Shirley Jackson: Mother of the Fictional and Real-Life Teen
By Francis Booth | On May 4, 2021 | Comments (0)
This look at the depiction of adolescent and teen girls in the fiction and nonfiction of American author Shirley Jackson is excerpted from Girls in Bloom: Coming of Age in the Mid-20th Century Woman’s Novel by Francis Booth, reprinted by permission.
In the works of Shirley Jackson (1916 – 1965), there is an absence of sex of any kind, other than the veiled implication that Natalie Waite in Hangsaman has had a sexual experience that she does not remember, and which is not described in the novel.
One reason for this lack of sex among her teenage protagonists might be that Jackson had daughters of her own who might read her work. She did know a lot about the adolescent girl; she wrote several of them into her novels and stories, chief among them, the aforementioned Natalie Waite; Harriet Merriam (The Road Through the Wall), and Merricat Blackwood (We Have Always Lived in the Castle).
Jackson’s style might be called Northern Gothic, in contrast to Flannery O’Connor’s Southern Gothic. Jackson’s Gothic is much cooler and less febrile than O’Connor’s, the horror is more subtle and told with a flat, deadpan manner.
The work that first made Jackson (in)famous was the short story “The Lottery,” first published in the New Yorker in 1948, in which we slowly come to realize that the apparently very normal inhabitants of the apparently very normal village annually select by lottery one of their neighbors to stone to death; it is the banality, the ordinariness of the people and their environment – what Hannah Arendt later called “the banality of evil” – that makes it so shocking; Jackson was deluged with hate mail of a very vicious and personal nature.
Her most famous novel, The Haunting of Hill House, is an equally subtle and slow-revealing story but this time a full-length novel, that Stephen King praised as one of the greatest of American ghost stories and that has been compared with The Turn of the Screw for its pervasive atmosphere of ambivalent menace. King especially praised the book’s first line: “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality.” King said, “there are few if any descriptive passages in the English language that are finer.”
One of Jackson’s most Gothic novels is The Sundial, which Jackson herself called “a nasty little novel full of mean people who hate each other.” As in We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House, a grand old house is at the center of the story and a character in its own right. This was a key trope in Gothic novels with malign settings like the Castle of Otranto, Castle Udolpho, and Northanger Abbey, though the latter turns out not to be malign at all.
In Jackson’s version of the Gothic castle lives one of her most memorable creations, the appalling ten-year-old Fancy Halloran (another version of the name Frances) of The Sundial (1958) not yet a teenager and nowhere near to coming of age but fully realized in wickedness; a kind of literary version of Wednesday Addams. (The Addams Family, with their own spooky, Gothic house, had started appearing in The New Yorker in 1938.)
Young Mrs. Halloran, looking after her mother-in-law, said without hope, “maybe she will drop dead on the doorstep. Fancy, dear, would you like to see Granny drop dead on the doorstep?”
“Yes, Mother.” Fancy pulled at the long black dress her grandmother had put on her…
“I am going to pray for it as long as I live,” said young Mrs. Halloran, folding her hands together devoutly.
“Shall I push her,” Fancy asked, “Like she pushed my daddy?”
“Fancy!” said Mrs. Ogilvie.
“Let her say it if she wants,” young Mrs. Halloran said. “I want her to remember it, anyway. Say it again, Fancy baby.”
“Granny killed my daddy,” said Fancy obediently. “She pushed him down the stairs and killed him. Granny did it. Didn’t she?”
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Jannie wants to be Jo March
By the time her later novels were being published, Jackson had teenagers of her own and knew how to write them. As well as publishing her serious work, both novels and stories, she regularly contributed frothy vignettes of her own family life to women’s magazines, which were collected as Life Among the Savages (1953) and Raising Demons (1957); the demons of course being her own children: Laurence; Joanne; Sally and Barry, in that order.
