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The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (1898)

[Deep male voice speaking American English with gritted teeth and clenched jaw, the kind that makes non-native English speakers long for a clear BBC voice]

Previsously on Book Around The Corner:

Otherwise, unread blog entries are piling up in my mailbox, sorry, sorry, sorry. I’m still reading The Turn of the Screw and it seems that no tool is going to fix my interest on it. I have to hurry though, or I’ll screw up for my Book Club meeting on Thursday. Yes, I know, the pun is terrible but a weekend of waiting lines turned my brain into mush. I need a fix, cause I’m going down…

Did Emma manage to finish The Turn of the Screw in time for her book club meeting? The suspense is unbearable… Let’s hear her out!

Actually, I had a lot of trouble with The Turn of the Screw and I didn’t finish it on time. I was relieved that the others from the book club felt the same. They had been more conscientious than me and had read the book anyway. I was determined to finish it afterwards, to discover the ending by myself and write a proper billet. Here is the story:

A mysterious gentleman in London has the care of his nephew Miles and his niece Flora. He doesn’t want to get involved in their education and sends them to the country under the care of a governess. The narrator of the Turn of the Screw is that governess. She arrives at Bly, the estate in the country where the children are settled. Mrs Grose is a servant who lives on the estate and took take of Flora until the governess arrives. The governess finds Flora and then Miles quite charming and likeable. Miles was expelled from boarding school for something so awful that it’s never clearly said. One night, while the governess is having a walk in the park, she sees a ghost on one of the towers of the house. She soon discovers that there isn’t one but two ghosts and that they are Miss Jessel, the former governess and a male servant named Quint. She also discovers that the children see the ghosts too.

I’m still trying to understand why I didn’t like it while it’s so praised. I loved the other James I’ve read before, so it’s not the writer. That must be the genre: a ghost story, referenced as a Gothic tale by James himself:

Was there a “secret” at Bly—a mystery of Udolpho or an insane, an unmentionable relative kept in unsuspected confinement?

I’m French, as you may already know and I wonder if I didn’t have a strong stroke of Frenchness while reading this. First the 17th century, René Descartes and his rationalism came in the way; scepticism won the battle and I didn’t manage to accept the concept of ghost as a prerequisite to the story. Second, what could have Miles done to get expelled from school for such an unnamable thing? The naughty 18th century popped up and twisted my views. And of course, you have the coded letters between George Sand and Alfred de Musset at the beginning of the 19th century. It seemed to me that James had sown seeds of sex and pedophilia between the lines. The ghosts, Miss Jessen and Quint are supposed to be scoundrels but the reader never gets to know exactly what they did. I thought “don’t beat around the bush and just tell us the scandalous details”. Well, was it even possible to give the details in Victorian England? So isn’t the ghost environment just a pretext to tell us entirely another story and get around the censorship?

Here is Mrs Grose talking to the governess; she slips and lets her new friend guess that Quint’s behaviour toward Miles was gross:

And you tell me they were ‘great friends’?”“Oh, it wasn’t HIM!” Mrs Grose with emphasis declared. “It was Quint’s own fancy. To play with him, I mean, I mean—to spoil him.” She paused a moment; then she added: “Quint was much too free.” This gave me, straight from my vision of his face—SUCH a face!—a sudden sickness of disgust. “Too free with MY boy?” “Too free with everyone!” Vous me dites qu’ils étaient grands amis ? – Oh ! pas lui ! » déclara Mrs. Grose avec intention. C’était le genre de Quint… de jouer avec lui… je veux dire, de le gâter. – Elle se tut, un instant, puis ajouta : – Quint prenait trop de libertés. » À ces mots, évoquant subitement une vision de son visage, – de quel visage ! – j’éprouvai une nausée de dégoût. « Des libertés avec mon garçon ! – Des libertés, avec tout le monde ! »

I don’t know exactly what Quint was much too free conveys in English. In French, Quint prenait trop de libertés in this context insinuates inappropriate sexual advances. Later, the idea that sex is behind the whole story pops up again:

To do it in ANY way was an act of violence, for what did it consist of but the obtrusion of the idea of grossness and guilt on a small helpless creature who had been for me a revelation of the possibilities of beautiful intercourse? quelque moyen que j’employasse, je commettais un acte de violence, car que faisais-je, sinon pénétrer d’une idée de grossièreté et de culpabilité une petite créature sans défense qui m’avait révélé la possibilité de rapports délicieux ?

