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Henry James, The Turn of the Screw

A most wonderful, lurid, poisonous little tale’.
– Oscar Wilde

(being not a proper comment, just notes to be read after the story).

I’ve always enjoyed the anecdote that inspired James to write this novella. On January the 10th, 1895, he was hosted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Edward White Benson, at Addington Park (the archbishopric country house since 1807). In front of the hearth, after tea, conversation turned to the ghost stories: the good ones, the two men agreed, all seemed to have been told; while the new type, the ‘psychical’, apparently offered little precisely on the grounds of its trustworthiness. The Archbishop then proceeded to tell a story which had in turn been told to him as a child by a lady who couldn’t, anyhow, neither remember nor tell it well enough. James recorded the story two days later in his notebook:

12 Jan. 1895

Note here told me at Addington (evening of Thursday 10th), by the Archbishop of Canterbury: the mere vague, undetailed, faint sketch of it—being all he had been told (very badly and imperfectly), by a lady who had no art of relation, and no clearness: the story of the young children (indefinite number and age) left to the care of servants in an old country-house, through the death, presumably, of parents. The servants, wicked and depraved, corrupt and deprave the children; the children are bad, full of evil, to a sinister degree. The servants die (the story vague about the way of it) and their apparitions, figures, return to haunt the house and children, to whom they seem to beckon, whom they invite and solicit, from across dangerous places, the deep ditch of a sunk fence, etc.—so that the children may destroy themselves, lose themselves by responding, by getting into their power. So long as the children are kept from them, they are not lost; but they try and try and try, these evil presences, to get hold of them. It is a question of the children ‘coming over to where they are’. It is all obscure and imperfect, the picture, the story, but there is a suggestion of strangely gruesome effect in it. The story to be told—tolerably obviously—by an outside spectator, observer.

I love the way James, nearly three years later, managed to turn the missing details and the faulty memories into the very strength of the text: reshaping a story badly told into superb storytelling. I also appreciate the fact that, even before being written, the story already counted multiple retelling. The Turn of the Screw is, first of all, a series of Chinese boxes. James consistently used the framing device as a method to undermine the reliability of his narrator(s), especially in his ghost stories. But here the suspension of disbelief becomes suspension tout court. Even as we accept the reality of one narrative voice, we can’t take for granted what the voice says. Are the ghosts real? Is everything the governess says true? Her manuscript, after all, was written (so we are told) years after the events. Perhaps the manuscript is a fake, and the whole story is invented; and so on. The only fact we can be sure of is James’ own voice, as he dictated the story to his young Scottish typist, William McAlpine (incidentally, legend has it that McAlpine showed no emotion as he transcribed this most scary of tales; that’s one for Scotland). Pointedly, neither the governess nor the first person narrator of the prelude have a name: all the voices that say “I” in the text are anonymous.

The unreliability, the gaps and contradictions account for the various interpretations: some more convincing than others, all equally preposterous (on this point, for the curious and the scholar: Because, as T.J. Lustig has pointed out, “to read The Turn of the Screw is to establish the reading, and if necessary to defeat other readings” (Introduction to the OUP edition of 1992). It is exactly what the governess tries to do: she tries to assert her own interpretation, with the same “fury of intention” she imputes to Miss Jessel. Easily, and with good reason, her version can be doubted (especially from the point of view of the last chapters); the governess seen as a psychological, even psychiatric case. The very first words of her manuscript are in fact a testimony to her instability: “I remember the whole beginning as a succession of flights and drops” (ch. I). Her self-awareness is indeed quite puzzling: “I go on, I know, as if I were crazy; and it’s a wonder I’m not” (ch. XII).

