‘… it is almost impossible to enjoy any freedom if from the earliest days of life you are trained to be docile, subservient, dependent and most important to sacrifice yourself and even to get pleasure from it. If you don’t like it, it is your problem, your failure, your guilt, your abnormality.’
(Silvia Federici, 1974)
It is 2021. It is 1938. It is 1974. It is 1958.
I am travelling through time as a reader. I am travelling through time as a girl, as a woman, as a crone-to-be. I am trying to make sense of femininities and read the chartlines of oppression. I look to the words of women before me.
White supremacy gifts white women a privileged place in a hierarchy of violence. The violence of poverty, of sex, of geographies, of power effects white women least in comparison to women of colour, of Blak and Black women. Perhaps that is why white women can sometimes be exceptionally blind to the violence perpetrated against them. They have it better and that precarious positionality means acceptance of marginalisation. Perhaps, as Silvia Federici observes, white women are encouraged to craft identities that find pleasure in their lived disempowerment. The domesticity, the maternality, the busyness of their womanhood keeps them safe from abnormal (monstrous) thoughts that how things are does not need to be how things always should be. Thank god for the gothic writers. Thank god for Shirley Jackson and Daphne du Maurier, who knew what I also know: that women are stuck in the horror, performing subservience and subordination in order to survive.
Writing in the late 1950s, Jackson understood that society likes such women to be virginally docile and timid, unaware of who they are. The lonely, traumatised Eleanor Vance of The Haunting of Hill House is such a woman-child. Aged out of girlhood but lacking marriage as a marker of adulthood, the woman-child is a spinster sans her power, because of her dependence on others.
The heroine of Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel Rebecca shares the same characteristics of demure oppressed femininity, right up to the moment she is whisked into a different gothic horror by the rich and handsome Maxim de Winter – into another house that devours.
Prior to her wedding, the not-yet Mrs de Winter existed in a fragile web of social rules subservient to wealthier patrons, dependent upon their goodwill. The unnamed protagonist of Rebecca and Eleanor Vance share similar life experiences. Given their lack of financial independence and absent suitors these twinned women survive by offering their labour in the service of others. The reader never hears the first name of the new Mrs de Winter. Eleanor Vance at least gets a name.
As Marxist-Feminist Silvia Federici helps us understand, women and men are socially conditioned to perceive shame in the status of a woman free from the dependency of a heterosexual relationship. As du Maurier explored, an independent wife who refused submission to her husband’s authority was monstrous, was she not? The assertiveness, the sass, the dominance of the first Mrs de Winter was such a horror that the second Mrs de Winter takes pity on her husband for his murderous act. The reader gets to draw their own conclusions but these messages of social order – saying that this is permissible and that is not – these words whisper through the walls.
For all the progression in women’s liberation, society is shaped by patriarchal hands sustaining patriarchal power. The reader cheers Eleanor’s courage in The Haunting of Hill House when she steals the car her sister and her husband keep from her use. Despite her justified fears Eleanor acts to escape a world that would hold her subservient and forever serving. Hill House finds Eleanor’s secret shame: That she didn’t want to be her mother’s carer. That – heaven forbid – she desired a rich imaginative life of her own. The house taunts her with the scents of her oppression. But what is key for readers to observe is Eleanor’s agency. She rejects the caring role and the limitations such roles place upon a single ‘unaccompanied’ woman.
Du Maurier’s heroine tracks a far more timid, tremulous path. Becoming Mrs de Winter frightens her because she who was used to serving now becomes she who is served. The lurking malevolence of Mrs Danvers adds suspense: what will the housekeeper do to our poor heroine next?! But Rebecca’s true tragedy is that she only finds her courage when she puts it in service of defending her husband. A paradigmatic identity transformation occurs – once she was fey now she is fierce – but it is catalysed by Mrs de Winter’s fear that her husband’s crimes will be revealed. The du Maurier heroine comes into her power but it is a power entangled in sustaining the codes and conventions of patriarchal society. A Rebecca she is not and would not choose to be.
Jackson’s writing is remarkable because she understands the particular entrapments of gender and doesn’t retreat from the horror of a world that posits self-destruction as the only path to both escape and self-actualisation. Significantly, she makes those choices heroic.
