We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Between this and Jeff Smith’s Bone, I’ve been spoiling myself with good fiction this week.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is the story of Mary Katherine Blackwood (“Merricat”), who lives with her sister Constance and their Uncle Julian in the Blackwood family home. The rest of the family is dead, poisoned six years earlier – Constance had been accused of their murder, but was acquitted. Now Uncle Julian is crippled by the same poisoning; Constance never travels further than the garden; and Merricat herself only ventures out into the village twice a week for groceries, where she is subject to cold looks, loud gossip, and the taunting of local children.

The sisters live a simple life of routine: Constance gardens, cares for Julian, and spends much of her time cooking; Merricat lives by a strict schedule of days, each day having its own activity (Monday, neaten the house; Tuesday and Friday, buy groceries; Wednesday, check the fence; and so on). Merricat has a strong sense of ritual, and a kind of sympathetic magic – burying items or choosing magic words that will protect them from change so long as they aren’t discovered. There are things we are told that Merricat is not allowed to do – she may not prepare food, or touch knives, for example – but as her narrative draws us along, one begins to suspect that these rules are in fact self-imposed. Early in the story, the sisters’ weekly visitor Helen Clarke arrives for tea accompanied by a nervous guest, and Merricat taunts the other woman about her reluctance to drink; later, after thinking about those weekly visits, she “decide[s] that from now on [she] would not be allowed to hand tea cups.”

There’s a sense that these rules, restrictions, and rituals are things Merricat uses for penance and for self-protection, but she would never openly admit as much. Mary Katherine is always straightforward, matter-of-fact, but never directly addresses the reasons for her behaviour – in Merricat’s narrative, there are no explanations or excuses needed, because everything just is. As a result this is a novel of unspoken depths, where what is said is only as important as what remains unsaid. There’s such a rich subtext behind the whole story that is brought to life by Merricat’s childish-but-knowing voice.

Conflict in the story arrives in the form of Cousin Charles, son of an estranged uncle who had severed all ties with Constance following the trial. Now the uncle is dead and has left no inheritance, so Charles appears, ostensibly for a short visit, but in reality he seems to have every intention of claiming the house – and the wealth he believes it holds – for himself. The sisters have no use for wealth, and Merricat’s habit of burying valuable things horrifies (the most likely destitute) Charles.

To Merricat, Cousin Charles is an intruder, a stranger bringing change into the household, and more worryingly, into her relationship with Constance. The two clash constantly, Charles demanding that Merricat needs discipline (and using this to undermine Constance’s confidence in herself as a caregiver), while Merricat uses her sympathetic magic to try and drive Charles – who she considers a “demon and a ghost” – away. Their arguing escalates to the point where it inadvertantly results in the violent release of the entire village’s pent-up hatred for the Blackwood family.

Following this climax, the two sisters retreat into even deeper isolation than before, severing themselves entirely from the village, reducing their world down to just a kitchen and a garden. Charles, having seen the house ruined, vanishes from their lives again (though not without one final attempt to profit from them). But as the sisters grow more isolated and insular, their happiness increases. In a sense it is a retreat, a refusal to confront the problems they have or to face their friends and enemies. They refuse the complexities of life in favour of their garden, their food, and the company of each other. They are, in a sense, broken by what has happened to them, but in denial and retreat they somehow find a kind of contentment.

“Poor strangers,” I said. “They have so much to be afraid of.”
“Well,” Constance said, “I am afraid of spiders.”
“Jonas and I will see to it that no spider ever comes near you. Oh, Constance,” I said, “we are so happy.”

It is a beautiful book.


2 thoughts on “We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

  1. I thought this book was beautiful as well and I love that you end your review that way. I was shocked at how much I loved this book and finished it in just one setting. I was really shocked by the twist. I think I saw it coming and then I said no, no couldn’t be and then it was! AH!

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