“Mistress of the macabre” in the October 15, 2021 TLS https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/letters-of-shirley-jackson-book-review-lucy-scholes/
This is a review of the collected letters, all 640 pages of them, by Shirley Jackson, edited by one of her children, Laurence Jackson Hyman. But the review also delves in depth of Ruth Franklin’s 2016 biography, “Shirley Jackson: a rather haunted life.” The biography, apparently, is more illuminating of the writer’s life than her own letters.
In gothic fiction, Shirley Jackson is best known for her story, “The Lottery,” and her novels “The Haunting of Hill House” and “We Have Always Lived in the Castle.” But she had bestsellers of her two humorous memoirs of motherhood and domesticity in “Life Among the Savages” and “Raising Demons.” She earned $110,000-plus a year in the 1950s from the latter books.
“The Lottery” was first published in The New Yorker in 1948 and resulted in a deluge of letters to the magazine from outraged and offended readers. I’ll leave you to find the story for yourself, but it involves a small, picture-perfect New England town. No plot spoilers, here!
Jackson lived in a seventeen-room mansion in Bennington, Vermont with her four children, her husband Stanley Hyman, a literary critic and staff writer for The New Yorker, cats, and 25,000 books.
The collected letters don’t reveal, but Franklin’s biography does—what kind of life Jackson actually led.
Jackson’s mother constantly fat-shamed her and criticized her appearance (yes, Shirley was obese and had unruly hair). Her mother never mentioned her critically-acclaimed and successful writing.
Jackson’s husband constantly bullied her, was a serial womanizer (yes, Bennington is also the location of the all-women’s college at which Hyman apparently roamed), bragged about his exploits to his wife, and didn’t help at all with the household chores.
Leaving Jackson to raise the four children, go grocery shopping, cook all the meals and clean up, do the laundry, and clean the house. Hyman complained, between affairs, that Jackson didn’t do enough of her money-making writing. That was his only mention of her writing.
I wanted to pull Jackson aside and say, “Cut off your bitch of a mother, divorce your bastard of husband.” But she didn’t. She stayed loyal to those lifelong abusers, drinking bottle after bottle of whiskey, sometimes in one afternoon, “a lonely, belittled woman”.
Jackson died in 1965, at age 48, of “heart failure”.
At the end of the review, I was misty-eyed. Whispered a little prayer, “Shirley, we admire and honor your hard-won writing to this day. Rest in Peace.” I hope she heard me.
Do you read biographies? These days, I seldom do, but I used to. I DO read the reviews of biographies published in the TLS.
So there you have it, my friends.
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