I put the French beside the English because the translation enforces the sexual innuendos. The obtrusion of the idea of grossness becomes pénétrer d’une idée de grossièreté, which sounds quite strange in French. Furthermore, beautiful intercourse becomes rapports délicieux in French, which has an even stronger sexual connotation than in English. Our governess also refers to behaviours which are against nature:

Here at present I felt afresh—for I had felt it again and again—how my equilibrium depended on the success of my rigid will, the will to shut my eyes as tight as possible to the truth that what I had to deal with was, revoltingly, against nature.

All in all, these hints scattered through the text led me into thinking that Miss Jessel and Quint were accomplice and children molesters. I thought that Miles tried to talk about it in school and got expelled for daring to mention such things in school. The children are both described as beautiful and even the governess’s love for her pupil Miles sounded weird and unhealthy. See in the quote here before, she says “MY boy” with my in capital letters when she refers to Miles. How can she be so attached to him in such a short time? It doesn’t sound like maternal love but a feeling as possessive as the one a lover could feel. And when she makes strange comparisons like this…

We continued silent while the maid was with us – as silent, it whimsically occurred to me, as some young couple who, on their wedding journey, at the inn, feel shy in the presence of the waiter.

…it enforces the idea of non-maternal love, doesn’t it?

I can’t help seeing the ghosts as metaphors of the terrible memories of abused children. Is it a final stroke of rationalism? Is it real or does it just means that I can’t accept the idea of a ghost story, that I have to find a rational explanation for it? I don’t have the answer.

Now, why was I so bored when I read it? Clearly, the style was a problem for me. You can’t write gripping ghost stories when you write Proustian sentences. It’s fantastic to describe subtle feelings but it lacks the proper rhythm to build the tension. At least, that’ show I felt. I imagine that in appearance, James was writing for money a story that was fashionable. After all, they were interested in the occult at the time. It wasn’t even creepy, it was just flat and boring compared to Le Horla by Maupassant, for example. However, writing this billet made me think about it and see that there’s more to it than a basic ghost story. And our governess may be an unreliable narrator. Who can attest of her sanity, after all? Perhaps everything happened in her head? She may be mad. And then all my theory about children abuse falls apart…

PS: here’s a fascinating review at The Argumentative Old Git.

  1. October 3, 2012 at 11:16 pm

    I take it you didn’t like it, then! 🙂

    I am actually a great fan of this story – but then again, I love the genre of the supernatural. And i find this story very creepy indeed: I remember one night reading it all at one sitting, and by the time I got to the end, I was feeling physically cold, There is, for me at any rate, a sense of evil running through this book, and the uncertainty surrounding the true source of this evil – whether it’s the governess or the spirits that may or may not exist – enhances rather than dissipates the deep sense of unease. James had perfected the art of implying everything, but confirming nothing. He would very artfully plant a seed in the reader’s mind, and then allow that seed to grow. this makes him, I think, an ideal writer of ghost stories. For in ghost stories, the explicit is rarely frightening: the most chilling fears come from suggestion. And no-one could suggest as insidiously as James does.

    (I had written about “The Turn of the Screw” here: http://argumentativeoldgit.wordpress.com/2011/07/17/the-turn-of-the-screw-and-the-innocents/)

    Henry James was fascinated by ghost stories, and wrote quite a few of them. “The Turn of the Screw” is the most famous, but, amongst others, “The Jolly Corner” I think is outstanding. But if you didn’t like “The Turn of the Screw”, you’d probably not like the others as well. For less convoluted ghost stories, I don’t know if you have tried he stories by Henry James’ near contemporary and namesake – M. R. James: now, he really was a master of the genre! Apart from a few stories by Maupassant, I can’t think of too many ghost stories in French literature. I suppose they are too rational for this sort of nonsense! 🙂

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    • October 3, 2012 at 11:29 pm

      I’ve just read your review, which is excellent as always.

      Reading this has been a chore, I can’t say it differently, sorry. In my book club group, we all had difficulties with it, we were all bored to death.

