another way, are the final lines of that first paragraph intended to read as gleeful and ghoulish, or as unwitting dramatic irony expressed by an away-with-the-fairies innocent?
Merricat is great character, a twitchy mass of obsessive-compulsive foibles and evasions. Her life is an endlessly renewing round of ritual: of certain tasks repeated on certain days, of routes and routines that must never be deviated from, of fetish objects variously buried or displayed at key locations. There is an air of sympathetic magic to it all, particular the last: a book nailed to a tree, for example, functions in her mind as a kind of lookout, watching the boundaries of the family property and warning her of danger; looking back, she tells us that the central crisis of the novel - an unannounced and unwelcome visit by a long-lost cousin - is presaged by the book falling from its station. She has a connection with the land of the family estate that runs to a sort of anthropomorphism in the figurative language she us to describe it; burying things in its soil is a way of expressing that feeling, although she has an elaborate set of rules for what can be buried where, with some areas deemed unsuitable:
I had never buried anything around here. The ground was black and wet and nothing buried would have been quite comfortable. The trees pressed too closely against the sides of the summerhouse, and breathed heavily on its roof.
In the case of the summerhouse, the unsuitability seems to stem from the fact that, shortly after it was built, Merricat and Constance's mother claimed to have glimpsed a rat in the doorway - not inside, or outside, but specifically in the doorway, as if it were barring the entrance - and she refused to venture in it thereafter.
This is not the only area in which shadow of their late mother lies heavy over the sisters. We're told that "every inch" of the boundary between the Blackwood family estate and the road into the village is surrounded by a "wire fence built by our father", cutting it off from the village and the villagers who once used the estate as a shortcut, because their mother insisted on privacy. Merricat says that "the people of the village have always hated us" as a result, but occasional asides in Merricat's virulently bitter commentary suggest that the family had long been in the habit of isolating and othering itself. Their father, we're told, "always said [the villagers] were trash", and their mother seems to have been the driving force behind the building of the extravagantly large family home - the 'castle' of the title. They even lorded it over other branches of their own family; Uncle Julian recalls that he and his wife - who lived with him in the Blackwood household and died on the same day as the sisters' parents - were never quite allowed to forget their dependence:
"I think if I had known it was her last breakfast I would have permitted her more sausage. I am surprised, now I think of it, that no one suspected it was their last morning; they might not have grudged my wife more sausage then. My brother sometimes remarked upon what we ate, my wife and I; he was a just man, and never stinted his food, so long as we did not take too much. He watched my wife take sausage that morning, Constance. I saw him watching her."
On a day-to-day level, too, their mother's routines still govern their lives in all sorts of small ways: which china they use to serve tea, for example, or what ornaments are displayed and even what is moved during cleaning:
We rarely moved things; the Blackwoods were never much of a family for restlessness and stirring. We dealt with the small surface transient objects, the books and the ﬂowers and the spoons, but underneath we had always a solid foundation of stable possessions. We always put things back where they belonged.
This concern with where things belong pervades Merricat's telling of the world - hence, I think, the insistence of the title: we have always lived in the castle (and we always will). Stability - or, more fundamentally, stasis - is the ultimate aim of all her rituals, and the governing dynamic of her relationship with her sister.
Constance is an outcast: arrested for the murders of the family, but never convicted and eventually set free, she has nonetheless been tried and found guilty in the court of public opinion. Just as in Jackson's famous short story, 'The Lottery', the village community is not a place of security and sympathy and sharing, but one of judgement and hypocrisy and mob thinking that can boil over into violence with surprising ease. Even six years later, Constance is afraid to leave the estate, and people stare and mutter or snigger wherever Merricat goes; children are yanked away from her by their parents, and chant a nursery rhyme about the dangers of drinking tea at the Blackwood household (the poison that killed the family was planted in the sugar bowl).
Getting impatient when Constance hid at home after the abortive court case, failing to put in appearances in places where she could be publically disapproved of and shunned, rubberneckers from the local area took to coming to the family house and violating the sisters' boundaries in all sorts of disturbing ways:
the stubborn ones, the ones I wished would die and lie there dead on the driveway, went around and around the house, trying every door and tapping on the windows. "We got a right to see her," they used to shout, "she killed all those people, didn't she?" They drove cars up to the steps and parked there. Most of them locked their cars carefully, making sure all the windows were shut, before they came to pound at the house and call to Constance. They had picnics on the lawn and took pictures of each other standing in front of the house and let their dogs run in the garden. They wrote their names on the walls and on the front door.
This is why, although Merricat hates the days she must go into the village for supplies - she can only will herself through the experience with the reassurance of her rituals - she makes sure that she does it rather than Constance. Merricat idolises Constance ("When I was small", she tells us, "I thought Constance was a fairy princess. She was the most precious person in my world, always" - there's that word 'always', again). She is keen to shield Constance from the villagers' hate.
