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Please begin with an informative title:

A previously unpublished story by Shirley Jackson, found in her papers that were donated to the Library of Congress, can be found in the current Winter Reading issue of Tin House (Vol. 15, No. 2). It is well worth finding, reading, reading again and allowing it to serve as inspiration for reading more Shirley Jackson and going back to the tales in which it has antecedents.

"Mrs. Spencer and the Oberons" centers on a fastidious, perfectionist, Type A homemaker. Margaret Spencer moved to town a few years ago and is one of its leading citizens. She is the backbone behind her husband, Harry, who works in a bank, considered a pillar of the community. Her two children even dream correctly.

When friends of her sister's who claim an acquaintance come to town, Mrs. Spencer's perfect life becomes unraveled. Or, rather, she begins to unravel. The irritation she feels when they write, asking if she knows of any homes to rent, builds until the escalation of fevered vexation that people would bother her has this tightly wrapped woman lashing out.

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Let's face it; this woman has not been not relaxed about anything from the moment we met her:

Mrs. Spencer distrusted letters on principle, because they always seemed to want to entangle her in so many small disagreeable obligations -- visits, or news of old friends she had conveniently forgotten, or family responsibilities that always had to be met quickly and without enjoyment; if she had not persuaded herself that it was ill-bred to throw away a letter without opening it, Mrs. Spencer might very well have given up mail altogether except for important things like Christmas cards from the right people, and announcements for the Wednesday Club, and invitations correctly engraved.
The Oberons leave Mrs. Spencer messages and continue to make their presence known even though she manages to avoid them. Most irksome of all, other people keep asking her about them. People even insist that she is the Oberons' friend. Just who do they think they are? When they hold a party and Mrs. Spencer insists she was not invited, but which her husband and children are attending, it's too much:
This was like her sister, this pushing and climbing and refusing to take no for an answer, until nice people were forced to come out of sheer weariness; they will be making a great fuss over Harry and the children to get at me (italics), Mrs. Spencer thought; I must go at once and put a stop to it. ...

It's like everyone back home, she was thinking, picnics and last-minute invitations, and everything confused and grimy and noisy, taking people away from their homes and their dinners without ever stopping to think how inconvenient it might be for the orderly routine of their houses.

Oberon is, of course, the king of the fairies best known for feuding with his wife, Titania, in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. In Jackson's story, they are not fighting over a lover's child or tricking each other. But the idea of a fairy court is hinted at, and Mrs. Spencer's actions on the night of the party bring to mind just how mysterious and magical an enchanted fairy court can be to dull-minded humans. Spencer brings to mind Spenser and The Faerie Queene, that epic poem that neither Elizabeth I nor I have read but which led to her being known as Gloriana.

A glimpse of Oberon's fairyland from the 1935 film of A Midsummer Night's Dream:

In Tin House, the story is followed by a brilliant essay by Kelly Link that hones in on the outsider quality, not of the Oberons, but of Mrs. Spencer. This is fabulous because Mrs. Spencer is the one who does not fall under the spell of the newly popular Oberons. This ties in so well with what I was thinking during the first read-through -- that Mrs. Spencer has felt like an outsider her whole life, jealous of a more popular sister. She is someone who has gone overboard in turning her life and home into a tidy regiment because she couldn't fully take part in the more easy-going life of parties, potlucks and rumpled good times she so resents.

This insight into Mrs. Spencer's character gives the story an added quality. The fairy tale of the town enchanted by the Oberons, who are never seen by the reader nor by Mrs. Spencer, has the mystical quality of a much older entertainment. Grounding it to the real-world resentment of a sister gives the story a plausibility that makes the other-worldly part cast a greater spell; the polarity brings out the strengths in both aspects.

Mrs. Spencer's irritation initially brings to mind how people can become alienated when, because of their own feelings, the actions of others or a combination of the two, they don't feel they fully belong.

But there is something else that comes to mind in this busy, always-plugged-in world. Although Jackson's story was written long before we became constantly in contact or available or on display, Mrs. Spencer has a point. When people always want something, whether it's a favor or attention, it can get hard to build up sufficient time for what one needs to do or wants to do. Reflection time can be at a premium. When to think when there's always stimulation from the outside? When to process what's going on?

Just because this latter point is likely not the point of Jackson's story doesn't mean it also doesn't deserve consideration.

Just as people really do need people (thank you, Funny Girl), people also need the opportunity to live a little in their own heads. It's a matter of balance as much as the balance between the life Mrs. Spencer has carved out for herself and the community that embraces the Oberons. We need both.

And I need more time to read more Shirley Jackson.

In case I don't have the opportunity to post a diary next week, may this season be one of community and reflection for you. May you have time to read more, enjoy friends and family more, and find the resources you need for your own life and to work for the things we believe in.

Readers & Book Lovers Series Schedule:






DAY TIME (EST/EDT) Series Name Editor(s)
SUN 6:00 PM Young Reader's Pavilion The Book Bear
alternate
Sundays
2:00 PM What's on Your E-Reader? Caedy
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Sundays
2:00 PM Bibliophile's Wish List Caedy
alternate
Sundays
4:00 PM Political Books Susan from 29
Sun 9:30 PM SciFi/Fantasy Book Club quarkstomper
Bi-Monthly Sun Midnight Reading Ramblings don mikulecky
MON 8:00 PM Monday Murder Mystery michelewln, Susan from 29
Mon 11:00 PM My Favorite Books/Authors edrie, MichiganChet
TUES 5:00 PM Indigo Kalliope: Poems from the Left bigjacbigjacbigjac
alternate Tuesdays 8:00 AM LGBT Literature Texdude50, Dave in Northridge
alternate Tuesdays 8:00 AM All Things Bookstore Dave in Northridge
Tue 8:00 PM Contemporary Fiction Views bookgirl
WED 7:30 AM WAYR? plf515
Wed 2:00 PM e-books Susan from 29
Wed 8:00 PM Bookflurries Bookchat cfk
THU 8:00 PM Write On! SensibleShoes
Thu (first each month) 11:00 AM Monthly Bookpost AdmiralNaismith
alternate Thursdays 11:00 PM Audiobooks Club SoCaliana
FRI 8:00 AM Books That Changed My Life Diana in NoVa
Fri 8:00 PM Books Go Boom! Brecht
Fri 10:00 PM Slightly Foxed -- But Still Desirable shortfinals
SAT (fourth each month) 11:00 AM Windy City Bookworm Chitown Kev
Sat 12:00 PM You Can't Read That! Paul's Book Reviews pwoodford
Sat 9:00 PM Books So Bad They're Good Ellid
Extended (Optional)

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Tue Dec 17, 2013 at 05:00 PM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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