Joanne, known in the family as Jannie, is a keen reader, unlike her older brother – in this they are very much like many of the brother/sister pairs in Girls in Bloom. Jannie is also like many of her fictional counterparts in that she is obsessed with Little Women to an extent that even her writer mother finds worrying. In one scene Jackson calls to her from the foot of the stairs.
There was a pause and then Jannie said, sniffling, “Yes?”
“Good heavens,” I said, “are you reading Little Women again?”
Jannie sniffled. “Just the part where Beth dies.”
“Look,” I said, “the sun is shining and the sky is blue and –”
Later they have a full-blown mother/daughter bonding session over that book and writing in general; again like many of her fictional counterparts, Jannie wants to be a writer, as does Jackson’s daughter Sally: Jackson’s late essay ‘Notes for a Young Writer’ was ‘originally written as a stimulus to my daughter Sally, who wants to be a writer.’ Although not obviously a tomboy herself, Jannie, like most girls, identifies most closely with Jo March.
I was sitting at the kitchen table grating potatoes for potato pancakes and was thus a wholly captive audience when Jannie came in from school with her arithmetic and spelling books, and, of course, Little Women. She put the books down, took off her jacket and hat, took an apple, and sat down at the table across from me. “I’ve been meaning to ask you for a long time,” she said. “Suppose I wanted to write a book. Where would I begin?”
“At the beginning,” I said smartly; I had just grated my knuckle.
“I wish Laurie and Barry were girls,” she said.
“Why on earth?”
“And Sally’s name was Beth.”
“Why put the whammy on Sally? Why don’t you be Beth?”
“And Laurie is Meg? And poor Barry has to be Amy?”
“If they were only girls.”
“And does that make me Marmee? Or can I be the old cook?”
“Hannah? When I write my book –“
“I’d rather be crazy old Aunt March, come to think of it. Who do you like for Professor Bhaer?”
Jannie turned pink. “I didn’t really think about that yet,” she said.
Charitably, I changed the subject. “Don’t you have any homework to do?” I asked.
She sighed. “I’ve got to write a book report,” she said. “That’s why I’d like to write a book, so then I could write a book report on that, and save all that time.”
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Shirley Jackson on Motherhood, Experience, and Fiction Writing
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The joys and perils of parenting an adolescent girl
As well as contributing these domestic scenes to various magazines, Jackson also wrote and published several essays about the joys and perils of being the mother of an adolescent girl. In “Mother, Honestly!” She talks about being the mother of a twelve-year-old girl and captures perfectly the sudden transition from girl to about-to-be woman.
Those mothers who have lasted till a child has reached twelve have themselves pretty well in hand… now that the girl is twelve she is practically grown-up and can take care of herself and begin to be responsible.
I know mothers who keep telling themselves and telling themselves it is like that, their voices getting more and more shrill, wringing their hands and grinding their teeth. Now the girl is twelve, they say, she’s practically grown-up. She is. She is. She is.
Last year I sent my daughter, an agreeable child who liked to play baseball and thought boys were silly, off to camp. I got back – and it only took two months – a creature who slept with curlers in her hair, bought perfume from the five-and-ten, and addressed me as nothing but “Mother, honestly”
… She is growing up and pretty soon now she will start being responsible and neat and sensible. I must be more tolerant… One thing really bothers me. I recently met a mother whose daughter is sixteen. When I remarked casually that I would be happy when my daughter outgrew her present stage and became more sensible and responsible, she just looked at me for one long minute and then began to laugh. She laughed and laughed and laughed. As I say, that bothers me a little.
Jackson later wrote an article titled “On Girls of Thirteen” in which she talks about the mythical girl to whom her daughter always refers when she is forbidden to do something. This girl is “thirteen years old. She is allowed to cut her own hair. She is also allowed to wear lipstick all the time; she uses bright red nail polish and heavily scented bath salts, and stays up as late at night as she pleases.”
