We Have Always Lived in the Castle



I have recently been fascinated by Shirley Jackson. I think it began when a podcast I listen to reported that this is the 100th anniversary of her birth. Upon discovering her, I first read, the short story “The Lottery,” realizing that I had read it before when I got midway into it. My research revealed that Shirley was somewhat of a disappointment to her parents, who expected her to participate in activities that would land her a suitable husband. Instead, Shirley was a solitary girl, preferring reading and writing to dancing and socializing.  She was a rebellious teen who later flunked out of the University of Rochester. When she transferred to Syracuse, she met young, aspiring literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman. He couldn’t have been farther from the match her parents had hoped for, and they opposed the marriage, as did Hyman’s family. When the two graduated in May, 1940, they married and moved to New York. So Shirley was an outsider, which, considering her body of work, comes as no surprise.

When I googled “Shirley Jackson Syracuse University,” I found a paper that she had written for an English class in 1940! Her professor praised her writing, considering it far beyond that of the average student. Her thesis was about the ambiguity around gender roles in Hemingway’s work.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a dark tale about class, outsiders, and the contempt between the haves and the have-nots. The youngest daughter of the Blackwood family, Merricat, believed that she had the ability to control her environment using a number of methods, including the use of talismen and magical words and thoughts. At one point in the story, she senses that a change is coming. She doesn’t like change, so she thinks of three powerful words for protection. She wrote the first word, “melody,” on toast in apricot jam, and then ate it, satisfied that she was now one-third protected. She worried over the second word, “Gloucester,” that Uncle Julian might “take it into his head to say almost anything and no word was truly safe when Uncle Julian was talking.” Merricat rejected “digitalis” for the third word because it was too easy for someone to say, replacing it in her thoughts with  “Pegasus.” 

When I Googled, “meaning of melody Gloucester Pegasus,” this clip came up. It is from a Schumann work entitled Kinderscenen, meaning “Scenes from Childhood,”Opus 15. In the repeating phrases, you can hear how”melody Gloucester Pegasus” would fit after the first 6 notes. Beautiful.


Much adaptation has been done of this book. It was a radio broadcast in 1951; a ballet in 1953; a short film in 1969; a TV movie in 1996; and it was on an episode of the  Simpsons. Filming began in Ireland last August for a new movie version that will be released in 2017.

The clip below is from a Yale Repertory Theatre premiere of the musical “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” in 2010; book and lyrics by Adam Bock, music and lyrics by Todd Almond. from YouTube


The Blackwoods, a wealthy family in a small town owned a big house and a lot of land that was safeguarded against intruders by gates and fences. When we meet them, their numbers have been reduced to three. Merricat, the youngest daughter, made twice weekly forays into town for food. People in town quieted and physically withdrew at the grocery store when Merricat walked in to ask a for leg of lamb or roasting chicken, or whatever else older sister Constance had put on the list. The dish I’ve selected is one that Uncle Julian spoke of when reminiscing about the family’s last meal together. He proclaims that he personally never cared much for rarebit, but this recipe is delicious. I’m going to try it over puff pastry next.

Welsh (actually Vermont) Rarebit
2 servings

2 T unsalted butter
2 T all-purpose flour
1 tsp Dijon mustard
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
½ tsp kosher salt
½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
½ C porter beer
¾ C heavy cream
6 ounces (approximately 1½ cups) shredded Cheddar (I used Cabot extra extra sharp)
2 drops hot sauce
4 slices toasted rye bread

In a medium saucepan over low heat, melt the butter and whisk in the flour. Cook, whisking constantly for 2 to 3 minutes, being careful not to brown the flour. Whisk in mustard, Worcestershire sauce, salt, and pepper until smooth. Add beer and whisk to combine. Pour in cream and whisk until well combined and smooth. Gradually add cheese, stirring constantly, until cheese melts and sauce is smooth; this will take 4 to 5 minutes. Add hot sauce. Pour over toast and serve immediately.

I added about a cup more cheddar, and used whole milk instead of cream. It was very rich and filling.

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