Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House (1959)
Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (1963)
Lately I seem to have been reading a lot of amazing memoirs by women, frequently dealing with psychological manipulation and coming out of a state of subjugation or abuse. (Tara Westover’s Educated being the most recent example — and it turned out to be as impressive as all the reviews said it was.) I am in awe of how these women writers can describe their mental states, when so much of their lives were spent in conditions not supportive of self-knowledge or self-definition, to say the least. Their stories are testaments to the strength and bravery of the human spirit, and also to the very real, very great challenges we face in maintaining our humanity, opposed as it is by the power of evil at work in our world.
In the past, I think, women were more inclined to veil such accounts in fiction. It was not very acceptable to explore liminal psychological states or reveal periods of mental instability. And it was definitely not acceptable to criticize the patriarchy or call out examples of abuse perpetrated either by men or patriarchy-bound women. Freud’s discounting of women’s experience as delusional must have made it seem even more impossible to be truthful, in an open, unguarded way. Story always comes to our aid when attempting to give form to intractable realities.
Two extraordinary mid-twentieth-century fictions that delve into a woman’s psyche have just been released in beautiful new editions by The Folio Society, and it is fascinating to look at them today. Both authors created incredible works of art out of painful mental aberrations, and with their psychological acuity and unflinching gaze at much that society in general did not want to acknowledge, brought us a step further towards where we are now. In some ways, fiction can be an invaluable aid in helping us to tell the truth.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, first published in 1959, is one that I avoided reading for years, because I’m not a great fan of horror or of haunted houses. I should have trusted Jackson to provide something much more complex and rewarding than a mere parcel of cheap thrills. Hill House is much less about a haunted house, than it is about a haunted woman — in the vein of James’s The Turn of the Screw, we are kept unsure as to whether the ghosts are “real.” But in another sense that is the wrong question, because what is real to the protagonist, Eleanor, is her very palpable suffering and alienation from everyone around her, people whose turning away from her in the end is as fatal as any malicious ghost could be.
She had longed to find a refuge and a home at Hill House, which turns out to be a cruel delusion. What should concern us is not the reality of spooks, but the circumstances that leave human souls so adrift, so unmoored from the shores of life. Whether embodied as a house, a family circle, or a maternal womb (and Eleanor is clearly haunted by an abusive mother), the spaces and communities that should nurture us and instead hurt and betray us are realms that need to be explored, but dangerous for those weak in inner resource.
Jackson’s marvelous sense of style and rhythm, her pitch-black sense of humor that does not stifle, but awakens our compassion, are everywhere in evidence and keep us reading along to the conclusion that, in masterly form, circles back to its beginning. Hill House seems to be a timeless place, everywhere and nowhere, that out-of-tune structure that we can fear or anticipate meeting around any corner.
Folio’s edition is illustrated by Angie Hoffmeister in somber tones and detailed realism. She mainly depicts the uncanny and off-kilter as evoked by the house and its inhabitants themselves, with a couple of ghostly appearances. They adeptly evoke the mood of Hill House and help us to feel immersed in its environment. Though there are only seven full-page illustrations, vignettes at the end of some chapters focus our attention on certain significant objects — a ouija planchette, an empty suitcase, an open book — that add to the sense of unease and displacement. The excellent introduction by Joyce Carol Oates (which should be saved for reading after the book, to avoid spoilers for first-time readers) points up the psychological themes and Jackson’s idiosyncratic genius.
In short, it’s a magnificent production of a book that has been weighed down by its genre associations, but should be better known for its penetrating portrayal of a mind gone wrong.
Sylvia Plath is literary kin to Shirley Jackson; the introduction to the new Folio edition of Plath’s one novel, The Bell Jar notes that Plath admired Jackson’s 1954 novel The Bird’s Nest and was partly inspired by it to mine her own psychological history in a book. Plath’s own novel is far more autobiographical than any of Jackson’s, following closely the timeline of one disastrous half-year in her life when she attempted suicide and was committed to a mental hospital. But the outer events are very much shaped into art, into a conscious and ironic commentary on her own younger self, on young women in general, and on the world that makes it impossible for them to grow into free and healthy beings.
The distortions of Esther Greenwood’s descent into mental illness mirror the distortions that surround us all as we grow up, the falseness, hypocrisy, indifference, and outright cruelty that warp young minds, who either conform to survive, or break themselves in trying to escape this trap. The first half of the book, ten of its twenty chapters, is concerned with Esther’s month in New York as an intern at the magazine Ladies’ Day, drawn from Plath’s experience at Mademoiselle. There, in one memorable incident, she is fed ptomaine-laced crabmeat produced from a perfectly gleaming, sanitized kitchen, the perfect symbol for the corruption that lies beneath the surface appearances of 1950s America, poisoning it from within.
The second half, in which Esther is rejected from a summer program she had counted on to take her away from home (like Eleanor, she has vaguely defined but undeniable mother issues), becomes depressed, is traumatized by a shock treatment administered by a shockingly uncaring male doctor, attempts suicide several times and nearly succeeds once, is one of those tour-de-force portraits of a disordered inner state conveyed through precise, allusive language, an account only a great poet could write.
It ends on a decidedly equivocal note; although a more compassionate female doctor has helped Esther, there is no assurance that she will be fine in the future. She steps over a threshold into an unknown, and we step with her, breathless and uncertain, shaken by this journey through the inferno.
It might seem that Plath has created a bitter, cynical, downhearted account of a world gone mad. But somehow, she has not. She has made something beautiful, whose beauty resides not in the loveliness of outer appearances but in the fact that she is there, seeing it, writing it, alive in the valley of the shadow of death, honest and true as she can be, in the midst of the most powerful, most punishing delusions. Although, tragically, Plath took her own life just a month after the book was published under a pseudonym in 1963, still prey to the depression that haunted its pages, her book lives, and always live as long as there are hearts open to receive it.
In the Folio edition, along with the fine introduction by Plath scholar Heather Clark, illustrations by Alexandra Levasseur complement and comment on the text. These are richly colored, dreamlike images, whose flowing outlines and impressionistic brushwork bring us into Esther’s mental world. A striking binding design shows Esther peering with a look of determination through a sort of mask or silhouette that represents the outer persona from which she is struggling to free herself. In stark red, white, and black, it provides the keynote for the story of blood and death that we are about to enter, through the artist’s gaze.
These two beautiful, though harrowing books are richly deserving of such fine editions. If you haven’t read them yet, I hope that you will, and appreciate two writers who were pioneers of psychological fiction, and revealers of unsettling, but important truths.
Review copy gratefully received from the publisher. No other compensation was received, and all opinions expressed are independently held by the reviewers.