BookTalk Event Review: The Haunting of Hill House

After a two-month absence over the Christmas period, BookTalk returned at the beginning of February to discuss Shirley Jackson’s 1959 ghost story, The Haunting of Hill House – and with attendance estimated between 70-80, filling the large hall in the School of Optometry, the event kicked 2017 off to a fantastic start! We were fortunate to welcome Professor Diana Wallace of the University of South Wales’ English Department, Cardiff University PhD student Robert Lloyd, and Dr. Dawn Mannay, also of Cardiff University and a senior lecturer in Social Sciences. After a few introductory words from Anthony Mandal, highlighting themes such as gender and identity that have emerged in recent studies of The Haunting of Hill House, Diana was the first to take to the BookTalk podium.

Diana began her talk with a reference to Betty Friedan’s inclusion of Shirley Jackson in The Feminine Mystique among a cohort of comic female writers who Friedan recommended other housewives read to make them laugh and forget temporarily about the drudgery of housework. Friedan emphasised that these were highly accomplished women who denied their own creative achievements through such comic writing. The Haunting of Hill House, on the other hand, is demonstrative of the other side of Shirley Jackson’s writerly persona, being a “brilliantly accomplished and genuinely scary ghost story”. These two sides of Jackson’s writing should have been mutually exclusive, but Diana went on to argue both sides in fact articulate the trap 1950s women found themselves in – that of needing to sacrifice their own creative impulses to traditional familial expectations. Through reworking the female Gothic tradition of a woman trapped in a haunted house, The Haunting of Hill House enabled Jackson to express the anxieties of 1950s women who found themselves trapped in the home. Eleanor Vance, Jackson’s protagonist, embodies this tradition as she moves from being trapped within one house to another: first her mother’s house, in the role as carer, to her sister’s house, then finally to Hill House itself.


Diana moved on to make a case that The Haunting of Hill House marked a shift in the tradition of the female Gothic, through its figuration of the heroine’s relationship with her mother. Influenced by Claire Kahane’s 1980 essay, ‘The Gothic Mirror’, Diana suggested the reading of the heroine imprisoned within the female, maternal body that is represented by the haunted house is a fitting one for The Haunting of Hill House. The so-called supernatural events at Hill House consistently recall Eleanor’s relationship with her mother, beginning with the beseeching writing that appears on the wall (“Eleanor, come home!”) and ending with Eleanor’s own muttered calls of “Mother, mother” on her way to the tower in the library whilst thinking to herself, “I’m home.” The refrain, “Journeys end in lovers meeting,” taken from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, is Eleanor’s frequent response throughout the text. One way this can be interpreted, Diana proposed, is as an irresistible pull in the novel towards a final merger with the dead mother, a reading which aligns with Kahane’s detection of the spectral presence of the dead-undead mother.

At this point, Diana acknowledged that despite how well Kahane’s interpretation works with the novel, the reading of the spectral mother figure in relation to The Haunting of Hill House is an overdetermined one, and her talk then moved to more under-analysed features of the novel. Identifying Hill House’s creator, the Victorian patriarch Hugh Crane, as a Bluebeard-esque figure (his wives just keep dying when he brings them to Hill House!), Diana moved to a brief discussion of the conduct-come-scrapbook Crane left for his daughters. The book acts as Crane’s way of maintaining influence over his daughters beyond the grave. By signing his name in his own blood, he ensures a gruesome afterlife that reaches out and represents the spectral patriarchal legacy of the nineteenth century, seeking to maintain control over women’s bodies. However, Diana continued, it is infact the idyllic images of the 1950s nuclear family which cause Eleanor and Theodora the most terror, representing the terror of post-war women at the domesticity that was trapping them within the household. Diana concluded her talk with the thought that The Haunting of Hill House is a novel by which it is very easy to be misdirected. In its obvious preoccupation with mothers and their scapegoating as villains of the piece, it is easy to miss completely the controlling figure of the absent father, epitomised by the house’s creator, the Bluebeard-esque Hugh Crane.

Rob Lloyd, well-loved BookTalk acolyte, was our second speaker of the evening and began his talk by looking at the figure of Jackson herself, as writer of the text. Rob drew our attention first to a quote from Ruth Franklin’s 2016 biography of Jackson – “Miss Jackson writes not with a pen but a broomstick” – which can be said to summarise the categorical duality Jackson has been subjected to since the 1940s. Building upon the notion previously touched upon by Diana of Jackson’s two distinct authorial personas and styles of writing, Rob expanded to explain that Jackson also wrote domestic comedies in magazines aimed at housewives such as Good Housekeeping. Rob went on to suggest the broomstick is key to understanding how Jackson was perceived, acting as a metonym for her interests in the supernatural and darker underside of reality, whilst simultaneously invoking the domestic drudgery of a New England housewife. In the more autobiographical pieces of fiction, such as Life Among the Savages, Rob stated that Jackson emerges as a woman who belonged to the domestic sphere, but who was also an incongruous figure within it. Indicating Jackson’s vast literary output, out of which only The Lottery and The Haunting of Hill House have made any sort of lasting impression on the public mindset, Rob described Jackson’s place on the periphery of mainstream literature as a sort of dislocation. Despite having influenced writers such as Stephen King, Donna Tartt and Neil Gaiman, Jackson’s own works have failed to capture consumer attention. There is a suitability to this however, was Rob’s wry suggestion, as the posthumous reputation of ‘not-quite-remembered, not-quite-forgotten’ is an apt representation of the dislocation Jackson felt during life.


