The Fiction Faction - Archive - August-December 2019
Elizabeth Baines
 

August 2019
We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Shirley Jackson


Warning: Plot spoil. This is a novel of suspense (though we had some discussion about the nature of that suspense), but it's not possible to report our discussion without revealing the ending.

Shirley Jackson's gothic work sometimes scandalised, but fell into neglect before a recent resurgence of interest. We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Doug's suggestion) is a short novel, but is generally considered her greatest, written just before her death in 1962.

It is the first-person narration of Mary Katherine Blackwood - Merricat - one of the two daughters of a conventionally patriarchal New England family whose ancestors built a large house on land at the edge of the village, carefully fenced off from the 'dirty' villagers. The novel opens with immediate intimations of the weird - although eighteen years old, Merricat announces her name and age in a somewhat childlike manner (although her language will later turn lyrical and at times even intellectually sophisticated), muses the lost possibilty of having been born a werewolf (because 'the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length'), and gives us an almost babyish list of her likes: 'I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cap mushroom.' She lives with Constance, she tell us, and 'Everyone else in my family is dead.'

She then proceeds to tell us of a day some six months ago when she made her usual weekly shopping trip into the village for groceries and to change library books. We know that this day was the start of some change or crisis in the lives of Merricat and Constance, as she tell us too that the library books she collected then are now five months overdue, and 'I wondered if I would have chosen differently if I had known these were the last books, the ones that would stand forever on the kitchen shelf.' The trip into the village is excruciating for Merricat - she both fears and hates the villagers, who fall silent when she enters a shop and stare at her from behind blinds, and in the past she has been taunted by the children. In the cafe, which she braves only out of pride, a male villager, Jim Donnell, is taunting in a menacing way, and seems to issue a threat to Constance.

We soon find out what's behind all this, though it is not through the explicit narration of Merricat, who clearly suppresses it and with whom Constance has a tacit pact not to discuss or even mention it. We discover in the course of Merricat's progress through the village and home that at this time an invalid uncle, Julian, also lives in the big house with the sisters. Every so often, the wife of one of the other landed households, Helen Clarke, comes to tea - an apparently fraught occasion for the insular sisters, especially Merricat - and her visit is due later in the day of Merricat's trip to the library. This time she dismays them by bringing another woman, Mrs Wright, and Mrs Wright is indecently interested in an event which - we are starting to understand - concerned the deaths of the rest of the family. (Mrs Wright has come wearing black, thinking that 'perhaps it was appropriate'.) Uncle Julian, it turns out, is trying to write about that event, and is thus eager to answer the questions of the taboo-breaking Mrs Wright. Thus, along with Merricat and Constance sitting in another room, we listen to his account of what happened: six years before, Merricat's and Constance's parents, an aunt and another uncle died of poisoning at the Blackwood dinner table, arsenic having been added to the sugar they put on their blackberries. Uncle Julian, who had also been present, was the one survivor, the poisoning being the cause of his invalidism. Because Constance had been doing the cooking, because she was the only one who did not take sugar on her blackberries (twelve-year-old Merricat had been sent to her room without dinner, for bad behaviour), and because she washed out the sugar bowl after the deaths, she was tried for murder. However, due to a lack of hard evidence - and in spite of her saying at the trial that 'they deserved to die' - she was acquitted. (After all, as Uncle Julian says, Constance had never liked sugar on her berries.)

The villagers, however, clearly believe that Constance is guilty and she dare not go into the village, but is confined to the house and her kitchen garden and her cooking (and to looking after the younger Merricat and their uncle), and it is Merricat who must go into the village and brave the villagers' ire.