      The good thing about blogging is that writing about a book makes you see it in a different light. Yes, it’s interesting; there are certainly many things to say about it, different ways to analyse it. But I thought that James’s style was too complicated for the genre.

      And I didn’t find it disquieting or frightening. It didn’t work for me, I wasn’t even interested in knowing the ending.

      You’re right, there aren’t many ghost stories in French literature. Maupassant is an exception and I believe he wrote them when he was himself unbalanced due to syphilis.

      This reminded me The Little Red Riding Hood for the sexual metaphor. After all in French, elle a vu le loup means she lost her virginity.

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      • October 3, 2012 at 11:48 pm

        Goodness! – I didn’t know that! Little Red Riding Hood will never be the same again! 🙂

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        • October 4, 2012 at 8:04 am

          Yes. Imagine you go to a theatre play for children with your kids and you see images of a man dressed as a wolf, lurking behind trees and trying to catch The Little Red Riding Hood. Parents were pretty ill at ease.

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  2. October 3, 2012 at 11:45 pm

    Theophile Gautier was the 19th century French master of the ghost story. His are not very much like those of either James. Prosper Mérimée has some good ones, too.

    I thought “don’t beat around the bush and just tell us the scandalous details”. Ha ha ha ha! In Henry James! When does that ever happen in Henry James?

    Most of the language you identify as sexual would likely not have been seen that way at all. “Beautiful intercourse” especially – “personal relations” or “connections” is more or less right. However, you are engaging in the now long-established tradition of queering Henry James, finding transgressive sex everywhere. It’s a common reading of the story now, for better or worse.

    The no-ghosts-at-all, it’s-all-in-her-head reading is probably the most common, but I do not believe there is a consensus of any sort. This story has exercised a weird and perhaps disproportionate fascination on academics.

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    • October 4, 2012 at 8:20 am

      You’re right. I always forget about Gautier, I have only read Arria Marcella. I wonder if he’s not more read abroad than here.

      Glad I made you laugh. (that was the intention, btw) Like I said, I didn’t think that riding James’s twisted roads of sentences helped the story. But that’s my take, Himadri’s opinion is quite the opposite. At first I thought it was because the English was too difficult for me. I switched into French and it remained all the same.

      Thanks for the comments on the vocabulary. You could think that the French translation led me in that direction, I took the quotes in French and then looked for the original. But the general feeling remains; one of my friends read it only in English and when we discussed the book, she also had the same comment.
      All of us came to the text with brand new eyes. I knew it was a ghost story but I had not read a review of the book before. I had no idea of what it was about. Ditto for the others. Reading this was my idea after you guys recommended it when I read What Maisie Knew. I have to add that only I had a notion of the long-established tradition of queering Henry James, because it’s in The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst.
      In this book club, we’re readers, no one has studied literature beyond high school; we have no academic background in literature and no one had read James’s bio.

      And yet, we all saw the sexual innuendos, wondered if it was about paedophilia.

      Perhaps it’s just French twisted mind.

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  3. October 4, 2012 at 9:30 am

    Pour ma part, j’adore ce roman d’Henry James… Maurice Blanchot en parle très bien dans Le livre à venir… Merci pour cet article très intéressant, même si nous ne partageons pas le même avis !

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    • October 4, 2012 at 10:00 am

      J’adore Henry James, par ailleurs mais là, je n’ai pas accroché. Je vais essayer un Théophile Gautier pour voir si je suis vraiment fâchée avec les histoires de fantômes. Une recommandation en la matière?
      Je n’ai pas lu Maurice Blanchot, et à vrai dire, je n’en avais jamais entendu parlé avant de me promener sur les blogs littéraires anglo-saxons.

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  4. October 4, 2012 at 10:33 am

    While I love Henry James and ghost stories in general I hated this big time.
    I’m not surprised Blanchot wrote about it favourably. Clearly more a book to enjoy while picking it apart than while reading it.

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    • October 4, 2012 at 8:08 pm

      OK, so I’m not the only one.
      I haven’t read Blanchot, so I don’t understand your comment about him, sorry.

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      • October 4, 2012 at 8:37 pm

        Emma, I know you like David Lodge. Have you read his novel, Author, Author?

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        • October 4, 2012 at 9:07 pm

          No, I haven’t read this one.

