Shirley Jackson and Muriel Spark (Mini-Reviews)

I’m trying to read more books from my own shelves (ongoing, a voracious reader’s constant struggle.) I still have some books checked out from the library from pre-quarantine times, but for some reason I don’t want to read them all yet! It’s like I’m saving them or something! 😀 So I tried two from the shelf by my bed and am pleased to report that they were both (mostly) enjoyable. And one is from my Classics Club list. Here are some quick thoughts.

Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson (Classics Club)

I LOVE Shirley Jackson. I’ve read almost all of her novels but still have short stories and nonfiction to go. This is a memoir/essay collection published in 1953, focusing on her growing family renting an old house in rural Vermont and the zany antics that ensue with young children, pets, and a house and car that constantly need repairs. This is decidedly not like the Shirley Jackson you may know from The Haunting of Hill House or We Have Always Lived in the Castle. It’s an interesting look into daily life in a rural town in the late 1940s and early 1950s. And of course at that time, women were primary caregivers and housekeepers in most families. Even knowing that, I still bristled at the lack of a father/husband figure in the memoir. I haven’t read a biography of Jackson yet, but I’ve heard that things weren’t great at home with her husband. So I guess it fits that he’s such a non-entity. I felt sorry for Shirley dealing with the very active, precocious children (although they are cute and funny) and all the household things breaking down, and she mentions being out of money a lot. I was mad at her husband for not even being a good “breadwinner,” which is the very least you’d expect a traditional 1950’s husband to be! And all the while she is writing amazing, subversive, creepy fiction somehow! Overall I enjoyed it enough, but my annoyance probably colored my impression more than some readers. A quick scan of Goodreads reviews show me that most readers found this very funny. I would call it “amusing.” I’m not sure if I’ll read Raising Demons, which is her other domestic memoir. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

A Far Cry From Kensington by Muriel Spark

This is my first novel by Muriel Spark but it definitely won’t be my last. I’ve read about her work for a while now from many other bloggers and picked up a copy of her 1988 novel A Far Cry From Kensington at a local used book store for $.75. What a bargain. What a quirky book! It’s kind of hard to summarize and felt expansive for its slim 187 pages. Set in London in the 1950s, it focuses on the residents of a boarding house and reads almost like a mystery. Our narrator, Mrs. Hawkins, is a 28 year-old war widow who works in publishing and is the kind of woman others find capable and helpful. Looking back on this time, she attributed it to her size:

Milly, like everyone else in the house or in my office, never used my first name. Although I was a young woman of twenty-eight I was generally known as Mrs. Hawkins. There was something about me, Mrs. Hawkins, that invited confidences. I was abundantly aware of it, and indeed abundance was the impression I gave. I was massive in size, strong-muscled, huge-bosomed, with wide hips, hefty long legs, a bulging belly and fat backside; I carried an ample weight with my five-foot-six of height, and was healthy with it. It was, of course, partly this physical factor that disposed people to confide in me. I looked comfortable.

Here is the only thing about the book I wasn’t comfortable with, this intense focus on size as the defining characteristic of Mrs. Hawkins. She is a funny character, always dispensing free advice, and not afraid to tell it like it is with dreadful people (as in her nemesis, pushy, would-be writer Hector Bartlett.) But there was an awful lot of fat phobia on display here in Spark’s writing, and it didn’t sit right with me. As the story continues Mrs. Hawkins decides to become thin (by eating half portions of everything) and it completely changes her life. A tired old trope to be sure. Thankfully, there is a riveting story line to go along with all this diet talk. One of Mrs. Hawkins’ fellow boarders, a Polish refugee and seamstress named Wanda, is receiving mysterious, threatening, anonymous letters and is terrified. And the publisher for which Mrs. Hawkins works is engaging in illegal activities as well. I did enjoy this tremendously despite the diet stuff, which is a testament to Spark’s storytelling. I have another of her books on my shelf to read, the one for which she may be best known, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Have you read either of these, or anything else by these authors?