Doug introduced the book by saying how gripping and suspenseful he had found it, but both he and I agreed that the suspense did not lie in the matter that Uncle Julian is trying, with his damaged brain, to unravel: who actually did the killing. We both thought that was pretty clear from very near the start. For one thing, Constance is not at all the kind of person to commit such an act: she is eternally kind and caring to both Julian and Merricat, and, as Mrs Wright says to Julian: ' "I cannot seem to remember that pretty young girl is actually - well." ' Secondly, as Merricat walks through the village she has murderous fantasies:
I wished [the villagers] were dead. I would have liked to come into the grocery one morning and see them all, even the Elberts and the children, lying there crying with 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.

Two days later, she tells us in a matter-of-fact manner, she kills a nest of baby snakes: 'I dislike snakes and Constance had never asked me not to.' (John commented that in his profession, Child Psycholgy, it is accepted that children who kill animals quite often turn out to be murderers.) And then there is her obsession with poisonous mushrooms, and as Trevor, who agreed with us, said: 'Well, you've only got to work it out: who else was there who could possibly have done the killings?' Plus the fact that there are certain things Constance will not allow her to do, such as handling food or knives.

In my Penguin edition Joyce Carol Oates refers in an Afterword to the consequent 'mystery' of why Constance is so protective of Merricat, and concludes from this that Constance was after all complicit in the murders. We didn't see it all like that. We thought it was pretty obvious why she should be protective of Merricat: there are plenty of hints that Merricat was abused by her family. Firstly, it is made clear that she was often sent to bed without supper as punishment as she was on the night of the murders, ' "in disgrace" ' as Constance puts it to Mrs Wright, and in the family's eyes she was a ' "a wicked, disobedient child" '. Helen Clarke comments on this in a way that we felt we were meant to take on board: ' "An unhealthy environment ... a child should be punished for wrongdoing, but she should be made to feel that she is still loved." ' In other words, we are to conclude that she was unloved by her family, and it is this significance we gave to Constance's words at her trial that 'they deserved to die.' It is also clear that Constance has always tried to protect Merricat, and compensate for that lack of love: ' 'I used to go up the back stairs with a tray of dinner for her after my father left the dining room." '

We can see why Merricat was punished. Arrested by the events of six years before, the sisters maintain their earlier relationship, with Merricat infantilised by Constance's continuing care. Although she is eighteen and something of a seer, Merricat behaves, and is treated by Constance, like the feral child she clearly always was, running wild among the trees on the family's land, hiding away in her secret den, burying objects to cast childlike spells. Thus we get the former picture of a strict, patriarchal father entirely unable to accept a strange and unconventionally wild daughter. At the start of her tale, Merricat fearfully senses a change coming, and so it does: a cousin, Charles, turns up and inveigles himself into the household, intent on getting his hands on the money that he thinks the sisters must have stashed away in the house. Horrifically for Merricat, he takes the place of her father, sleeping in his room, sitting in his place at table, and appropriating his belongings. Finally, like her father, he threatens Merricat with punishment for her feral behaviour, and the effect upon her is dramatic. She runs from the house and into the dank summerhouse where she normally does not go, and in a striking and, to me, moving scene, fantasizes her family sitting around a table adulating her.

Near the start of our meeting I said that I thought the book was about xenophobia, the fear and hatred of difference. The family clearly hate, despise and fear the 'dirty' villagers, the villagers resent, hate and fear the landed family, and the conventional, patriarchal family can't accommodate the difference of the wild child in their midst. After Merricat rids the household of Charles by tipping into the bin the pipe of her father's he has been smoking - another kind of spell - and unintentionally sets fire to the house, she and Constance board themselves away from everyone in its ruins (Uncle Julian having died of a heart attack in the aftermath of the fire). It is a perfect picture of xenophobia: they are safe and isolated from those they fear, and those outside now fear them in turn, seeing them as witches or ghosts and leaving food to propitiate them, but they are of course trapped.