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          • October 5, 2012 at 9:03 pm

            The book is the story of a period of james’s life as it relates to his writing. Very sensitively done. I think you’d like it.

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            • October 5, 2012 at 10:26 pm

              Thanks, I’ll look for it. I usually enjoy David Lodge.

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  5. October 4, 2012 at 9:50 pm

    I haven’t read James (yet, anyway) but I’m intrigued by your review and the subsequent comments. I too have difficulties with Gothick ghost stories of any age (more than a couple of M R James stories give me mental indigestion, and I found ‘The Castle of Otranto’ just tedious) so I was tempted to give ‘The Turn of the Screw’ a miss, especially when your review began. but maybe now, after your analysis, I’ll give it a try.

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    • October 4, 2012 at 9:55 pm

      If you’ve never read James, I recommend that you start with Washington Square. There’s a review on my blog and one on Tom’s blog (Wuthering Expectation), the link is in my own entry.

      I also reviewed What Maisie Knew, which I loved.

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  6. October 4, 2012 at 9:57 pm

    I must also refer back to notes I did as a music student about Benjamin Britten’s opera based on the story, as I seem to remember being told there were big hints about the closet sexuality in the libretto (it was of course an open secret during his lifetime that Britten was homosexual). I regret to say I was never a very apt music student and so never listened to (let alone watched) the opera.

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    • October 4, 2012 at 10:05 pm

      Himadri’s review is very good on the film version.
      I’m sure he has something to say about the opera.
      As far as I’m concerning, I know nothing about opera or classical music. I have no ear for it. I can associate dozens of book titles with their writers but I’m totally unable to recognize Mozart from Bach when I hear them. Sadly.

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  7. October 4, 2012 at 10:56 pm

    I am sure that your analysis of this book went deeper than that of anyone else in your group. I have yet to finish a Henry James novel and the Turn of the Scew totally lost me round about page 100. Excellent article as always

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    • October 5, 2012 at 9:18 am

      Thanks Tom.
      Have you tried Washington Square? I think it’s a good place to start.

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  8. October 5, 2012 at 9:31 pm

    I believe Maupassant’s “Horla” was indeed a record of his own madness. Ghosts and madness often go together, at least in literature.

    I find Gautier quite charming. He reminds me somewhat of a worldly uncle telling tales over his brandy. His ghost stories tend to be romantic, rather than scary. “Omphale” is a short one; it’s rather sweet: http://fr.wikisource.org/wiki/Omphale

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    • October 5, 2012 at 10:30 pm

      Yes, Le Horla was influenced by Maupassant’s madness.

      Gautier is a bit forgotten here. Never heard of anyone studying him in school or never chatted with anyone who told me “I just read a book by Gautier”. My attempt at reading Le Capitaine Fracasse was a failure. I found it so bombastic.
      Thanks for the link.

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    • October 5, 2012 at 11:34 pm

      I’ve read Omphale. Still that pompous style full of heavy comparisons.
      I can understand your referene to the old uncle and the romance. It’s the same mood in Aria Marcella. Prendre ses désirs pour des réalités: that’s the theme of the short story. Every man’s dream: the beautiful woman on the painting/tapestry changes into a flesh and bone mistress. 🙂

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  9. October 6, 2012 at 9:13 pm

    I’m quite a fan of this one. It’s intentionally ambiguous. Perhaps there are ghosts, perhaps it is what it says it is. Or perhaps the ghosts are the hallucinations of a sexually frustrated and fixated governess picking up on the charged atmosphere of a house where things have happened which should never have happened. The reader has to decide, though in a way it makes no difference to the tragedy of the story.

    Still, if you didn’t like it you didn’t like it. I do think your translation sounds about right, there is a potential sexual meaning in quite a lot of the language. Again, it could be read straight, or could be read as implying something much more illicit, though exactly what is never clear.

    I can’t recall, have you tried The Aspern Papers? No potential supernatural elements there.

    There’s a Gautier at mine, I rather liked him but I haven’t read more yet.

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    • October 6, 2012 at 10:16 pm

      I agree with your analysis. The reader has to decide. With my background, the ghosts-exist version isn’t possible. I can’t help expecting the ghosts to be a literary device to say something deeper. The tradition of “contes philosophiques” in French literature? And fairies, ghosts, dwarfs or whatever aren’t in our popular culture, except perhaps in Brittany.

