A film critic friend, astonished that I had never heard of Shirley Jackson, told me to go and read her immediately. That was ten years ago and she has since become one of a handful of talismanic writers I reach for when craving literary succour.
An undisputed master of the gothic and the uncanny— We Have Always Lived in the Castle and Hangsaman are both masterclasses in the unearthly and the opaque — she plumbs domestic and familial horror in a way which manages to be both universal and chillingly particular. She is also, in Britain anyway, still ridiculously underrated, even unknown. This new biography by the New Yorker critic Ruth Franklin, therefore, could not be more welcome or timely.
Born in 1916 to a well-to-do, upper-middle class family, Jackson grew up in Rochester, NY, where her father’s work for the Traung Label and Lithograph Company had planted them. An awkward, bolshy redhead with a tendency to dark imaginings, this child was never going to be the pretty, biddable daughter her mother desired. And indeed for the next 49 years until Jackson’s tragically early death, the relationship remained corrosive, critical and tense, undoubtedly contributing to her later mental health problems.
Fortunately, though, Shirley met Stanley. In the young and brilliant Stanley Hyman, who ‘would grow up to become one of the most important critics of his generation’, Jackson seemed to have met both her match and her saviour. The attraction was passionate and mutual. Despite Hyman’s continued avowal that he did not believe in monogamy — a promise he energetically and relentlessly delivered on — they enjoyed, at first anyway, a happy and fruitful marriage.
There were four babies and roughly twice as many books. But, though Stanley believed in Jackson’s formidable talent from the first (encountering a story of hers in the college magazine, he vowed he would marry its author), it was only towards the end of her far too short life that she enjoyed acclaim and financial security.
It perhaps didn’t help that she was viewed, by critics anyway, as two perplexingly different writers. There was the serious literary novelist whose singular, uncompromising vision was capable of producing the notoriously unnerving short story ‘The Lottery’ or the fantastically creepy novel The Haunting of Hill House (which her husband never dared read). And then there was the light-hearted writer of ‘ephemeral fluff’: her two frank volumes about family life with four children and a multitude of pets in a chaotic household in rural Vermont first appeared in magazines but became big bestsellers.
In real life, however, things were not so fluffy. Jackson’s mental equilibrium had always seemed precarious, but Stanley’s constant philandering threatened to tip her over the edge. She fantasised about leaving but never did — though writing to her husband about the students he so frequently bedded, she observed bitterly that at least they had ‘the unutterable blessing of being able to go home afterward’.
Always struggling with her weight, drinking heavily and dangerously reliant on the uppers and downers which were so readily prescribed to women at that time, Jackson became increasingly panicky and agoraphobic. Meanwhile Stanley, fretting about family finances, seems to have chastised her for every moment she spent away from the typewriter — something which seems especially pointless and cruel, since (as her supportive editor Pat Covici at Viking at least understood) Jackson was a writer who was happiest and most productive when left alone.
Much of this is surprising and all of it is illuminating and there is no doubting the seriousness and thoroughness of Franklin’s enterprise. She seems to have spoken to just about every living creature ever associated with Jackson and winkled out every last new (or old) fragment of diary or correspondence relating to her subject. Her critical grasp of Jackson’s oeuvre is superlative and you do not doubt a word she says: this is most definitely an exhaustive biography.
But it is also a bit exhausting. Far too many relevant, interesting facts are followed by a second (entirely irrelevant and pretty uninteresting) one in parenthesis. It’s important, for instance, to tell us that Stanley enrolled at Brooklyn’s Erasmus Hall High School at the ‘precocious age’ of 13, but do we really need a further four or five unedifying sentences about its building and history, together with the (distinctly banal) aside that the list of later alumni included Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand?
There’s plenty more like this, unfortunately. Not only does it make for a bumpy, ennui-inducing read but it also forces you to question Franklin’s apparent determination to précis every last one of Jackson’s books, stories and articles for us. Where was the editor who could have saved us from wading through what ultimately amounts to an ocean of information? Shouldn’t a good biography make you hungry for the work, not leave you feeling you’ve already digested it?