Mark now asked if we thought it was a feminist book. I hadn't particularly thought of it that way, and Clare strongly thought that Jackson had not been explicitly or consciously addressing the issues from a feminist perspective. However, the issue of women's power or lack of it emerges strongly from the book. As John, I think, said, the family would never have reacted to Merricat's behaviour in the same way if she had been a boy. At one point Mark had said that Merricat was clearly 'bonkers', but Merricat can be viewed as an example of the 'madwoman in the attic' - women designated mad for not conforming to the expectations of conventional and patriarchal society, and then sent more or less mad by their consequent treatment, and/or embracing and rejoicing in their own 'madness'. Merricat's spell-making may seem both childish and sinister, but it is after all the strategy into which the powerless are forced. Witchcraft is of course the name for the ways that the powerless - mainly women - seek to gain power (via herbal concoctions etc), and Merricat embraces witchiness: 'When we had neatened the upstairs rooms we came downstairs together, carrying our dustcloths and the broom and dustpan and mop like a pair of witches walking home.'

Ann was struck by the focus on food in the novel: Constance spends her whole time tending her kitchen garden and cooking, and adding to the preserves in the cellar laid down by previous generations of Blackwood women. Ann noted that it was a feature of the New England fiction on which she and I were brought up - Little Women, What Katy Did - and it is of course reflective of social reality, that the kitchen was the women's sphere. In this novel, however, food and the kitchen, the whole world for Constance and Merricat, is an imprisonment, and the poisoning at an ordinary family meal - via the traditional and almost picturesque dish of blackberries and sugar - subverts the notion of women as nurturers.

Most people agreed that the book had been a gripping read, but Mark said he liked it less after the arrival of Charles, when Merricat's introspection gets taken over by plot events. John thought that Charles was too much of a stereotype or caricature, though I personally had no objection to the portrayal of the character, who was rather, I thought, behaving in the stereotype male way that his society encouraged. John also liked the book as a whole less than everyone else, thinking it tricksy in its withholding of information, which he found distancing. I didn't agree. Merricat may be an unreliable narrator in that she withholds the facts about the murder, but I think we are meant to understand the facts of the murder in spite of her, and to know that she is understandably repressing them.

I did say that, although I had been thoroughly engrossed by the book, in retrospect I had one doubt. It is clear that the whole tale is being told by Merricat after she and Constance have boarded themselves up in the ruined house. Everyone in the group agreed that there is a sense of a long time having gone by since they first did so, as vines gradually grow up and smother the house, so that it is 'barely recognisable as a house', and the narration here has a retrospective mode indicative of much time having passed. Yet in the second sentence of the book Merricat announces that she is - now, at the time of telling - eighteen years old, the same age that she was at the start of the whole saga. I wondered if this were a structural error. Mark said, 'But did they maybe die in the fire?' Perhaps they were now ghosts, he was suggesting, and Ann added that ghosts don't know they've died and they stay the age at which they died. I was convinced by this at the time (and indeed, the cover of my edition hints at the ghostly) and by the fact that Merricat states her age so baldly at the the start and in such an arresting way that the anomaly didn't seem likely to have been unintended on the part of the author. However, the first page includes the clear statement: 'The last time I glanced at the books on the kitchen shelf they were more than five months overdue' - ie, at the time of telling, and after the growth of the vines around the house, the books are only just more than five months overdue. Fantastically quick-growing vines, then? Or maybe a ghost for whom five months and several years are one (but why five months)? Or indeed a structural error? As I said to the group, it all depends what you think ghosts can or can't do, or how they experience time. In any case, it is clear that to the villagers Constance and Merricat are like ghosts, and they do indeed live the lives of ghosts, helpless yet feared for their imagined power.


October 2019
In a Summer Season
Elizabeth Taylor


Some people in our reading group hadn't heard of 'the other Elizabeth Taylor', eclipsed by her film-star namesake when National Velvet appeared in 1944, just as she was beginning her career as a novelist of middle-class mores. She was however greatly admired, by Kingsley Amis among others, and has been considered a very fine writer. She has recently undergone a revival, and eight months ago Mark read In a Summer Season, her last novel, generally considered her finest, and suggested it with great enthusiasm.

