I already knew that I loved Shirley Jackson – I did from the time I was about a chapter into We Have Always Lived in the Castle back in 2006, courtesy of Lisa – but now I love her for a whole new reason. Whilst at home in Somerset I indulged by reading her ‘memoir’ part numero uno Life Among The Savages and fell completely in love with it. Think Provincial Lady transferred to America (Vermont, I think) in the mid-1950s, with no servants. It’s havoc, but it’s brilliant.
I had Shirley Jackson in a box. Not literally, that would be creepy – but it isn’t too far away from the sort of thing I’d expect from Jackson territory. The three novels I’ve read by her (We Have Always Lived in the Castle; The Haunting of Hill House; The Bird’s Nest) and the odd short story (very odd short story) had led me to expect Gothicky, creepy, interesting angle on mental illness sort of stories from Jackson. When I started Life Among The Savages, in which Jackson wittily documents the day-to-day life of a wife and mother, I had to adjust how I responded to her. It’s odd that certain paragraphs can go either way… this one, for example, is wry and whimsical in context. But read it with your Jackson-in-horror-mode hat on, and it feels rather different…
There was a door to an attic that preferred to stay latched and would latch itself no matter who was inside; there was another door which hung by custom slightly ajar, although it would close good-humouredly for a time when some special reason required it. We had five attics, we discovered, built into and upon and next to one another; one of them kept bats and we shut that one up completely; another, light and cheerful in spite of its one small window, liked to be a place of traffic and became, without any decision of ours, a place to store things temporarily, things that were moved regularly, like sledges and snow shovels and garden rakes and hammocks. The basement had an old clothes-line hung across it, and after the line I put up in the backyard had fallen down for the third time I resigned myself and put up a new line in the basement, and clothes dried there quickly and freshly.
Anyone who has read The Haunting of Hill House will know how easily Jackson could have turned this into something terrifying – but there is nothing remotely creepy about this book. The narrator – a version of Shirley Jackson, no doubt, but only a version – evinces none of Jackson’s neuroses or agoraphobia; instead she is a housewife and mother in the self-deprecating, amused mould of the Provincial Lady.
She starts off the book with two children, Laurie and Jannie. About halfway through the book Sally comes along:
Sentimental people keep insisting that women go on to have a third baby because they love babies, and cynical people seem to maintain that a woman with two healthy, active children around the house will do anything for ten quiet days in the hospital; my own position is somewhat between the two, but I acknowledge that it leans towards the latter.
Obviously I don’t have children, and very few of my friends have reached that stage of their lives, so I’m new to the world of child-anecdotes. Maybe I wouldn’t have loved this so much if I’d spent ten years hearing people recount the adorable things their children do, but I’ve got to say I laughed out loud a lot whilst reading Life Among the Savages. More at the narrator’s reaction to things, to be honest – like taking children to see a Santa Claus who promises rather too much to Laurie and Jannie; learning to drive with an instructor who is ‘undisguisedly amused at meeting anyone who could not drive a car’; coping with the influence of a teacher who tells Jannie that more or less everything is either ‘vulgar’ or ‘unwomanly’. And her husband is there all the time too, loving and affectionate and just as inept as his wife. Having said that, what comes off the page is as happy a family as I’ve encountered in fact or fiction – and her husband is rather more helpful and on-board than the Provincial Lady’s Robert.
I can’t really quote any of the choicest bits because the anecdotes tend to blend into one another, taking up many pages – they’re built up so that the family becomes recognisable, rather than a series of one-liners. Apparently it was all published separately before, but you can’t see the joins. Having said that, the first section of the book is my favourite, perhaps because it includes their hilarious attempts to rent a house (everyone is determined that they should buy instead) – a similar section was my favourite part of D.E. Stevenson’s comparable Mrs. Tim of the Regiment, so perhaps this betrays my adoration of people looking at properties – yes, Kirstie and Phil are basically my surrogate parents. Or would be, if I knew them.
Oh, and if you’re not sold on the book yet, there’s a delightfully contemptuous and pitying cat called Ninki. Loved her.
While I haven’t read anything in this line of books which is as good as the Provincial Lady, Life Among the Savages is certainly one of the closest runners-up. I thought it was incredibly funny as well as being quite sweet. I’m not sure it quite deserves to be called a memoir, as Jackson is incredibly selective about which side of her personality gets filtered into the book, but that’s her prerogative, and the result sure beats any number of angsty misery memoirs. It’s sunny, funny, and… er, runny. In that it’s made me run off to buy Jackson’s other memoir, Raising Demons.
Books to get Stuck into:
Mrs. Tim of the Regiment – D.E. Stevenson: the first half of this book is brilliant, and owes a huge amount to the Provincial Lady. The second half is fun, but not as good… however, it’s worth it for the first half alone.
Provincial Daughter – R.M. Dashwood: although Provincial Lady is the better book, this sequel by E.M. Delafield’s real-life daughter is much closer to Jackson’s book in date of publication, and it’s delightful to hear from ‘Vicky’ all grown up.