We Have Always Lived In The Castle

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Author: Shirley Jackson

Finished on: 29 May 2017

Where did I get this book: A kindle purchase

When Disney’s Frozen came out in 2013 (has it really only been four years, feels like it’s been with us forever) there was a particular strand of criticism for the film amongst some more conservative commentators. This centred around unease with the empowering ‘Let It Go’ message encouraging children to stray from the straight and narrow, and the fact that the ‘true love’ that saves the day is that between sisters. (I’m assuming there is nobody left on the planet who has not seen this film, and that that’s not a spoiler).

We Have Always Lived In The Castle is a 1960s forerunner of Frozen, in that the central relationship, and the greatest love story in the book, is between two sisters. It also faced similar criticism to that more recently levelled at Frozen. Even as late as 2009 Joyce Carol Oates suggested in her essay that is included as an afterword in my kindle copy, that because the sisters care for each other above all else, and want to be together, that perhaps they’re lovers.

These interpretations leave me a little frustrated. I have two sisters. Over the years our relationships may not always have been easy,  but I have known such great happiness when we are together watching James Bond films and filling in the world’s most awesome spreadsheet, walking 18 miles with burning knees and cracked soles, or just eating cheese and laughing. And while our differences will never go away, as long as we, in the words of our favourite cheesy anthem

Have faith in you and the things you do/ You won’t go wrong, oh no

Then I don’t think we would want them to. We face the world together, and there is no doubt that our love for each other is powerful, beautiful and yes, true.

Romantic love is the great preoccupation of art. Unsurpassed by any other. But I love reading books (and yes, watching films, I do have a huge soft spot for Frozen) where the other relationships that mean the world to me are represented in their full strength.

We Have Always Lived In The Castle is the story of Merricat (Mary Katherine) Blackwood, a girl with undiagnosed and untreated mental health condition/s, and who has only very little contact with the outside world beyond her sister Constance and their elderly uncle. Merricat lives according to seemingly arbitrary rules and habits that many have interpreted as witchcraft. But they seemed to me to be compulsive rituals associated with OCD or similar.

The rest of the Blackwood family died many years previously. Yes, in mysterious circumstances, in a poisoning incident at dinner. And as well as the story of how Merricat saves Constance from the looming possibility of marriage to a horrible cousin, the book also delves back into the past to reveal the circumstances of this great family tragedy.

We Have Always Lived In The Castle is famous as a classic of gothic literature. But to me it is most powerful as a depiction of the too often underestimated unconditional love between sisters. There is nothing supernatural in the story, and the threats Merricat and Constance face are all too real, in the form of everything from the boredom of civilised visits for tea, to violence and abuse. It seems entirely rational to me that they would want to shut themselves away from the rest of the world and hide.

I could imagine doing the same with my sisters perfectly happily. Just as long as we had plenty of wine and the complete Bond DVD box set.

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