The second part of Rob’s talk moved to a discussion of the haunted house as its own subgenre within Gothic literature and Jackson’s adaptation of the motif. Taking Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) as a point of intertextual comparison, Rob expounded that although Gilman’s text is not supernatural, its focus on a doubling of identity and loss of subjectivity in its heroine encourages a spectral reading and links it thematically to The Haunting of Hill House. Focusing on the bedrooms of Gilman’s narrator and Eleanor, Rob drew our attention to what he described as the “disordering effects” rooms within so-called Haunted Houses have upon their inhabitants. Jackson’s descriptions of the “dainty wallpaper” of Eleanor’s blue bedroom evoke the titular yellow wallpaper of Gilman’s short story, creating a sinister allusion a room that eventually obliterates the identity of the woman living within its walls. Like The Yellow Wallpaper, The Haunting of Hill House chronicles the total disintegration of a woman’s mental stability. Furthermore, if the Haunted House is viewed as representative of the male psyche of its creator, then the architecture itself acts as an amplification of the women’s imprisonment within a patriarchal structure over which they have no control. The Yellow Wallpaper may not be one of the obvious intertextual references Jackson makes, but Rob was convincing in his argument that an intertextual reading makes clear a degree of influence between the two.

Rob drew his talk to a close by offering an alternative reading to the widely accepted critical evaluation of the writing that appears on the wall begging Eleanor to come home as a spectral return of the mother. Instead, Rob suggested the written pleas act in concordance with the architecture of Hill House to dramatise a metaphorical return to the womb and pose a significant threat to the stability of Eleanor’s subjectivity. Highlighting examples of the anthropomorphisation of Hill House, Rob extended the reading and suggested the confining hallway where the writing appears is analogous to an enclosed uterine space. In such a context, the writing which appears on the wall naming Eleanor represents what Rob referred to as an “intense doubling of identity”. Symbolising a version of Eleanor’s self without a body of her own, her desire to see her name wiped off the wall becomes a desire to reclaim her identity from the all-consuming maternal body of Hill House.

Our third speaker, Dawn Mannay, told us how she read The Haunting of Hill House while on holiday in Lanzarote and spoke to begin with of her initial struggle to connect with the novel, a sentiment that was shared by some members of the audience. She sought later to connect with the novel through identifying elements of it with the mechanisms of defence outlined by Freud and Klein – those that apply to The Haunting of Hill House include sublimation, repression, suppression, projection, denial & self-splitting, which are particularly relevant to Eleanor. Highlighting Eleanor’s overwhelming desire to be a new person and start afresh, Dawn spoke about the reasons this was always doomed to failure. Since whoever we are in the present moment is tied to the memory of who we have been and the imagination of what we will become, Eleanor’s identity is always haunted by her past experiences. As a result of this, Dawn explained, Eleanor can never just be the sum of the contents of her suitcase.


Moving on, Dawn drew our focus to Eleanor’s instinctive reaction to Hill House as misaligned and unfit for human habitation when she first sees it. Suggesting this reaction to be a projection of Eleanor’s own feelings of misalignment within society onto the house, Dawn discussed the standards of femininity to which women in 1950s America were held but that Eleanor does not meet. Eleanor is not a housewife, nor is she an independent, glamorous single woman; instead, she sleeps on a cot in her sister’s household in a peripheral family position that simultaneously infantilises her and excludes her, depriving her of control over the direction her life will take. Dawn identified Eleanor as the “other” within her family, and asserted that Eleanor’s own awareness of failing to meet the 1950s standards of femininity would contribute to a sense of misalignment as she felt like less of a woman. Speaking of Eleanor’s attempts to overcome her societal dislocation after she arrives at Hill House, Dawn acknowledged an appreciation for the symbolism inherent with Eleanor’s fixation on the colour red. Although she is repeatedly drawn to it, it makes her feel dirty and guilty because of its associations with “loose femininity” and the accompanying disapproval of her dead mother. Theodora’s later ability to wear the red sweater without any of the associated feeling of guilt cause Eleanor’s obsession with her to flip into hatred.

By the end of the novel, Dawn observed, Eleanor has moved from hating Hill House to viewing herself as belonging there, which Dawn connected to it being the first place in which Eleanor had connections to other people beyond her own family. In ending her life, Eleanor resolves both her desperation for a home of her own and a sense of belonging, providing her with a place to belong and a ready-made “family” unit in the deceased previous inhabitants of Hill House. It also offers the potential for reconciliation with her mother and absolution of the guilt tied up in her mother’s death. Dawn further suggested that death would finally fulfil Eleanor’s fantasy of being a whole new person through the annihilation of her physical form and creation of a new “paranormal” identity. Finally, focusing on Eleanor’s decision to crash the car, Dawn viewed this symbolically, cars often functioning as representations of the transition into adulthood. Crashing her sister’s car severed irreversibly Eleanor’s ties with her biological family – it can never be returned and she will never return.

fullsizeoutput_a0cFinishing her talk, Dawn was then rejoined at the front by Diana and Rob and we progressed into the Q&A portion of the evening. This covered such broad bases as sibling relationships, further discussion into more minor characters such as the Dudleys and Mrs. Montague, and the symbolism of food in Jackson’s wider works. We closed the event remembering Eleanor’s silent plea to the little girl near the start of the novel: “Hold out for your cup of stars!” This was an optimistic note on which to end, arguably antithetical to the tone of Jackson’s novel, but undeniably in keeping with the overall mood of the event.

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