In her freedom, Eleanor uses her imagination to craft a more vivacious self: one that wears slacks, drinks coffee, takes to the road, and finds her voice to speak back and disobey. At a little café, Eleanor watches a little girl push away a cup of milk because it isn’t served in her favourite cup. Her thoughts are directed towards the little girl but they are really for herself. ‘…insist on your cup of stars; once they have trapped you into being like everyone else you will never see your cup of stars again.’ At thirty-two years old, Eleanor, Nell, Nellie flickers for the first time in her life with a sense of hope and desire, becoming enamoured with Hill House and the promises of intimate belonging it presents to her. Eleanor chooses the house, Hill House, Hell House, because a horror offers more to her than a society that consistently, repeatedly perceives the wounds of women but fails utterly to do something meaningful in response.
The gothic entrapments that lured du Maurier and Jackson’s imaginations resonate with readers today because women are still ensnared by a patriarchy that demands she find pleasure in a society that cannibalises her labour and her traumas.
As researcher Kay Cook reports, women’s freedom and liberation are tokenistic words within the sphere of Australian democracy. Her research into the experiences of separated mothers navigating Australian government support revealed deliberate bureaucratic opacity and obstruction. In their interactions with these vulnerable women stakeholders acted to financially benefit state coffers while leaving women in penury. Cook explains: ‘… women’s and children’s poverty were perpetuated and exacerbated. At the same time, women were positioned as being responsible for their own disadvantage.’
A single woman is on the cusp of power – the power to make decisions for herself, to be independent, to be free if the individual has the material resources to support herself. To lack material resources – money – is to be dependent, and to be dependent as an adult woman is to sustain a social order that desires their devouring. The other characters that surround Eleanor, believe that they are saving Eleanor from the forces that haunt by sending her back to her domineering sister, a place where Eleanor will most likely resume her slow stifled decay.
This theme of feminised destruction is horrifying for its truthfulness. How cursedly apt that Jackson’s Eleanor is entrapped by paternalistic goodwill when what she deeply needed was meaningful connections and a secure line of credit.
‘No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality,’ Jackson observes. And so, in the absence of money, of friendships, of security, of a home of her own, Eleanor ascends into madness. She senses that the house ‘wanted to consume us, take us into itself, make us a part of the house…’ but it also offers her a sense of agency, of choice. For Eleanor, these are the very things denied to her.
As readers traverse the final pages of the novel, Eleanor’s tragedy becomes clearer. ‘Youth’s a stuff will not endure’ is the answer to the Shakespearean refrain that has danced across her mind since first slipping free from the city and her sister’s hold on her. The house will not release her either. The malevolence holds Eleanor in its thrall, guiding her hands on the steering wheel and her feet on the pedals of her key-to-freedom car. The house cruelly releases her only when her fate is set:
In the unending, crashing second before the car hurled into the tree she thought clearly, Why am I doing this? Why am I doing this? Why don’t they stop me?
The answer to Eleanor’s question can be found perhaps in the Netflix miniseries adaptation of Jackson’s novel. No one stops Eleanor, no one saves Eleanor because to save her would be to upend the house, a world that wants the ‘dishes back on the shelves, the linen in the linen closet’ and the people tucked away safely in their bedrooms.
Mike Flanagan’s re-envisioning of Jackson’s hauntings as ghostly manifestations of shame, guilt, and grief presents a different lens of ‘a house arrogant and hating, never off guard.’ Flinching away from Jackson’s original, the Flanagan interpretation takes an awkwardly saccharine turn at the climax. The house is not evil after all, just lonely and misunderstood, a cipher for the shuffling father figure played by Timothy Hutton. This ending displaces Jackson’s focus on women’s realities. It foregrounds feminine neurosis and then doesn’t know what to do with women’s pain except pass it off as a monstrous burden that wounds and haunts the men of the Hill House world.
Eleanor never gets to womanhood. Neuroticism gives her strength but not enough power to break social codes and live. She only reaches a key understanding in her last moments: Why indeed is she doing this? Du Maurier’s heroine becomes a woman and survives, but this survival comes off salving the disorder created by her predecessor’s defiance.
To perceive the horror, to see the maw of the mud that seeks to swallow female bodies and female desires, is to find needed truth. Under a white hetero-patriarchy, the freed feminine, the thinking feminine, is monstrous. Jackson understood that reality for women is lived under the despotic eyes of a patriarchy ‘arrogant and hating, never off guard’. It is a reality with many doorways into hell, each swinging shut despite efforts to keep them open.
A house that suppresses and stifles the life of the imaginative and perceptive woman is no less horrific than the one that waits nestled between the shadowy hills.
Image: a still from Ben Wheatley 2020 adaptation of Rebecca