Wednesday, April 6, 2011
1038. The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
Genre: Horror, Ghost
Rating: 3. Not bad
Read before: New read
A young lady becomes governess to two small orphaned children. But the job comes with strings; she is solely responsible for the children and she must never trouble the children's uncle, their guardian. She is charmed by the house, its location and above all the children but the governess believes the children at danger from supernatural figures ... or is there another explanation?
The Turn of the Screw reads like a traditional book, with Chapter 1 doing a reasonably good job of providing a number of hooks to grab the reader’s interest:
• Why does the children’s guardian not want to be bothered?
• What happened to the last governess?
• Who is Douglas?
If I was looking for a storywhere the loose ends are all neatly tied up at the end of the book, then this isn’t the book to read. James manages to weave his tale so that by the time I reached the end of the book I still had so many of my questions (2 of the 3 I had from the first chapter were never answered). But having said that I’m glad to have read this story since it stands so high in the list of horror/ghost stories. But would I read it again? Probably not.
It was a clever ploy to make the children’s guardian unavailable and force the governess (who is never named) to rely on her own judgement: "... she should never trouble him--but never, never: neither appeal nor complain nor write about anything; only meet all questions herself, receive all moneys from his solicitor, take the whole thing over and let him alone." (p 12) It seems pointless to point the finger at the selfishness of the children's guardian, who takes charge of children and yet take no responsibility for them. Not that he was a good judge of character anyway if you accept the housekeeper, Mrs Grose’s views about the unsuitability of his choices of Quint and Miss Jessel. But even this is suspect, as Mrs Grose never offers any proof of Quint and Miss Jessel's sexual relationship, forcing us to believe the gossip of an unsophisticated housekeeper and an increasingly hysterical governess. It may have been inappropriate for Miles to spend time with Quint but in the absence of a male guardian and his interest in male companions, as shown by his wish to return to school, Miles turning to Quint doesn’t appear unreasonable; and lets turn back to my opening comment of the guardian's disinterest in the children.
Why did the governess never resolve the question of Miles’ expulsion from the school, even if it was only to write to the school? This wasn’t well managed by her. I understand why she didn’t want to press Miles when he first arrived from school and over time it became difficult because of her suspicions, but they didn’t prevent her writing to the school and saying you can’t expel someone from school and not tell them why.
One unresolved question is whether the governess actually saw the ghosts of Quint and Miss Jessel—and on balance I don’t think she did. The only person who saw them was the governess herself; and it’s only conjecture as to whether the children saw them and kept that information to themselves. Certainly the only other person who was with the governess when she saw either of the ghosts was the housekeeper Mrs Grose, and it’s interesting that neither Mrs Grose’s loyalty or belief in the governess led her to admit to seeing Miss Jessel: "She looked, just as I did, and gave me, with her deep groan of negation, repulsion, compassion--the mixture with her pity of her relief ather exemption--a sense, toucheing t me even then, that she would have backed me up if she had been able." (p131)
Were the children good or bad? Likewise, this question is difficult to resolve. The governess arrives at Bly and is utterly charmed: charmed by the house and its situation, charmed by the housekeeper and charmed by little Flora. She could see no wrong with anything and this was how she started out. The governesses increasing hysteria and mistrust of the children makes it difficult to understand what the children were actually like when she met them; they could simply have been ordinary children and the governess hearing Flora’s coarseness may just have been her seeing the child for the first time: "...she was literally, she ws hideously hard; she had turned comon and almost ugly. "I don't know what you mean. I see nobody. I see nothing. I never have. I think you're cruel. I don't like you." (p 132)
What happened to Miles? It’s understandable that Flora doesn’t want to see the governess again (she’s seen as timid from the beginning of the story and the confrontation with the governess must have been confronting). But Miles’ death because his heart gave out sounds odd. Did the governess accidentally smother him in her hysteria in trying to save him?
PS I love that I understood the references to other books at the beginning of Chapter IV (p33): "Was there a 'secret' at Bly--a mystery of Udolpho or an insane, an unmentionable relative kept in unsuspected confinement?"
1. I haven't read The Mysteries of Udolpho but it's mentioned so often, even in Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, which I have read. Another of the novels I must read.
2. The unmentionable relative can only be Mr Rochester insane wife kept locked in the attice, a reference to Jane Eyre, my favourite book. Jane Eyre is also a governess with a mystery, but in this story is mystery to be unravelled the governess' madness?