Bly spirits

The figure on the tower at Bly, Essex: a contemporary illustration to The Turn of the Screw

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.

The governess with Miles: a contemporary illustration

· This was my choice for the Classics Club blog Gothic Dare


This is my 777th post, apparently

24 thoughts on “Bly spirits

    1. Well, there you’ve stolen a march on me because now I’m keen to see it! I believe a couple or so other films have taken this as a starting point too, but this is the one everyone refers to.

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  1. Of course James would give his specific spin to the gothic ghost story. Because there are so many levels of lies in this tale (the narrator, the children), there’s little to grab onto as secure and believable. “Fiction” is a lie, but, as so many writers and critics (Griel Marcus and Neil Gaiman, to name just two) have said, “Fiction is the lie that tells the truth.” But, like you, I can’t figure out what truth James wants us to find within this nest of lies.

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    1. This is now my fourth James tale and it seems to me that Ambiguity is his middle name. It’s also the first I’ve read with a female narrator but, as with the male protagonists of those other novels it’s hard to tell where we as readers stand. As we see with one character in The Spoils of Poynton, “Fleda read that last sentence over more times even than the rest: she was baffled — she couldn’t think at all of what in particular made him ask. This was indeed because it might be one of so many things.”

      It’s not just the obscurity of James’ writing that hints at lies being told, it’s that characters are effectively lying to themselves. And the nest of lies you rightly point to is not that of sweet fledgling birds but of spiders or vipers, more like to poison than to enlighten.

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    1. I’m glad I’ve read it and, though I wasn’t totally convinced by aspects—such as why does the governess leave crucial questions unspoken for half a year—it was certainly interesting psychologically. Perhaps one of the film versions would prove more enlightening?

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  2. You echo my thoughts on The Turn of the Screw, Chris. Although I thought aspects of the book work well – there is a genuinely unsettling atmosphere throughout and the tales of Quint and Jessel’s relationship (that hint of sexual corruption between them and the children that you pick up on) is disturbing.

    But it is an unsatisfactory read too with a narrative that never quite fulfills its promise. That ambiguity you mention though, does mean it’s open to adaptation and adaptations that are perhaps more effective than the original source.

    Great review

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    1. Thanks, Lynn, you put it well — James was, I believe, a sceptic where ghosts were concerned, and that conflict between his scepticism and the desire to write a ‘ghost’ story means the novella falls between two stools, in my opinion. But the hints of sexual desires and abuse certainly heighten the sense that something is deeply wrong at Bly House, and James does play that up well without being explicit.

      I never lost the feeling, though, that the governess’ narrative was essentially written with James’ voice in all its circumloquacity and with all its dependent phrases and all its confusing commas. Would a rural parson’s daughter of 20 really write in such overblown prose? Even the Brontë sisters kept their writings under a tight rein.

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      1. It’s a valid point. Perhaps he never truly embodied the character, couldn’t quite feel what it was like to be that young woman and perhaps that’s not entirely surprising. But at least he gave her complexity I suppose, made her a troubled and troubling human being rather than some of Dickens women who were so often Magdalenes, Madonnas or hags

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        1. Yes, there’s something buried in the psychology of Miss that we are given just glimpses of, expect psychiatrists have had a field day with her psyche! I should get back to Dickens sometime, too.

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            1. I haven’t read the latter, though Oliver Twist is one of my favourites. It has such a ‘complete’ story and when I reach ‘that’ scene between Nancy and Bill Sikes, I always imagine Dickens reading it on stage by gaslight in front of a thrilled audience (it was hugely popular when he did his reading tours). Though of course, I sometimes imagine Simon Callow instead of Dickens as the actor has become synonymous with the writer.

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            2. I know Callow toured a few years ago, in costume performing some of the ‘smash hits’ from Dickens’ novels, including the Nancy scene. I would have loved to see that! The closest I’ve come is seeing him play Dickens is in an episode of Dr Who 🙂

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  3. I have found James to be too clever for my own good. I don’t mind being led up the garden path for a while, but a time comes when I want to see the cat let out of the bag, fur, fangs and all.

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    1. Every one raves about The Portrait of a Lady so I think I may try that next — but you’re right, he tends to over-egg the pudding, and I shall leave a bigger gap before tackling another James to avoid verbal and narrative indigestion.

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  4. Thank you for your interesting analysis. I am a big fan of Henry James. I have realised though that his novels (at least the ones I have read) tend to end in a big question mark. The biggest question mark is definitely ‘The Turn of the Screw’. I somehow think that James, maybe ambivalent himself about endings, often left it to the reader to figure out. We discussed this book in the Brontë reading group in Brussels a couple of years ago. You can imagine how many interpretations of the story the members of the group had. It is a great story though, and maybe the many undertones in the story, whether it is about ghosts, sexual tension and a belief in the spiritual world is a mix of life in the Victorian era. The ending is frustrating though.

    ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ is a wonderful book, also with a not satisfactorily ending. However, if you want a sort of ending, I can recommend John Banville’s ‘Mrs Osmond’. After having read the original of course!

    As for Catherine’s gothic expectations in ‘Northanger Abbey’, another favourite of mine, the gothic moments reminded me more of Ann Radcliffe’s ‘The Mysteries of the Udolpho’ than the Brontës, although they also wrote about governesses. As seen on the comments here, the book definitely affects the reader, in one way or the other.

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    1. What interesting observations, thank you, Lisbeth! I’ve only read four James fictions and what strikes me most about them all so far is the sense of failure and missed opportunities—here, in The Aspern Papers, Daisy Miller and of course The Spoils of Poynton. However I suppose that won’t necessarily be the case with all his works!

      I’ve yet to read Radcliffe—first is Vathek and The Vampyre planned before Christmas! 🙂

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  5. I think you are right about sense of failure and missed opportunities. It does fit in with the books I have read. Colm Toibin has written a historical fiction on Henry James’ life called The Master. I loved it when I read it, but was not familiar with James at the time. I think I must re-read it.

    Is it Polidori’s Vampire? I read it recently. Interesting, considering it is supposed to be one of the first vampire stories, but the plot was lacking here and there. Have not heard of Vathek, but it sounds like it could be an interesting read.

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  6. This story sounds really interesting. I often give up on stories where the story’s “point of view” character is duplicitous. I have a really strong aversion to being told lies (even fictional lies from a fictional characters it seems). However reading your summary of some of the story shows me how it can be really interesting. Really interesting post!

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