Accordingly, he introduced it to our group in glowing terms. The novel charts the events over one summer concerning a wife in her forties and the members of her household, and circles around the question of love and its relation to sex. Previously widowed, the well-off Kate is still living in the same family home in the Thames valley with a new husband, Dermot, ten years her junior, her son Tom, who is not much younger than Dermot, and a spinster aunt, Ethel, while sixteen-year-old daughter Louisa appears from boarding school in the holidays. This family setup, unusual in the upper-middle-class society of the fifties, has caused something of an (understated) scandal amongst Kate's former neighbourhood acquaintances, and Aunt Ethel's letters to her friend Gertrude are full of (guardedly) salacious speculations about the married couple's sex life. Much of the speculation about the marriage in the village is doom-laden, and it is clear from the very start that Dermot is feckless - a fact that Kate is at pains to gloss over to herself and others, protecting him like a child - and very soon that he is a layabout and drinker. Much of the novel is concerned, in Taylor's characteristic understated style, with Kate's struggle between her own sexual capitulation to Dermot and the competing conventional requirements of her role as a wife and mother. The novel's inciting incident is the return from abroad of a widower friend and neighbour, Charles, and his young adult daughter Araminta, which causes complications within the family and finally leads to a tragedy.

Mark said he really admired the writing and the acuity of the depiction of fifties upper-middle-class society, and in particular the insight into the complex psychology of the characters provided by a third-person narration which is both gently ironic yet, in a free-ranging way, enters, at one time or another, the heads of most of the characters. These are the things for which Taylor is indeed generally admired, but unfortunately, and to my great surprise, for four of us present, John, Doug, Clare and me, these qualities couldn't compensate for other aspects of the book which led us, frankly, to find it tedious.

Firstly, there was the matter of structure. Taylor is on record as saying that she had no interest in plot, and we did indeed find the book lacking in form to an extent that made it unengaging. It is quite some way into the book that the inciting incident occurs, and before that the (acutely depicted) events seem there for nothing more than to portray the setup. Kate visits her mother-in-law in London and defends Dermot from his mother's criticism, and, watching the wives meeting their husbands from the train while back home the potatoes are on simmer, wonders if this is really the life that women should be leading; Kate and Dermot go drinking and Dermot encounters the prejudice of the former friends of Kate's late husband; Aunt Ethel discusses the couple in her letters to her friend and plays music with schoolgirl Louisa; we accompany Tom to the factory where he (unwillingly) works for his grandfather, and which he is expected to take over one day; Louisa hangs around the local curate with whom she is in love. Long before Charles and Araminta appear on the scene (and even for some time after it, before the complications get going), I was thinking, Oh no, not another cocktail before dinner! It was hard for a very long time to work out what the novel was about. John noted something else, a seeming lack of care in the revelation of information: Taylor writes, he said, as if she is talking to a friend who knows her and already has the background information (which the reader has not.) For instance, on her journey back from Dermot's mother-in-law, Kate encounters one of the young girls who are interested in her son Tom, who, discussing the plight of those girls like herself who have large feet, asks, 'Doesn't Lou despair?' This is the first-ever mention in the book of Louisa, whose attitude to her own big feet Kate goes on to muse about, but it is several lines into the paragraph before it starts to becomes clear - though not in fact entirely certain - that Louisa must be her daughter. I also felt that, despite - or perhaps because of - Taylor's lack of interest in plot, after such a length of seeming plotlessness, the book suddenly jerks into plot in a way that seems overdramatic and even artificial. And as for the final chapter, a kind of coda in which the tragedy is overturned with a (somewhat low-key) happy ending, everyone agreed that they had seen it coming all along.

Secondly, Doug said he found really irritating the way that the narration moves without warning from the viewpoint of one character into that of another, quite often within a single paragraph so that, now and then, for a moment you don't even realise the viewpoint has changed - and I'm afraid it struck me as inept and amateur.

