Madwomen are everywhere in literature. Yeats had his truth-telling Crazy Jane. Dickens had his embalmed and vindictive Miss Havisham. Charlotte Bronte famously locked her madwoman Bertha in the attic. Emily Dickinson, if you want to believe some scholars, was one herself, her lyric poems the singular product of a broken mind, her life’s work evidence of a helpless agoraphobia. But more on her later.
I want to talk to you about Constance and Mary Katherine Blackwood. They are main characters of Shirley Jackson’s novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle: sisters, young women, the youngest surviving members of an aristocratic clan. Mary Katherine, our narrator, puts it this way, in one of the best opening passages I’ve ever read:
My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all, I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.
As we soon learn, all of the other Blackwood family members are dead because one of the surviving sisters—much later in the novel we find which— poisoned them at one fatal dinner by putting arsenic in the sugar bowl. Mary Katherine (called Merrikat) and Constance now live alone in their grand family home with an elderly invalid uncle. Merrikat is the only Blackwood who ever ventures into public, and does so only to gather necessary household goods. The Blackwood sisters have been shunned and mistreated by the society of their village for Constance’s suspected role in the family deaths, and the sisters are only too happy to return the townspeople’s disdain and live a life of almost complete isolation. However, Charles, a loathsome cousin, soon comes sniffing around for the family money, throwing the delicate balance of their cloistered life into chaos.
Never are so-called madwomen portrayed so sensitively, with so much sympathy and humor, as Jackson renders the Blackwood sisters in We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Merrikat is half-feral, child-like, bitingly observant and intelligent. She is a practitioner of her own self-invented protective magic, full of violent hatred for the townspeople. Constance is her inverse: fearful, soft-willed and quietly practical housekeeper and cook, endlessly indulgent and nonjudgmental of her sister’s strangeness. They can be read as a reconfiguration of two female character types in gothic fiction. On one hand, you have the malevolent, half-human, “unnatural” woman leading other characters into evil, like Coleridge’s Geraldine in his gothic poem Christabel, Le Fanu’s titular vampire in his novella Carmilla, and Matthew Lewis’ demonic Matilda in The Monk. On the other hand you have the gothic heroine, the model of proper womanhood— inquisitive, gentle, in danger of seduction and excessive fainting spells, a role inhabited to varying degrees by characters such as Ann Radcliffe’s Emily in The Mysteries of Udolpho, Coleridge’s titular Christabel, and Bram Stoker’s Mina Harker in Dracula.
However, in Jackson’s novel these two character types, as represented by Merrikat and Constance respectively, are not arrayed in opposition to one another. They are, despite their differences, and some conflict with each other over Charles, in harmony. They are deeply unsettling and deeply human, and together they are allied against the patriarchal norms of their society. They do not want to perform the role of dutiful daughter, nor marry or have children; they do not want to enact the role expected of an upper class woman, conducting polite drawing room conversation. One might even say that they’re taking what has for quite some time been a comfortable masculine prerogative: “living deliberately,” as Thoreau put it, going into his own self-imposed solitude, or the macho leaving behind of traditional attachments Kerouac portrays in On the Road. (When a man chooses a life of solitude, it’s painted in an almost a spiritual light—see also, the tale of The North Pond Hermit http://www.gq.com/newspolitics/newsmakers/201409/the-last-true-hermit —but when a woman does it, of course, she must be crazy.)
Merrikat and Constance want to be left alone in the company they choose and like best, creating a world all their own—what Merrikat calls “the moon.” She says she’ll someday reach the moon on a “winged horse” (the reader can’t help but see Pegasus, the spirit of poetry). The horse “would be comfortable there,” since, as she says, “Everything’s safe on the moon”—there are no outside forces to crush its imaginative flight. The Blackwood home itself is a poem made by women:
There were jars of jam made by great-grandmothers, with labels in pale writing, almost unreadable by now…[…] All Blackwood women had taken the food that came from the ground and preserved it, and the deeply colored rows of jellies and pickles and bottled vegetables and fruit, maroon and amber and dark rich green stood side by side in our cellar and would stand there forever, a poem by the Blackwood women.
One can’t help but be reminded of Plath’s poem “Wintering,” in which she writes “I have whirled the midwife’s extractor, / I have my honey, / Six jars of it,/ Six cat’s eyes in the wine cellar,” and then, fantastically—
The bees are all women,
Maids and the long royal lady.
They have got rid of the men,
The blunt, clumsy stumblers, the boors.
Winter is for women —-
So, Merrikat Blackwood murders her whole family with poisoned sugar—sugar being very thing Plath feeds her cellar bees in “Wintering” so that they will survive until spring—and then the Blackwood sisters lock themselves away from the world. Criminally insane? Definitely. A healthy, not-all-at-creepily-codependent relationship? Hardly. But because of the tender and witty way the novel is written, you are on their side—and that means something.
You are with Merrikat in her desire to rid the Blackwood home of the Charles, a “blunt, clumsy stumbler” if there ever was one. You rejoice when, after the townspeople have ransacked and burned the Blackwood home, Constance and Merrikat return to find three livable rooms in the rubble—the kitchen and the rooms off of it, the places where women have always reigned—and begin their life anew, building barricades to keep the world away from their property. You want to cheer when the villagers leave food at the unanswered Blackwood door as an apology for their crimes against the sisters, and you laugh when the town’s children make up legends about the sister’s bloodthirstiness. And then there is this chilling, funny, victorious end:
“I wonder if I could eat a child if I had the chance.”
“I doubt I could cook it,” Constance said.
“Poor strangers,” I said. “They have so much to be afraid of.”
“Well,” Constance said, “I am afraid of spiders.”
“Jonas [the cat] and I will see to it that no spider ever comes near you. Oh, Constance,” I said, “we are so happy.”
What makes the ending so uncanny is that they are right. The Blackwood sisters are happy in their encapsulated female society. They are finally “on the moon,” a place where they “wear feathers in [their] hair, and rubies on [their] hands.” And Merrikat is right, too, that other people “have so much to be afraid of.”
In the novel, as in other works of Jackson’s, such as her short story “The Lottery,” the “normal” people, the ones committed to the way things have always been, are the ones to fear and mistrust. By the end of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, however, the sisters are something to fear, too, and it’s in this reversal that the novel’s really subversive content lies. The sisters end the novel in a place of power, having made a separate, creative, all-female space where they get to live by their own rules. And to a hegemonic society, that really is something to be afraid of.
Jackson biographer Judy Oppenheimer calls We Have Always Lived in the Castle Jackson’s “paean to agoraphobia,” and many critics have connected the increasing isolation of its characters to Jackson’s own descent later in life into agoraphobia and paranoia. But a biographical reading of the novel as evidence of Jackson’s own status as a “madwoman” of sorts isn’t enough— just as it isn’t enough to read Dickinson’s startling, incendiary poems through the lens of whatever illnesses, physical or mental, she may or may not have had, simultaneously interpreting her supposed personal isolation as merely evidence of a pathology. Such assessment of We Have Always Lived in the Castle is reductive of the achievement the novel really is— a wry, dark feminist fantasy of personal and creative freedom, a gothic novel reworking the traditional roles of the evil enchantress and the ingénue heroine into something quite new: madwomen who get to win.
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