She describes her arrival at Bly in terms that are clearly, almost ostentatiously literary. The governess is a literate person: her manuscript, we are told, is written in a beautiful hand; she makes explicit references to novels. And whereas the governess sees Bly and what happens there through the lens of her readings, we discover that Mrs Grose cannot read: the “stout simple plain clean wholesome woman” (ch. I) is also illiterate. Flora, on the other hand, is learning to write.
And, mind you, all this in a scene crucially involving the letter from the school’s headmaster (a letter whose content is never disclosed to the reader).

Mentions of Fielding’s Amelia, of Jane Eyre and of The Mysteries of Udolpho, however, only mark what the novella fails to be. “Marooned in a novel which refuses to satisfy her narrative desires, the governess seems to use Miles in the obscure ritual she is enacting”, in Lustig’s words.
Her desires are quite explicit, and from the very start, as regards the master of Bly. She readily admits to having been “carried away” when she met him, twice, in Harley St.
Other desires, though, are only uncovered through a close reading of the text; particularly of the governess’s final dialogue with Miles. She confesses to being “infatuated”—namely with her sense of victory over the evil presences; yet the choice of terminology is quite interesting. Towards the beginning of the scene, she compares the silence between her and Miles to that of “some young couple […] at their wedding journey”. A little later she says Miles has been for her “a revelation of the possibilities of beautiful intercourse”.
The governess seeks possession of the children. When she fears they are secretly being visited by the ghosts, she explodes into: “They’re not mine—they’re not ours. They’re his and they’re hers!” She considers the ghosts, first and foremost, as a threat to her exclusive ownership. At the crucial moment of the final confrontation with Miles, cited above, she gleams with supremacy: “I have you” (ch. XXIII-XXIV).

The Turn of the Screw is one of several texts, such as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), Dracula (1897), and Heart of Darkness (1899), which “examine the crumbling edges of the Victorian edifice” (quoting Lustig again). The accepted sexual and social values are not so much questioned as ignored, rendered pointless.
The gentleman in Harley St. and his wards act as though social distinctions simply did not exist. Miles spent more time than would fit his status with the lowly Quint, who also had a less than commendable relationship with Miss Jessel. The master, meanwhile, did not care. The only ones who do seem to care, in fact, are Mrs Grose and the governess. On interviewing the governess, the master says there are at Bly “a cook, a housemaid, a dairywoman, an old pony, an old groom and an old gardener, all likewise thoroughly respectable”: as if a pony could be ‘respectable’ in the same sense of a person. Its inclusion in the list undercuts the gentleman’s methods for ascertaining the ‘respectability’ of his employees; which would indeed explain Quint’s and Miss Jessel’s presence at Bly.

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Miles & Douglas
There are those who take Douglas to be none other than the grown-up Miles himself. In which case, Douglas’ version of how he first met the governess would be so much rubbish, as well as his profession that the experience in question had not been his own. This hypothesis, though, seems to me to be far-fetched and unsatisfactory. Besides, as Leon Edel has pointed out, the death of the little boy and the survival of the little girl is a recurrent Jamesian trope; the archetype for this being, Edel argues, James’ own suppressed male exuberance as a child.
Miles is not Douglas. The fact that both of them are ten years younger than the governess only proves that, even as a mature woman, she is still attracted to, and trying to attract, younger males.

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Interestingly, the governess often looses track of time passing―always during, or immediately after, a visit from the ghosts. There are many other references of this kind: she is late when Miles arrives from school, it takes her a long time to break the seal of the letter… she even speaks of “the small clock of my courage” (ch. VI). And I suppose it is by no chance that the novella has 24 chapters.

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The End
The metaphor of the Chinese boxes I used earlier is only partly accurate, since the narrative frame appears at the beginning but not at the end. Actually the novella doesn’t even end, it just stops (cf. the last word of the text). Yet the reader knows more than he believes about what is going to happen. In the preface, Douglas says the governess never saw her employer again, after the two initial interviews. This means, amongst other things, that she did not attend the funeral.

Henry James
The Turn of the Screw (1898)
pp.128, £5
Penguin, 1995 & 2011

Giudizio: 5/5.

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