Sunday 9 August 2009

Elizabeth, Beth, Betsy, and Bess...

Those with a more encyclopediac knowledge of nursery rhymes than I might automatically finish the blog post title with:

...all went together to find a bird's nest.
They found a bird's nest with five eggs in it.
Each took one and left four in it.

I told you I'd get excited about being able to click on the quotation function. This could be a case of Picasa 3 all over again, where I get giddy with excitement for a fortnight, then forget all about it. (It's just a button I press on the making-a-blog-post screen...)

This is all a long preamble to talking about Shirley Jackon's The Bird's Nest (1954). Today's post might be of more interest to American readers of Stuck-in-a-Book, since there seem to be a lot more copies available Stateside than in old Blighty. I had to read it in the Bodleian. Shirley Jackson is known to me as the author of The Haunting of Hill House (which I wrote about briefly here) and the brilliant We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which I'll write about in October when the new Penguin paperback comes out in the UK. Having been very impressed by these chilling novels - very Gothic, not horror - I was really intrigued to see what Jackson's pen made of multiple personality disorder. Or dissociative identity disorder, depending upon which guide you use.

For this is the central concept of The Bird's Nest, which takes its title from that nursery rhyme. The novel starts with Elizabeth - reticent, uncharismatic, a little moody - who is experiencing headaches, insomnia, and occasional black-outs. With the help of Dr. Wright, it quickly becomes apparent that Elizabeth is only one personality amongst many - and the others become increasingly dominant. There is sweet, gentle Beth; feisty, selfish Betsy; airs-and-graces Bess. Much of the novel is from the perspective of Dr. Wright, debating his dealings with these personas, and pondering how to bring them all together into one being. (Lizzie, if you will. Or Elspeth or Eliza or Liz or Betty or Bette... what a versatile name Elizabeth is.) Other chapters are from the perspective of one of the four personalities - but towards the end of the novel these chop and change so quickly that it's more or less a hotpot of different points of view. A film was made in 1957 (called Lizzie) and I've no idea how the actress, Eleanor Parker, managed to portray all these transformations.

And that's a problem Shirley Jackson encounters occasionally. It's difficult enough to keep one protagonist consistent throughout a novel - four incarnations must be a nightmare. The most obviously shifting is Beth, who starts as an ideal of Elizabeth, kind and sweet - by the end she weeps at the slightest provocation, and forever moans that nobody likes her. Betsy, contrarily, becomes much more likeable as the novel progresses. But these changes do not materially affect the novel - nor diminish the fact that, though inaccurate, The Bird's Nest is impressively prescient about multiple personality disorder. The condition was not officiall
y medically recognised until 1980 - this novel was published in 1954. It is a bit fanciful about the interaction of the various personalities, but the patient's symptoms do match many of those discussed in the Wikipedia article on the subject... so, unless the person who created that article used The Bird's Nest as their sole source text, I'm quite impressed.

The Bird's Nest isn't in the same league as We Have Always Lived in the Castle. The writing isn't as pacy, the atmosphere not so intense, the characters not so well drawn - but it is still an eerie, involving, and unusual book which doesn't shame Jackson's oeuvre. Probably not good enough to bring back into print on its own merits, but as a fascinating example of the beginnings of a genre, and as a novel from a writer showing promise of her later brilliance, I can recommend The Bird's Nest.


  1. I have the Penguin editions of We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House pre-ordered. I was very impressed by "The Lottery" when I read and reviewed it a couple of months ago. I am surprised how less-known Shirley Jackson is in the UK.

  2. I must admit to being one of those UK readers never to have read any Shirley Jackson. These sound wonderful though, and having just read the synopsis of 'We Have Always Lived in the Castle' on Amazon, it's definitely going on my TBR list!

  3. This sounds so very Shirley Jackson. :) Great review - I only recently read her more famous novels, and for some reason I was convinced she hadn't written any others. I'm pleased to be wrong, even if the others are slightly subpar.

  4. I enjoy reading your blog and have added some books to my TBR list from your reviews. Thanks. I love Shirley Jackson and am really happy to see her books being reviewed on book blogs. She is quite unique. I just finished her biography called Private Demons and it was really interesting and well done-- it talks about her books and where her life was at with each of the writings. It gave me some more insight into her work...

  5. I think everyone my age in the state had to read The Lottery in people read that here? Great story, but it wasn't until I read We Have Always Lived in the Castle that I decided Jackson is properly thrilling :).


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