Tuesday, 11 June 2013

The Turn of the Screw and The Aspern Papers by Henry James

Some years ago I read a book which has become one of my favourite ones. It is a biographical novel on Henry James called 'The Master' by Colm Tóibín. It is an absolute masterpiece and has to be read if you are in to both Henry James and Colm Tóibín. Since then I have read several books by him and 'The Master' really made me want to read something of Henry James. I can remember having read 'Washington Square' but not remember it (have to read it again). I was therefore quite eager to read 'The Turn of the Screw' when my Brontë reading group put this on the list. Since 'The Aspern Papers' is in the same Penguin book I finished both of them within a couple of days.


The 'Turn of the Screw is a ghost story. A group of people are gathered in an old house around Christmas. They amuse themselves by telling ghost stories. One of the guests, Douglas, says he has the most dreadful story to tell, but it is written down, placed in a safe and he has to send for it. The manuscript was written by his sister's governess. When she died some twenty years earlier she had sent the manuscript to him for safe keeping. The mystery surrounding the story excites the guests but they have to wait for a couple of days before the package arrives. The story thus begin...

The fact to be in possession of was therefore that his old friend, the youngest of several daughters of a poor country parson, had at the age of twenty, on taking service for the first time in the schoolroom, come up to London, in trepidation, to answer in person an advertisement that had already placed her in brief correspondence with the advertiser. This person proved, on her presenting herself for judgement at a house in Harley Street that impressed her as vast and imposing - this prospective patron proved a gentleman, a bachelor in the prime of life, such a figure as had never risen, save in a dream or an old novel, before a fluttered anxious girl out of a Hampshire vicarage. One could easily fix his type; it never, happily, dies out. He was handsome and bold and pleasant, off-hand and gay and kind. He struck her, inevitably, as gallant and splendid, but what took her most of all and gave her the courage she afterwards showed was that he put the whole thing to her as a favour, an obligation he should gratefully incur. She figured him as rich, but as fearfully extravagant - saw him all in a glow of high fashion, of good looks, of expensive habits, of charming ways with women. he had for his town residence a big house filled with the spoils of travel and the trophies of the chase; bit it was to his country home, an old family place in Essex, that he wished her immediately to proceed.


The governess is hired to take care of his orphaned nephew and niece. She is given all the responsibility to take care of them. The gentleman will not have anything to do with the children and no reports on their progress. He leaves them in her care.

The country home where she arrives is run by the house keeper Mrs Grose. She soons learn that the former governess died but no more information on how she died is given. She is to take care of the young girl Flora and the young man Miles. Miles is at her arrival in a boarding school but will come home for the holidays. It turns out that he has done something very bad and is not welcome back to the school. Both the governess and Mrs Grose see anything but good in the children. They are even so good that it is not normal. As the story proceeds this goodness is challenged.

The governess start seeing people that nobody else but the children are seeing. While talking with Mrs Grose she get to know that the people she is seeing is a former valet (nasty piece, no gentleman and a bad influence on the children). However, she quickly realises that this Mr Quint is dead, as is Ms Jessel the former governess although she and the children see her too. I will not reveal the end only that it does not make you much wiser.

When the story appeared in book form it got glowing reviews. James was compared to Hawthorne and Poe. Even Oscar Wilde was lyrical; 'I think,' he wrote to Robbie Ross 'it is a most wonderful, lurid, poisonous little tale, like an Elizabethan tragedy. I am greatly impressed by it.'  As soon as it came out critics starting interpreting it. The critics have been divided. On one side they say that 'the ghosts are not real ghosts at all but merely hallucinations of the governess'. He detected Freudian sex symbolism in the tale. The governess is a classic example of neurotic sexual repression, and her passion for her handsome employer, awakened by only two meetings with him, has released a vein of morbid imagining about her predecessors.' Others say that the tale is about abused children. Quint and Jessel were abusing the children while alive and now comes back to claim or haunt them when they are dead.

The interpretations above are from the introduction of this Penguin version. More elaborated details and interesting criticism can be found in this introduction and preface of Anthony Curtis and Geoffrey Moore.

Fascinating read and yes I have already downloaded 40 ebook stories of Henry James. There is no going back now!

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