26 thoughts on “Shirley Jackson and Muriel Spark (Mini-Reviews)

  1. I read Life Among the Savages when my children were young and remember enjoying it.
    I think there is some real power in being a physically imposing woman. My guess is that when she reduces she is seen as a possible love interest, rather than only a person to confide in.

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  2. I read the first biography of Shirley Jackson, and I was surprised by how devious both she and Stanley were. He was a college professor so was there all day (eventually, Jackson becomes his chauffeur), and he’s cheating on her, too. Because the chapters of her “mostly true” memoir were published in women’s magazines of the day, they’re definitely smoothed out and made civil for what people would have expected then. The oldest son, Laurie, definitely drove me nuts. He was so skeptical of his mother in a male privilege sort of way that it grated on me.

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  3. I had no idea Shirley Jackson had written memoirs! I think I’d like to try one of those. I’ve only read one of her books so far, The Haunting of Hill House, but I really enjoyed it and would like to read more of her classic suspense. I’ve also read a novel about her life, Shirley by Susan Scarf Merrell, which goes into the troubled family life.

    I’ve read a couple of Spark novels, including Miss Jean Brodie, and haven’t really been a fan. But my book club is interested in reading her and her books are almost always super-short, so that’s a point in her favor!

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  4. I didn’t know that Shirley Jackson wrote domestic memoirs – thank you for letting me know! I love everything I’ve read by her.

    I’ve only read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark and also enjoyed it. A Far Cry From Kensington seems like something I’d really like too.

    Also – your editions are lovely! I love those covers 🙂

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  5. I wasn’t wild about this book either — certainly it wasn’t anywhere near what I felt about some of her novels! There was something weird and sad about it to me, the way she was obviously really sad and struggling but was hiding all of that under this veneer of jokes and jolliness. I’d far rather read about weird isolated people hating the house they’re in but also being unable to leave.

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  6. I’ve never liked the slim to fab trope. I find it so misleading and negative. Glad the trope didn’t overshadow the writing though and you were still able to enjoy the book. Great review!

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    1. It was rather jarring as I’ve immersed myself in body positivity so much in the past couple of years. Any kind of diet talk really doesn’t sit well with me anymore. But then it was written in 1988, so in that context it’s not terribly surprising…

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  7. I’ve not read this particular Spark novel, and I think the fat shaming would get on my nerves, but I’ve enjoyed some of her others, including Miss Jean Brodie, so I look forward to seeing how you get on with it.

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  8. I’ve read and enjoyed both authors. I recommend The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (and the older film with Maggie Smith) and my favourite is Memento Mori (but largely because there are some writer-bits in there). By now you’ve caught up with my Jackson reading, I think, although I’ve read the stories (but not the last book you read by her and not this one either, not yet). I’m so curious about her non-fiction. Although I loathe diet-culture and the corporate nonsense which proliferates under that umbrella, isn’t it also kind of subversive (for that time, i mean) for her character to insist that she is healthy at that weight, maybe a forward-thinking idea there? But I’ve not read this one, and perhaps it’s a judgement that’s simply simmering throughout the story but not really in any single quotation? (This bothers me in J.K. Rowling’s books, too.)

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    1. Spark’s writing intrigued me so much I am eager to read more of her books. I’ll add Memento Mori to the list! I admit it’s a sore spot for me, fat-phobia and diet talk, so perhaps I’m a little sensitive. But I do felt that the storyline wouldn’t have been hurt by making her one way or the other and stay that way throughout the book.

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  9. Spark’s writing is on my TBR, but for the life of me I cannot figure out which books I’ve actually added! XD The problems of an overly large TBR list…

    Did you find any parallels or strangely different things about the world, considering you read two books set in the 1950s back to back? I know they are in different countries, but I am still curious if that taught you anything!

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    1. It is funny that I happened to read two books set in the 1950s so close together. I think just the absence of modern technology stood out, as well as the more conventional gender roles. But since the Spark novel was written in the 1980s it had a more modern feel to it.

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      1. How interesting! That’s the sort of thing you don’t catch unless you’re reading multiple books set in the same timeframe at the same time. I often take for granted when my modern ideals are clearly represented in a book where those ideals shouldn’t be present…

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