But Merricat also - increasingly so, as the years go by? - wants to protect her and Constance's self-contained little world of the Blackwood estate against outsiders, and the change they might bring. She is clearly uneasy about the idea of Constance becoming less dependent on her; when Constance suggests that some time she might save Merricat the trouble by going herself, Merricat is "chilled" at the thought. When, later the same day, Constance receives pair of visitors for tea - one a semi-regular named Helen Clarke who has arrogated to herself the role of Constance's friend, the other an acquaintance of Helen's named Lucille, who turns out to have a morbid desire to find out about the murders - Merricat has a full-blown crisis:
Constance had looked as though suddenly, after all this time of refusing and denying, she had come to see that it might be possible, after all, to go outside. I realized now that this was the third time in one day that the subject had been touched, and three times makes it real. I could not breathe; I was tied with wire, and my head was huge and going to explode; I ran to the back door and opened it to breathe. I wanted to run; if I could have run to the end of our land and back I would have been all right, but Constance was alone with them in the drawing room and I had to hurry back. I had to content myself with smashing the milk pitcher which waited on the table; it had been our mother's and I left the pieces on the floor so Constance would see them.
Here and elsewhere, Merricat acts out, either unable or unwilling to voice her feelings - whether verbally to her sister or even in her own mind, as represented by her narration. When their cousin Charles effectively moves himself into the house, bringing disorder and trying to charm Constance (every so often casually asking where "the money" is, as he puts it), she has several similar - and increasingly extreme - episodes. There is a subtext here about women's roles within male-run households, and Merricat's resistance to Charles' attempt to bring his unruly, ungoverned female cousins to heel; Charles threatens to punish Merricat for disobedience, something that hasn't happened since her father was alive, and she retaliates using that quintessential symbol of patriarchal authority, his pipe:
Constance had given the [saucers] to Charles and now they were scattered, instead of spending their little time decently put away on a shelf. There was one in the drawing room and one in the dining room and one, I supposed, in the study. They were not fragile, because the one now in the bedroom had not cracked although the pipe on it was burning. I had known all day that I would find something here; I brushed the saucer and the pipe off the table into the wastebasket and they fell softly onto the newspapers he had brought into the house.
This is characteristic Merricat: she is convinced she foresaw this opportunity; and she gives us no sign that she consciously decided what she would do with the opportunity, or that she knew what the consequences would be. She simply does, without revealing her train of thought; she gives every impression of being utterly disconnected from cause and effect.
Is she? Perhaps, although there are several juicy hints that she is also not the delicate child Constance seems to want to believe she is. When Helen Clarke's friend Lucille starts speculating on whether Constance is a homicidal maniac in Constance's own living room, Helen gets all socially embarrassed and calls a halt to the visit - not by telling Lucille off for being a ghoul, but by saying, hilariously, "We have overstayed all limits of decency; it's after five o'clock". (Ah, the crutch of completely irrelevant and non-sequitur-ish propriety.) In response, Merricat rather wickedly - but quite reasonably, really, given the provocation, and a moment when I must admit I was fully on her side - points out that Lucille hasn't touched her tea. Is this some sign of self-awareness - of how the effect she has on others might be used, at least?
Walking through the village for supplies, moreover, Merricat's thoughts are quite openly violent; she wishes "burning black painful rot that ate away from inside, hurting dreadfully" upon the village, and indulges in an elaborate, horrific revenge fantasy upon the people she comes into contact with:
I wished they were dead. I would have liked to come into the grocery some morning and see them all, even the Elberts and the children, lying there crying with the pain and dying. I would then help myself to groceries, I thought, stepping over their bodies, taking whatever I fancied from the shelves, and go home, with perhaps a kick for Mrs. Donell while she lay there. I was never sorry when I had thoughts like this; I only wished they would come true.
"It's wrong to hate them," Constance said, "it only weakens you," but I hated them anyway, and wondered why it had been worth while creating them in the first place.
The final line here is telling: she dehumanises everyone but herself and Constance, and possibly even sees them as figments of her imagination. The villagers, to be fair, return the sentiment with interest, later standing around watching as the fire brigade make a half-hearted attempt to save the burning Castle, and then pelting the shell with rocks while chanting the nursery rhyme about deadly tea. Helen Clarke, that paragon of social niceties, somehow manages to convince herself the whole thing was just a misunderstanding, that "nobody meant any harm", and that Constance and Merricat are overreacting by secluding themselves from the rest of the world even more completely than before. (Of everyone in the novel, Helen is the one I dislike the most, I think: she's the perfect portrait of deluded faith in Just Not Talking About bad stuff and hoping it goes away by itself, the type of person who enables this sort of mob mentality to flourish.)
Nonetheless, until very near the end of the narration, Merricat's imaginings are always expressed in the passive voice: she wishes this would happen, she wishes rot upon the village, but she - deliberately or otherwise - never thinks about doing something herself to bring it about. Even when she does, Constance talks her down, and at length Merricat gets her wish: "We are going to lock ourselves in more securely than ever", Constance tells her, and when Merricat points out that this is the day Helen usually visits, Constance replies, "Not again. Not here." It's unclear how willing a party to all this Constance actually is, because she isn't telling and Merricat isn't interested in noticing. But even if this is a measure of defeat and despair for Constance, a surrender to her sister's way of seeing things, it is certainly a triumph for Merricat: she has exerted her will upon the world and remade it as she wishes it to be. From now on, the sisters will be a creepy world unto themselves, without anyone else to disturb them and their rituals. Brilliant.