Henry James: "The Turn of the Screw" and More

Extollager

Well-Known Member
Joined
Aug 21, 2010
Messages
5,275
#1
I've only started to read his full-length novels, with, last summer, The Portrait of a Lady, which took some settling into but which eventually got quite a grip on me.

I've long admired The Turn of the Screw as a thought-provoking and eerie ghost story, and, yes, I'm sure it is a ghost story, and the governess is not simply a neurotic. I've read a few other novellas by James.

Do we have any veteran readers of James out there? Or people intrigued but who've not yet read him?

I might try The Ambassadors this summer; What Maisie Knew if I get cold feet about reading the former.

I agree with those who hold that Max Beerbohm's parody of James is spot on, but perhaps we should wait a bit before relishing that here.
 

w h pugmire esq

Well-Known Member
Joined
Jan 11, 2009
Messages
403
Location
I linger within ye shadows of Sesqua Valley, dream
#2
Henry James is one of my favourite writers, and my absolute favourite short story writer. By short stories I mean to include his long pieces such as "The Aspern Papers" and "The Turn of the Screw". My favourites among his novels are The Ambassadors and the very unpopular The Sacred Fount, which I love so much that I have it on audio tape (just as I have two different audio recordings of "The Aspern Papers" on cd disc). As with H. P. Lovecraft, my love for James grew from my reading of the several biographies and his collected letters, edited by Leon Edel in four volumes. If one wants an inexpensive one-volume taste of James's letters, I recommend A Life in Letters (Penguin Classics, 1999), edited by Philip Horne. Although I am primarily a "Lovecraftian" writer, it is Henry James more than any other author who has influenced my own style and aesthetic approach to writing.
 

Extollager

Well-Known Member
Joined
Aug 21, 2010
Messages
5,275
#3
Thank you, Wilum. On your recommendation I have ordered A Life in Letters --although I haven't read very widely in James yet; only last year did I read my first of his full-length novels, The Portrait of a Lady, which took a little while to get a grip on me and then did. I've been figuring my next novel by James will be The Bostonians or What Maisie Knew.
 

Victoria Silverwolf

Vegetarian Werewolf
Joined
Dec 9, 2012
Messages
4,973
Location
Chattanooga, Tennessee, USA
#4
I have not read very much of his stuff. I can recall an English professor saying "Do get on with it, Mister James." That kind of sums it up for me, at least when it comes to the one novel I slogged through. (Sorry, but it was The Portrait of a Lady.)

On the other hand, I greatly enjoyed "The Turn of the Screw" and "Daisy Miller," and I thought "The Aspern Papers" was pretty good. There was another one of his ghost stories in volume one of Peter Straub's massive anthology American Fantastic Tales -- "The Jolly Corner." It seems to be about a fellow being "haunted" (in some sense) by himself from another life. Anyway, it may have been too subtle for me. I found it to be the most "difficult" story in the anthology.
 
Joined
May 9, 2006
Messages
13,884
#5
Leon Edel's selection The Ghostly Tales of Henry James brings together all his overtly "ghostly" material, though there are a few tales which I would almost label "terror tales" outside of these in his collected short fiction. His earlier tales tended, in the main, to be more "mainstream" ghostly than those as he developed, where the hauntings were often of a very subtle, psychological kind -- or at least relied as much on association and the characters' personal symbology as the activities of what we might consider a "genuine" ghost. Which is not to say that they aren't (in my view) effective; quite a few of them are. But they are often extremely subtle, and very often less concerned with stirring feelings of dread or terror per se and more with using the haunting to explore the human paradox.
 

Randy M.

Well-Known Member
Joined
Mar 7, 2012
Messages
1,143
#6
"Turn of the Screw" -- well, yeah. What self-respecting lover of ghost stories doesn't at least admire it?

"Sir Edmund Orme" (included in Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural) I enjoyed in part because it's the only story by James I've read in which one can watch the gears and cogs of the plot-clockwork (plotwork?) meshing as the tale progresses. An early story, I think.

"Daisy Miller" is good, but I agree with my professor that she needn't die at the end for the story to work.

"Washington Square" is one of my favorites. There's a war of wills and intelligence in the story, and the friction between father and daughter as well as the regard worked for me. The ending, for me, was devastating and without any overly dramatic flourishes.

I've enjoyed "The Jolly Corner" every time I've read it, but within a week or so I've forgotten what it was about and how it progressed. Can't figure that at all.

Years ago I read, I think, The Europeans and The Bostonians. I recall enjoying one -- an amusing comedy of society -- and mostly liking the other except for a display of "delicacy" that struck me as snobbishness. His fascination with the old money and their refined sensibilty, sometimes wears on me. I sometimes feel similarly about F. Scott Fitzgerald.

I'm pretty sure I've read other work by James, but right now that's all I can think of.

And I love the Beerbohm pastiche/parody.


Randy M.

P. S.: Rereading your last post, Extollager, reminded me of "The Beast in the Jungle." A truly effective story, though not really supernatural.
 

Extollager

Well-Known Member
Joined
Aug 21, 2010
Messages
5,275
#7
I've begun The Ambassadors, which will be my second long James novel, as opposed to novella. I have a bunch of other things to read too, but I didn't want to wait. I have an old Norton Critical Edition -- this appeared before the bane of Theory set in. James reportedly wrote to the Duchess of Sutherland, "Take...The Ambassadors very easily and gently: read five pages a day -- be even as deliberate as that -- but don't break the thread. The thread is really stretched quite scientifically tight. Keep along with it step by step -- and then the full charm will come out." I'm taking James literally. Five pages a day might be about all I will manage at times. I hope I don't learn eventually that James was writing quite ironically here...
 

