Thursday 28 April 2011

Life Among the Savages - Shirley Jackson

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.


  1. I appropriated this book from my parents when I was probably six or so, based on the crayon scrawl of my name inside the front cover. I've loved it ever since. My favorite part may be the flu episode (as weird as that sounds), though "You bad webbis, you can't come to *my* house" is a family phrase even for those who haven't read the book. It was years before I read Raising Demons. Don't you also love an entire family of readers?

  2. I have to admit that I am one of those people so scarred by reading "The Lottery" in school that I haven't been able to face any of Jackson's novels. Every time I check We Have Always Live in the Castle out from the library I get nervous and too scared to read it. But this? This sounds like the perfect way to ease myself into reading Jackson! Have I ever met a humourous domestic 'memoir' that I could resist? Nope!

  3. Shirley Jackson's novels have been on my list for sometime now. Will get round to it eventually! This one is new to me so thanks for the heads up.

  4. I'm definitely sold! This sounds brilliant.

  5. I'm so glad you enjoyed this - I really loved it, and found it simply hilarious. I've been meaning to read Raising Demons ever since but haven't got around to it - you remind me how much I want to, though!

  6. This does sound delightful. I haven't read any of Jackson's novels myself, so this one will have me looking a little harder for them. And, your review was a good reminder to pull Mrs. Tim off the TBR shelf. :)

  7. This sounds like exactly the sort of book I'd love -- I just assumed all her stuff was scary gothic. I loved Provincial Lady so this is right up my alley! Thanks for posting, I'll look for it right away.

  8. Maybe this is a bit weird of me to say, but I LOVED "The Lottery" (probably having something to do with the fact that I heard it was a loose basis for The Hunger Games, and thus had to read it immediately) and The Haunting of Hill House . This one sounds quite different, but I love the idea of perhaps being able to read the Gothic into it if that's what you're looking for. Thanks for a great review!

  9. Lisa May - 'appropriated from my parents' - so, you stole it then! I must confess 'bad webbis' confused me - is it supposed to be a pun on something? But I love it when phrases from books become family catchphrases - one of ours is from the William books: "A *manly* boy is the first to tell a joke against himself." Usually just shortened to "A *manly* boy..."

    Claire - This would be the perfect starting novel for you! I am totally with you - there is no humorous domestic memoir I don't love. Unless Tea and Tranquilisers was supposed to be funny - it was horrendous. So I thought, but Verity liked it. And I lovethe image of you regularly checking We Have Always Lived in the Castle out of the library... it's not scary, honest! Haunting of Hill House is a bit...

    Mystica - this one might be harder to find than some of her others, I warn you!

    Miranda - hope you find, and enjoy!

    Victoria - I was spurred on by your review! Raising Demons is on its way to me from the US, so I'll let you know what I think, when I read it.

    Susan - and this is one you'll have a much easier time finding in the US than in the UK! They go for nothing your side of the pond... And enjoy Mrs. Tim!

    Karen - it is so very different from her gothic stuff, I was surprised.

    Chelsea - The Lottery is the only short story by Jackson that I've read, and I really like it too - I love gothic but I hate horror, and it's hard to find authors who do one without the other - hurrah for Jackson!


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