Shirley Jackson’s final novel (published in 1962) begins six years after an infamous poisoning case in rural Vermont. One night, all but three members of the wealthy Blackwood family were killed when they finished their evening meal with a dessert of blackberries sprinkled with sugar — and, it turned out, arsenic. Of the three who survived, twelve-year-old Mary Katherine (“Merricat”) had been sent, that evening, to bed without any supper (we never learn what for, only that she “was always in disgrace… a wicked, disobedient child”); 22-year-old Constance prepared the meal, but was known to never take sugar on her blackberries; and old Uncle Julian was poisoned but survived, though no longer with all his wits intact. Constance was put on trial, but with insufficient evidence that she intended to poison her family (which included her parents, Uncle Julian’s wife, and her ten-year-old brother Thomas), was acquitted. Shortly after that, following an unspecified incident in the local village, she has never since left the Blackwood family home and its grounds.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle is narrated by Merricat, who, though now eighteen, seems stuck in her six-years-prior self. She’s still the irresponsible, petulant child she was back then, spending her days in imaginative games, and burying significant items (a box of silver dollars, a cache of blue marbles) about the grounds as magical protections. She has strict taboos — she can’t handle food, she can’t enter Uncle Julian’s room — which make her seem stuck in the initiation stage of adolescence (some traditional societies’ initiations involve taboos, such as not touching the ground, or not speaking, for a time). She, though, is the only member of the family who can leave the house and its grounds, and makes twice-weekly visits to the village to buy food, during which she’s only too aware of the stares and comments of the townsfolk, and the way children chant mocking rhymes as she passes:
Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?
Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!
It’s obvious the Blackwood family are caught in a stasis. Uncle Julian talks of nothing but the poisoning, about which he’s compiling copious notes to write a history of that night. Constance devotes herself entirely to feeding and caring for the other two, and thinks of nothing beyond her limited domestic bounds. Merricat, an eternal twelve-year-old, is allowed to wander and play, indulging in fantasies of living on the moon. The Blackwood sisters are complimentary opposites, but share an unspoken understanding as though they’re the two halves of a single soul. Constance, for instance, is over-responsible, even blaming herself for Merricat’s misbehaviours — but never telling Merricat off or punishing her. (The last time Merricat was punished was when she was sent to bed without any supper on the night of the poisoning.) Merricat, on the other hand, is wilful and irresponsible in her moods. If she’s angry, she might deliberately shatter a jug or a mirror, and Constance just accepts this as a thing that had to happen and cleans up after her. Constance is utterly domestic, and blanks out every other part of life; Merricat is imaginative, witchy (she has a cat and casts spells), and is mostly lost in daydreams, existing in a world charged with magical forces, a little like the girl in Machen’s “The White People” or Du Maurier’s “The Pool”.
I wrote before about Jackson’s extreme ambivalence about the idea of home — how in her fiction it’s both a longed-for refuge from the world and a potential trap or prison — and in We Have Always Lived in the Castle that extends to other aspects of the home, with both family and food highly charged sources of nurture on the one hand, and suppression and control on the other.
Food is particularly important in the novel, both as a symbol of everyday familial love, and of the consequences of love’s withdrawal or repression. Constance cooks for her charges, always providing exactly what they want, and always thinking of the next pie or plate of cookies she might bake; but it was through food — the poisoned sugar — that the rest of the family was killed. On that night, Merricat was sent to her room without food, a withdrawal of familial love (though she knew her sister would come up later with a tray — the two had a close connection even then). The one thing that takes Merricat out of the house and into the village — and so, the one way in which the family still relates to society — is to buy food. But she also has a taboo against eating in front of strangers — she will always buy a coffee at a certain café in the village, but if another customer enters, she leaves without drinking it — and doesn’t allow herself to touch food or prepare it. (And near the end of the novel, after the villagers have spent their violent antipathy towards the Blackwoods, that relationship turns to contrition, which is again expressed through food — the pies and other supplies left on the Blackwood porch.)
The most potent food symbol in the book is in the Blackwood cellar. Generations of Blackwood women have made jars of preserves, and they’re all stored there, in the dark, underground. These preserves, Constance says, have probably turned bad or even poisonous with age, like a battery of stored-up yet unused or suppressed-and-going-sour love, all the untapped potentials of generations of women. Family is, in the novel, freighted with an almost palpable historical weight, its traditions acting both as an anchor of solidity and a repressive burden:
“…as soon as a new Blackwood wife moved in, a place was found for her belongings, and so our house was built up with layers of Blackwood property weighting it, and keeping it steady against the world.”
To me, it feels as though the poisoning that occurred was waiting to happen, an upsurge from all that buried, preserved food-going-poisonous in the cellar, and so much locked-away and unspent, unexpressed familial love.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle reminds me of other stories of insular-and-gone-strange families, including 1970’s Mumsy, Sonny, Nanny, & Girly (which I mewsed on back in 2010), or the 2009 film Dogtooth, right back to Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher” and so many Gothic tales before that. The one essential element in all these stories is that, at some point, someone comes along to upset the family’s stasis, some outsider or agent of change.
Into this novel comes cousin Charles, whose father (the Blackwood sisters’ non-Julian uncle) has recently died, leaving him nothing. Charles knows the Blackwoods have money, and though we can’t be sure this is his motive for visiting, it’s certainly what our narrator Merricat suspects. Charles ensconces himself in the father’s room, starts wearing the father’s watch and sitting at the head of the dining room table. He clearly finds Uncle Julian’s messy way of eating disgusting (food and control, again), and feels the old man should be made to shut up about the only subject he ever talks about, the poisoning. Charles also thinks Merricat’s wildness needs to be tamed. Perhaps she should be sent away again, as she was after the poisoning (to an orphanage, because Charles’s father refused to take her in). Constance, so domestic and responsible, starts to be taken in by Charles’s arguments, but Merricat, of course, is not.
In both of the Jackson novels I’ve read — this one and The Haunting of Hill House — the ambivalence about home, how it can be both a refuge and a trap, a place to belong and a place to be imprisoned in, is never resolved, only transformed and intensified until it becomes a weird mix of fairy-tale fulfilment and hellish damnation. Eleanor, in The Haunting of Hill House, wants nothing more than a home she can belong to, but when she first sees Hill House she instantly knows it’s a nightmare. Nevertheless, she finds a home there, perhaps because she can find no other home, being the person she is (or feels she is). We Have Always Lived in the Castle begins with a family in self-protective retreat, whose home is both a castle-like defence against the world, and the stultifying bounds of a self-imposed prison. By the end, things have changed, but only by becoming more intensely the same. It’s a weirdly deranged ending that somehow makes total and irreversible retreat into a kind of fairy-tale fulfilment. The Blackwood sisters become, in the end, even more removed from reality, a final, fatal step away from Constance’s domestic sensibleness and into Merricat’s moon-mindedness. They become a fairy tale to scare local kids with — and scare them, of course, by saying they’ll eat them. Food again.