Friday, October 4, 2013

Novelist Housewives: Reflections on Shirley Jackson

Nobody can personify a house like Shirley Jackson.

“There was a door to an attic that preferred to stay latched, and would latch itself no matter who was inside; another door hung by custom slightly ajar, although it would close good-humoredly for a time when some special reason required it.”

“One bedroom chose the children. It was large and light and showed height marks on one wall, and seemed to mind not at all when crayon marks appeared on the wallpaper and paint got spilled on the floor.”

“Eleanor wandered along the veranda, thinking that she had never before known a house so completely surrounded. Like a very tight belt; she thought; would the house fly apart if the veranda came off?”

If you’re familiar with Shirley Jackson’s work, you will recognize Eleanor in that last quotation as the protagonist of Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and is considered one of the best horror novels of the twentieth century. More on Hill House in a minute, but where, you might ask, did those first two delightful quotations come from?

From Jackson’s short story “The House,” which I discovered in so interesting a way that it ultimately gave depth and interest to my reading of Hill House that I wouldn’t have otherwise reached.

Now, if you know me, you know that I’ve become a knitting enthusiast in the last couple years. I had heard that older knitting patterns tend not to be clear, technical guidelines like patterns are today, but more like suggestions. I’d been hankering to see one of these old patterns for myself, and so when my mother-in-law invited me to the Oberlin community garage sale over Labor Day weekend, I went with a goal of finding old knitting patterns. Sure enough, I found a Needlecraft magazine from 1967, but it was bundled with other old magazines, so I had to buy the stack. Not only was I rewarded with Woman’s Day issues from 1952 and 1954, which themselves include knitting patterns along with a slew of entertaining ads that made my $2 money well spent, but I had inadvertently purchased a “first edition” of Shirley Jackson’s “The House,” which was printed in the 1952 Woman’s Day.
At that point, I knew Shirley Jackson only from her much-anthologized “The Lottery.” But she was always an author I intended to read someday, and so it was a treat to sit out on the porch one warm September afternoon and enjoy the first-person story of a woman who rents an old house with her husband and young children. The titular house seems to have a mind of its own, the furniture settling just so and certain objects disappearing, sometimes to surface again later. Jackson even manages to have her first-person protagonist describe drying spoons and the spoons somehow disappearing in the midst of the act. You would think so obvious a thing would be dealt with in an overly-dramatic or unconvincing, too-detailed way—but you would only think that if you hadn’t read Shirley Jackson. She has a sort of nonchalance about supernatural phenomena that allows her to integrate these elements seamlessly and artfully into work that still manages to be fit for a woman’s magazine of its day. The end of the story is an encounter with a little old woman who the reader knows must be a ghost, although one gets the feeling its not really the ghost behind these household oddities, but the house itself.
First page spread of "The House"

“The House” was published in 1952; The Haunting of Hill House came out in 1959. Was the short story a warm up of sorts to Hill House? Would I learn something about the writing process in reading the two back to back?

There’s more material behind those questions than can fit in this blog post, so suffice it to say that despite some obvious echoes and surface parallels between the two—the cryptic, distant landlord in “The House” and housekeepers in Hill House; the strong personification of a house to the point that it has some form of consciousness and a will of its own—I wouldn’t base a dissertation on proving “The House” as a source for Hill House. What was more fascinating to me was my new appreciation for the novelist housewife that seeing “The House” in its original context inspired. If you take the time to go through 1950s issues of Woman’s Day as I did, you’ll see that the word homemaker once meant exactly that—that a woman made her home in the most literal sense. An entire section of the magazine was categorized as “Needlework” and featured articles like (in the Shirley Jackson 1952 issue) “Make an Heirloom Bedspread,” “Three Embroidered Tablecloths,” and my favorite, “Modern Tatting Is in Color.” Modern tatting? An oxymoron today!
One of the entertaining ads in the 1952 issue

And it’s not just needlework. There’s the “Home Workshop” category that includes how to make headboards and luggage covers and how to press things to preserve them. There’s the monthly menu, a typical weekday of which reads (and this is from 1966) “Ham Biscuit Roll with Cheese Sauce; Orange-glazed Sweet Potatoes; Jellied Vegetable Salad; Boston Cream Pie,” or another day, “Chicken Livers (wrap in bacon; broil); Rice Pilaf; Dandelion Greens with Hard-cooked Egg; Radishes, Ripe Olives; Baked Custard.”

I’m not so na├»ve as to think these magazines perfectly represent what life was like in those decades. This is no history lesson, and it would be awfully gullible to ignore that magazines show ideal versions of the lives of their readers think they want. Still, these magazines show we shouldn’t discount just how much housewives of these decades made their home. And Shirley Jackson was a housewife. That much is clear from reading her essay on how she had the idea for “The Lottery” while pushing her children home in the stroller with the groceries.

This ad is opposite a page of Jackson's "The
House." Gotta love the title "Skirts Ahoy"
Suddenly a house with consciousness and will seems both more understandable and, somehow, more subversive. Of course a home has personality, if only from the invested time and talent projected by its inmates—and yet, how terrifying when a person does not make the home but the home, of its own accord, insists on impressing itself upon the person. Is Eleanor—who daydreams of a little house with lace curtains and stone lions, and who can’t bear to clear the table after a meal—susceptible to Hill House’s lure precisely because she is a homemaker, while the less conventional Theodora is not and does not suffer the house in the same way?

Another question: Can we 21st-century readers who tend to inhabit our homes in evenings and on weekends understand the intense relationship between a home and its “maker”? Leave me a comment with your thoughts. As for me, I’m off to knit an heirloom bedspread. I am a novelist housewife, after all.