This imaginary girl goes to any dance she likes and stays out as late as she likes afterward, goes to the movies on school nights, and is allowed to walk out with a boy without having to introduce him to her parents first. “I don’t know her name or where she lives, but I’d like to get my hands on her. Just for about five minutes. She is the lowest common denominator, the altogether anonymous ‘everyone else’ who rules the lives of thirteen-year-old girls and their miserable mothers.”
Betsy of “The Missing Girl”
There is a thirteen-year-old girl, Betsy, in Jackson’s story “The Missing Girl,” set in the Phillips Education Camp for Girls Twelve to Sixteen; both the story and the setting are rather reminiscent of Eudora Welty’s story Moon Lake. She is as awkward and as uncommunicative with adults as Jackson’s non-fictional thirteen-year-olds. Betsy, who has roomed with the eponymous missing girl, is being questioned by the chief of police. She tells him the missing girl “said she had something to do.”
The chief asks Betsy how she said it; perhaps she was lying? ‘“She just said it,” said Betsy, who had reached that point of stubbornness most thirteen-year-old girls have when it seems that adult obscurity has passed beyond necessity. “I told you eight times.” Later in the same story, the librarian tells the chief, “one girl is much like another, at this age. Their unformed minds, unformed bodies, their little mistakes.”
Memories of Jackson’s own teen years
Finally, in Jackson’s essay ‘All I Can Remember’ which was printed as the preface to the story collection Just an Ordinary Day, she talks about her memories of herself as a teenager. She begins: “All I can remember clearly about being sixteen is that it was a particularly agonizing age.”
Like some of her characters, and many others in Girls in Bloom, she is a voracious reader and this is the age at which she decides to become a writer. Again, Jackson perfectly captures the awkwardness of the teenager and the difficulty of communication between herself and her parents; the teenage Jackson in this description very closely matches Harriet Merriam in The Road Through the Wall.
I also remember such a tremendous and frustrated irritation with whatever I was reading at the time – heaven knows what it could have been, considering some of the things I put away about that time – that I decided one evening that since there were no books in the world fit to read, I would write one.
After dismissing the poetic drama as outmoded and poetry as far too difficult, I finally settled on a mystery story as easiest to write and probably easiest to read…
After the first two or three murders, the story got rather sketchy, because I had not enough patience to waste all that time with investigation, so I put the names of my characters together and took my manuscript downstairs to read to my family.
My mother was knitting, my father was reading a newspaper, and my brother was doing something – probably carving his initials in the coffee table – and I persuaded them all to listen to me; I read them the entire manuscript, and when I had finished, the conversation went approximately like this:
brother: Whaddyou call that?
mother: It’s very nice, dear.
father: Very nice, very nice. (to my mother) You call them about the furnace?
brother: Only thing is, you ought to get all those people killed. (raucous laughter)
mother: Shirley, in all that time upstairs I hope you remembered to make your bed.
I do not remember what character eventually came out of the hat with blood on his hands, but I do remember that I decided never to read another mystery story and never to write another mystery story; never, as a matter of fact, to write anything ever again. I had already decided finally that I was never going to be married and certainly would never have any children.
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Contributed by Francis Booth,* the author of several books on twentieth century culture:
Amongst Those Left: The British Experimental Novel 1940-1960 (published by Dalkey Archive); Everybody I Can Think of Ever: Meetings That Made the Avant-Garde; Girls in Bloom: Coming of Age in the Mid-Twentieth Century Woman’s Novel; Text Acts: Twentieth Century Literary Eroticism; and Comrades in Art: Revolutionary Art in America 1926-1938
Francis has also published several novels: The Code 17 series, set in the Swinging London of the 1960s and featuring aristocratic spy Lady Laura Summers; Young adult fantasy series The Watchers; and Young adult fantasy novel Mirror Mirror. Francis lives on the South Coast of England. He is currently working on High Collars and Monocles: Interwar Novels by Female Couples.
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