      The Aspern Papers in on my list too.

      I remember that you reviewed a Gautier and this post convinced me to try him again.

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  10. October 6, 2012 at 9:45 pm

    That’s interesting! I don’t mind Gautier’s pomposity, or his ridiculous similes. It all seems cheerful and unpretentious, just a hammy entertainer having fun with the reader. And that last sentence is endearing.

    The only Gautier novel I’ve read is “La Belle-Jenny,” which was not what I expected: it’s like an exuberant cartoon, filled with conspiracies, secret societies, interrupted marriages, thwarted suicides, and outrageous coincidences. Trashy, really; but he was having fun, and it’s contagious.

    But back to James…

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    • October 6, 2012 at 10:20 pm

      The last sentence is funny indeed. The whole story is very 18th century. It reminded me of Point de Lendemain.
      But back to James. Any recommendation?

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  11. October 6, 2012 at 11:32 pm

    Hmm, I read this many years ago, and I just remember it as a straight ghost story. The undertones of sex and pedophilia were completely lost on me. Then again, I was quite young at the time!

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    • October 6, 2012 at 11:47 pm

      I must have a twisted mind, I don’t know.
      I think I don’t have it in me to get caught in straight ghost stories. That’s sad, in a way. It’s good to put aside rational thinking once in a while.

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      • October 8, 2012 at 2:18 am

        🙂 You never struck me as twisted, but maybe you hide it well! I think I was just innocent at the time.

        As for ghost stories, I don’t like them much either. I know what you mean about rational thinking, but to me there’s enough mystery in real life, and I find that much more interesting than the supernatural.

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  12. October 7, 2012 at 1:24 am

    No, no recommendations for James. I haven’t read him. I think I read “Turn of the Screw” long ago, but I don’t remember much about it. I must not have liked it much.

    As far as I can tell, ghost stories aren’t really about ghosts. Aren’t they more about the people who see them?

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    • October 7, 2012 at 7:38 am

      Yes, probably. It’s a genre I’m not really familiar with.

      Like

  13. Brian Joseph
    October 7, 2012 at 1:43 am

    Another classic that I have not gotten to yet.

    Your comments about rationalism and ghost stories struck me. I am of the same mindset as you. I really am a rationalist and really think that way about the world. I am however usually able to place myself in a story and do not really have difficulty with these stories. When I think about it I read religious texts like the Bible in a similar way. I say to myself that I am reading about a Universe, not my Universe, where a Being call God exists, etc, etc.

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    • October 7, 2012 at 7:48 am

      I know what you mean about changing of frame of reference when you read. You start with the assumption that ghosts exist and you dive in another universe. I managed to do that with Murakami when I read Kafka on the Shore. The surreal elements didn’t bother me, I really enjoyed the book. I managed it too when I read Harry Potter. But here it didn’t work, probably because it is not a straight ghost story.

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  14. October 8, 2012 at 11:57 am

    MR James’ stories are about ghosts I’d say. The narrators rarely have developed characters, they’re viewpoints letting the reader experience the ghostly goings-on. In the horror genre I’d say the focus is often on the ghosts too.

    Andrew, when I read it as a teenager I didn’t even notice any psychosexual undercurrents. For me then it was a pure ghost story. Even now I rather like the ghostly interpretation, it adds a bit of interest. The story’s intentionally open though on what’s really going on I think.

    Brian’s point on setting context is a good one. It takes a definite skill to change genre/setting concepts mid-stream and not have it go horribly wrong. If the protagonist of In the Absence of Men had been bitten by a vampire half way through Besson would have had to do some damn good writing not to lose me at that point with the sudden shift of genre.

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    • October 8, 2012 at 6:54 pm

      It’s interesting that you mention In the Absence of Men. This book stays with you, doesn’t it? I see what you mean and I agree with you. It’s a matter of what you expect is what you get.
      James’s style was too literary for me; I didn’t switch to the ghost-story setting and I looked for a double-entendre.

      In French we use the expressions “first degree”, ie straight meaning and “second degree” for a text with two layers of meaning. Do you have that kind of expression in English?

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  15. October 10, 2012 at 11:35 am

    If we do I’m not familiar with them Emma. We have the concepts, but if we have expressions for them I don’t know them.

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