Henry James: The Turn of the Screw (1898)
in Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw
Penguin English Library 2012
Here is the ideal kind of story to read as autumn sets in, the nights get longer and our wilder imaginations take hold. Or perhaps not, if we are of a nervous disposition or cursed with an overactive imagination.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I began this. A ghost story, certainly, set in an old country house, mysterious goings-on, and two children under the supervision of a governess with issues of her own. What would I encounter? Poltergeists? Subterfuge? A storm in a teacup? None of these, it turns out, and to some extent I’m as mystified as before though, I have to admit, in different ways.
We begin with a frame story, though we are treated only to a prologue, no epilogue. The narrator is at a house party assembled for Christmas to be thrillingly entertained by the customary supernatural anecdotes. The narrator’s friend Douglas promises to send for and read out aloud a manuscript with which he has been entrusted; in this narrative the involvement of two children provide the extra turn of the screw that will ratchet up the awful nature of the ghostly visitations. Without an epilogue I sorely missed the reaction of the narrator to Douglas’ recital, but I think that Henry James means us, the readers, to be the true audience to that Christmas ghost story and therefore to elicit our own responses.
A young woman of 20, the youngest daughter of a poor Hampshire parson, is interviewed and accepted for the post of governess by a bachelor-about-town (who is resolutely unnamed). His only stipulation is that the young woman takes sole charge of his orphan niece and nephew, never troubling him or communicating with him. Despite his stricture, it’s explicitly declared by Douglas that she is attracted to her employer.
It is June when our new narrator the never identified governess (she is only ever addressed as ‘Miss’, and that’s how I shall refer to her) arrives as Bly in Essex to take up her post. Like Catherine in Austen’s Northanger Abbey she has gothic expectations about the place, but I suspect (from the suggested chronology given in the Prologue) that we must imagine the narrative to occur in the 1830s, around the time that the Brontë sisters were themselves governesses, later drawing on their experiences for Jane Eyre and Agnes Grey.
Miss is immediately drawn into the atmosphere surrounding Bly: early on she sees a figure on a turret, and then discovers that nine-year-old Miles has been expelled from his school. When autumn comes she invests Bly with a suitable romantic creepiness:
The place, with its grey sky and withered garlands, its barred spaces and scattered dead leaves was like a theatre after the performance — all strewn with crumbled playbills. [Chapter 13]
Her infatuation with her employer rapidly transfers to her charges, Miles and his younger sister Flora: “I now saw that I had been asked for a service admirable and difficult; and there would be a greatness in letting it be seen that I could succeed where many another girl might have failed. […] I was here to protect and defend the little creatures […] We were cut off, really, together; we were united in our danger” [Chapter Six]. Her obsession with Flora and Miles, exacerbated by her position in the rambling mansion, is underpinned by the impressionable young woman’s desire to live up to her employer’s expectations.
However, we are constantly reminded that Miss is an unreliable narrator. How does she realise that the male figure she sees must be Peter Quint, her employer’s former valet, who had charge of the household before a drunken fall ended his life? How does she divine that the woman in black she spots across a lake and later in the house is the former governess Miss Jessel, now disappeared? The spectral figures, so far only discerned by Miss, are
… seen only across, as it were, and beyond — in strange places and on high places, the top of towers, the roof of houses, the outside of windows, the further edge of pools. [Chapter 12]
Everything in the main narrative is filtered through her consciousness: we hear conversations only through her agency. All is designed to show Miss in as good a light as possible, and yet we still discern a duplicitous and manipulative woman behind all that she describes: she toys with Miles and Flora as much as she believes them toying with her, and she uses Mrs Grose the housekeeper something rotten, treating her as an apparent confidante while deceiving her in crucial details.
In Chapter Twelve we have this revealing confession to Mrs Grose: “I go on, I know, as if I were crazy; and it’s a wonder I’m not. What I’ve seen would have made you so; but it has only made me more lucid, made me get hold of still other things …” This halfway point through the novella has Miss suspecting the siblings of the subterfuge which in reality she is perpetrating: “Their more than earthly beauty, their absolutely unnatural goodness. It’s a game, it’s a policy and a fraud!”
Miss is conflicted over her employer. To Miles she says, in Chapter Fourteen, “I don’t think your uncle much cares;” and in Chapter Twenty-One, when Mrs Grose declares that the uncle “thinks so well of you!” Miss retorts, “He has an odd way — it comes over me now — of proving it.” It feels as though she is transferring her feelings of rejection by the uncle onto her young charges.
Underlying The Turn of the Screw is an undeniable sexual tension. We see it in the constant cuddles and kisses that Miss gives Miles and Flora. We suspect it in the relationship that Peter Quint and Miss Jessel may have had at Bly before Miss was appointed. There are closet hints that Quint and Jessel may have sexually abused Miles and Flora during their tenure, and that Miles may have been expelled from his school for what he had confided about it to a school-fellow or two. And in Chapter Six, just before Miss sees Miss Jessel’s apparition on the other side of the lake, Flora
had picked up a small flat piece of wood which happened to have in it a little hold that had evidently suggested to her the idea of sticking in another fragment that might figure as a mast and make the thing a boat. This second morsel, as I watched her, she was markedly and intently attempting to tighten in its place.
We’re told the phrase ‘the turn of the screw’ originally referred to the medieval torture instrument known as the thumbscrew, designed to increase both mental and physical pain. James was doubtless also aware of its vulgar use though in his text he was careful to couch the phrase in terms of the efficacy of the narrative in increasing our anxiety about supernatural happenings. Whether the ghosts existed in the world of the story or merely in the mind of the unreliable governess seems to me of lesser importance that the undoubted sexual tensions that lie in the minds of the characters: for example, the specific moments that Miss Jessel and Peter Quint are named to Flora and Miles are the great turning points whereby any uneasy status quo is fatally destroyed.
I mentioned the governess’ unreliability, and lies are the other major strand running through the novella, as when Miles tries awfully hard to be ‘bad’ and when he tells ‘white’ lies to cover what he is really thinking. And James’ own narrative, with its characteristic difficult phraseology rarely making for a smooth read, renders everything we read with an overlay of ambiguity, another form of white lie. As usual I find myself admiring his storytelling skill but, in the final analysis, not enjoying it.
· This was my choice for the Classics Club blog Gothic Dare
This is my 777th post, apparently