The Letters of Shirley Jackson—a Preview!

book cover of The Letters of Shirley JacksonI’ve been busy reading the delightful, yet somewhat vexing Letters of Shirley Jackson (Random House, 672 pp., $14.99 on Kindle) and writing a long review of it!

Finding a home (irony alert, as Shirley was always focused on the physical and symbolic nature of her homes!) for the review has been difficult, but someone in the Binders group suggested The Internet Review of Books, which I’d never heard of. I looked it up, found that it does indeed exist, and successfully pitched the review. So when it appears there, I will link to it.

For a woman and a writer so temperamentally unlike me, I found myself getting rather attached to Shirley, rather interested in her. Since she was of my grandmothers’ generation (born 1916), I ended up seeing her through that lens: women who felt themselves to be “modern” when young but who ended up being throttled and thwarted by the culture around them, prematurely sidelined, stuck with husbands who were either weak or dominant (or both!).

It’s no coincidence, I fear, that when Shirley was the breadwinner in her marriage, earning enough from her novels and stories to support husband Stanley Edgar Hyman while he wrote his book (The Armed Vision, completely unread nowadays), the relationship flourished. But after rising to a peak in the early ’50s, when the couple felt economically stable for the first time, Shirley increasingly turned inward and became invisible to her husband, whose teaching (and romantic entanglements) at the local women’s college, Bennington, absorbed his time. The cruelty of the relationship is not uncommon even nowadays. Trapped between wealthy, superficial parents in California who had opposed her marriage and a claustrophobic, lonely life in Vermont, Shirley made the best of it.

Far from being a bore—a fear that she admits to in one of the bleakest letters, one that she addressed to her husband and left for posterity—Shirley seems like an immensely appealing woman who turned to crutches (food, drink, drugs) to cope that many people were using at the time… and still do. Her love of Morris Minor cars was one of the most charming and unexpected things I learned from the book. Riding in my Irish grandmother’s old black Morris Minor in the mid-1970s is a nostalgic childhood memory for me. I would have assumed those cars were never available in the U.S. Shirley somehow managed to buy a convertible!

I wrote about Shirley previously in my blog post The Downhill Slide, which to my surprise has become one of my most-read posts.

Update: My full review of The Letters of Shirley Jackson is scheduled to appear here on September 8. It’s up—check it out!!

About Gabriella West

Author of LGBT historical fiction and contemporary queer romance.
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