Earlier this year I posted a themed review on the subject of outsiders in fiction on Bookword. I invited further suggestions. This novel, We have always lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, was recommended by another blogger and lent to me by a friend. The author is popular with some readers and bloggers, but I have to admit that I have not read anything else by Shirley Jackson, although I knew her name. It’s a very dark book, with plenty of violence, magic, and wicked acts together with some humorous incidents.
We have always lived in the Castle
The novel is narrated by Merricat who is 18 and lives with her sister Constance who is somewhat older. Together with Uncle Julien they live in a big house, separate from the village in Vermont. He is old and infirm and requires a wheelchair and does not appear to see Merricat. He was damaged in an arsenic attack six years previously which killed the other members of the family: the sisters’ parents and brother, and Julian’s wife. It is pretty clear from the first page who it was that carried out the murders. Constance was tried and acquitted. It also becomes evident that the truth is known by both sisters, although they do not refer to it until there is a crisis.
Since her trial Constance is a recluse, and people in the village continue to believe she was the murderer despite the acquittal. The villagers dislike the Blackwood family. The father had sealed off a path and the whole estate. Now Merricat must go to the village twice a week to collect supplies. The trio live in a very restricted and routinised way: days for going to the village, or dusting; meals prepared by Constance; Merricat not allowed to touch food or to do various things. She behaves more like an 8 year old than a person of 18.
Their routine is interrupted when cousin Charles arrives hoping to find some of the family money. He begins to dominate the household, and to sway Constance. He suggests that Julien should be in a home and Merricat disciplined or something worse.
Merricat practices some of her magic to get rid of him. She has already protected their estate by burying certain items and by nailing a book to a tree. When the book falls down she knows that their lives are going to be disturbed. She tries to get rid of Charles by ignoring him, by being rude, by disturbing his belongings. Ultimately a fire is started by his pipe in his bedroom and the upper floors of the house are destroyed. The crowd on onlookers trash the house and its contents in one of the most horrific scenes of the book.
Above it all, most horrible, was the laughter. I saw one of the Dresden figures thrown and break against the porch rail, and the other fell unbroken and rolled along the grass. I heard Constance’s harp go over with a musical cry, and a sound which I knew was a chair being smashed against the wall.
“Listen,” said Charles from somewhere, “will a couple of you guys help me with this safe?”
Then through the laughter, someone began, “Merricat, said Constance, would you like a cup of tea?” It was rhythmic and insistent. I am on the moon, I thought, please let me be on the moon. Then I heard the sound of dishes smashing and at that minute realised that we stood outside the tall windows of the dining room and they were coming very close. (106)
Uncle Julien dies of a heart attack in the excitement. After the crowds have gone, Merricat and Constance clear up as best they can and continue living in the house that now resembles a castle. When the young women have remade a home in the ruins of the house the villagers gradually begin to leave presents of food in expiation. Charles returns to try to get back in the house, but the sisters ignore him, and he leaves. A new set of quiet routines is established and the two sisters do not have to engage with anyone.
It’s a very black story, some of it funny. The ostracism by the village, the othering of Constance and Merricat is a reminder of some dark social evil. In part it is a justification of the seclusion sought by the Blackwood sisters, and is thought to represent Shirley Jackson’s experience of living in North Bennington, Vermont with her family.
The co-dependence of the sisters, and the determination of Merricat to control everything are also unnerving. As is their obsession with food.
Born in 1916, Shirley Jackson died in her sleep in 1965, not long after the publication of We have always lived in the Castle. It was her last book. She had published six novels as well as around 200 short stories and also earned money from her journalism.
It’s ironic to note that Shirley Jackson died at the age of forty-nine, shortly after the publication of We have always lived in the Castle, of amphetamine addiction, alcoholism and morbid obesity; negligent of her health for years, she is said to have spoken openly of not expecting to live to be fifty, and in the final months of her life suffered from agoraphobia so extreme she couldn’t leave her squalid bedroom – as if in mimicry of the agoraphobic sisters of We have always lived in the Castle. (154-5) From the Afterword by Joyce Carol Oates
She is known as a writer of horror and mystery. This book is less of a mystery, more of an unfolding horror story.
We have always lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, first published in 1962. I was lent the 2009 version in the Penguin Modern Classics series. 158pp Thanks Anne!
Some relevant links
My post on Outsiders in Fiction on Bookword, February 2020
Reviewed by Heavenali in March 2016, who loved it.
Reviewed enthusiastically on JacquiWine’s Journal in October 2017, and it was she who recommended I added this to the list of outsiders.