We did agree with Mark that for a book written in the fifties by a middle-class woman about middle class mores, it is striking in tackling the emotional impact of sex (and for which the book is renowned). At one point Kate, having been to bed with Dermot in the afternoon, is called by him into the privacy of the dining room, away from the rest of the family:
He shut the door behind her and pressed her close to him as he did so.
'It will all begin again,' she thought in a panic, and felt tired and light-headed with desire. She gave him a quick, dismissing kiss and turned away. While he was fetching her a drink, she sank down on the window-seat and closed her eyes, as if she had come downstairs for he first time after a long illness and had found herself too weak for the effort.
'We should leave our lovemaking till the dead of night' she thought. 'and bury it secretly in sleep.'

Ann was the one other person present who liked the book. Like Mark, she relished its acute depiction of that society, and particularly the way that Taylor makes digs at it in every direction, letting no character off scot free, which for Ann, as for Mark, made the formlessness acceptable. For Doug and me, however, and I think for Clare and John, the irony was not nearly savage enough to make the material palatable, or the lack of story arc beside the point. As John said, Muriel Spark would have made something much more sparky out of this material and situation.


November 2019
Milkman
Anna Burns


Since we read this book both John and I have had surgery, from which we are both still recovering, and our discussion seems to belong to an earlier, pre-surgery time, its details lost to me apart from the fact that most of us really loved the book.

The book is written in a totally original style - the first-person stream-of-consciouness narration of a seventeen-year-old woman who, at the time of the Irish Troubles, attracts the sexual attention of Milkman, a leading 'renouncer', a Republican paramilitary, a man respected but feared in the society over which he holds sway. Identifying herself only as 'middle sister' (and referring similarly to other characters as 'third brother-in-law', 'maybe boyfriend' and so on), she tells of the stresses and dangers that this forced her into in a community ruled by rigid roles and partisan assumptions and fears. The originality of the voice lies in its combination of the demotic and the effects of her voracious literary reading. Thus it encodes the paradoxes of her situation and psychology: the necessary self-preserving refusal of the poetic (the sunset of the cover) that she shares with her brutalised community, alongside a sophisticated understanding of psychological complexity, and a wilful blindness to her situation alongside a sense of its complex dangers and implications. There is also a certain resultant malapropism, which doesn't come over in fact as malapropism, but as a new diction with its own authority, entirely appropriate for the unique situation of the protagonist and for the uncertainties of the world she inhabits, and its psychology.

Most of us were entirely taken with this voice, and with its humour combined with a deadly seriousness, which makes the story both frightening and at times wildly funny, sometimes both together. Take for instance an episode when the women of the community go to see the renouncers after a group of feminists (for whom they usually have no time) have tried to stand up to the bullying demands of the renouncers, ill advisedly crying 'Over our dead bodies!'
'Don't be ridiculous,' they said. 'You can't kill them. They're simpletons. Intellectual simpletons. Academe! That's all they're fit for.' They added that to do away with the issue women, no matter how annoying they were, would be tantamount to unjust, inconsiderate and merciless behaviour towards the more fragile of our district; that by doing so, the renouncers would create one of those landmark incidents such as would bring regretful consequences for their reputation in history books later on.

However, Mark, who due to personal circumstances hadn't managed to read much of the book, said that before he abandoned it he had been finding the stream-of-consciouness diversions wearying. John agreed with this, saying that he occasionally found the mode too dense and insistent, and that it was perhaps a mode that worked better for a short story, where it wouldn't have to be sustained at length. (In fact, Milkman is 350 tightly-packed pages). This reminded me that when I started the book, because I was very busy I was reading it only intermittently and had had the same reaction, but that later, when I had more time and was able to settle into the book, I had become entranced. Doug said that now that he remembered, he had had exactly the same experience. We were very glad we had persisted, and those of us who had read the book were very glad to have done so.

 

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