Extollager

Well-Known Member
Joined
Aug 21, 2010
Messages
5,275
#8
Well, I didn't stick with it; it was not a propitious time for reading The Ambassadors, I suppose I could say--early in a new semester and all. But I expect to work up to it. However, I'm thinking it's advisable to take a more chronological approach to James's novels, reading 1880s ones before tackling the late ones. So I read Washington Square a few weeks ago and enjoyed it and am now into The Bostonians, ditto, though it rewards some exercise of the virtue of patience. After Bostonians, a rereading of The Aspern Papers sounds appealing, since I just read Richard Holmes's long biography of Shelley and understand that Papers was inspired to a degree by the fate of the poet's reliques, or perhaps I'll read The Princess Casamassima, which would be a good follow-up to Bostonians, I gather. I expect before long to start reading the volume of James letters that Wilum recommended last year, but right now am enjoying a selection of Robert Southey's letters.
 

Extollager

Well-Known Member
Joined
Aug 21, 2010
Messages
5,275
#9
In 1913 Henry James wrote a letter to a Texan, Stark Young, for information about the order in which to read James's novels. Apparently Young requested a list of five books. He sent two lists, describing the second as "more 'advanced.'"

List 1.

1. Roderick Hudson
2. The Portrait of a Lady
3. The Princess Casamassima
4. The Wings of the Dove
5. The Golden Bowl

List 2.

1. The American
2. The Tragic Muse
3. The Wings of the Dove
4. The Ambassadors
5. The Golden Bowl

Source: Adeline R. Tintner, "Henry James and Stark Young: The Correct Version of the Legendary Letter." American Literature 57:2 (May 1985), pp. 318-321.

A combination of the lists would look something like this.

1.Roderick Hudson
2.The American
3.The Portrait of a Lady
4.The Princess Casamassima
5.The Tragic Muse
6.The Wings of the Dove
7.The Ambassadors
8.The Golden Bowl

So far I've read only two of these, Princess and Portrait, and I'd say Princess might have a bit more ready narrative appeal today than Portrait. Princess has as protagonist a young man of ignoble birth (his mother a prostitute who killed her aristocratic lover) who is adopted by a seamstress who barely makes ends meet. Ironically, the protagonist gains admittance to the cultivated and wealthy world through the attentions of the Princess, who is estranged from her husband and bored, and taking an interest (as some of the upper crust of the time did) in "the people" and revolution. The novel is, as any James novel, I suppose, is going to be, fairly "slow," but still engaging. I wouldn't discourage someone from reading Portrait instead, though.

So far I've read (of the novels) Washington Square, Portrait, The Bostonians, & Princess--all of these recently. Of the novellas, "Daisy Miller," The Turn of the Screw, The Aspern Papers. I've also read "The Romance of Certain Old Clothes," "The Beast in the Jungle," and perhaps a couple of others. The next novel on my list is What Maisie Knew.
 

Randy M.

Well-Known Member
Joined
Mar 7, 2012
Messages
1,143
#10
You're a better man than I am, Gunga Extollager.

I've enjoyed James at shorter lengths, but whenever I come across his tendency to add nuance through shoe-horning in as many subordinate clauses as possible, I get weary if it goes on too long and set it aside. Still, "The Turn of the Screw" is masterful and I greatly admire "Washing Square," "The Beast in the Jungle," and "The Jolly Corner." I probably should take a chance and try one of his shorter novels, but ... well, maybe. One of these days.

Randy M.
 

Extollager

Well-Known Member
Joined
Aug 21, 2010
Messages
5,275
#11
I'd say you already have tried one of his shorter novels, Randy, since you have read Washington Square--published as a stand-alone book in my Penguin edition.

I've found that the twining verbal ivy wasn't a real problem in some, at least, of his earlier writing. I've been emphasizing his work of the 1880s. Sometime you might try The Aspern Papers, a novella from the period. Highly recommended. For a full-length novel, maybe The Princess Casamassima, which seems to me, for a long James production, very readable.

My sense is that the late three novels--The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, The Golden Bowl--are the ones that are really hard to read (and that The Awkward Age is hard to read because it is almost all dialogue). I suppose I will work up to them, but it's looking like I will tackle the unfinished Sense of the Past before I read them. (Actually, I was doing okayish with The Ambassadors last year but had maybe too many claims on my time to stick with it.)

And--yeah, The Turn of the Screw is awesome. The ghosts are apparitions, not hallucinations, and the governess is not insane: agreed?

Putting in that supremely creepy image from The Innocents, the film treatment of Turn that is not acceptable as a substitute for the book!
 
Last edited:

Randy M.

Well-Known Member
Joined
Mar 7, 2012
Messages
1,143
#12
I'd say you already have tried one of his shorter novels, Randy, since you have read Washington Square--published as a stand-alone book in my Penguin edition.
Good point, though I read it in a collection of his shorter works, including novellas and short stories.

And--yeah, The Turn of the Screw is awesome. The ghosts are apparitions, not hallucinations, and the governess is not insane: agreed?

Putting in that supremely creepy image from The Innocents, the film treatment of Turn that is not acceptable as a substitute for the book!
Nice image. I really should see that movie.

As to your question: Maaaaybe.

James loved ghost stories -- had kind things to say about J. Sheridan Le Fanu, for instance -- and he wrote quite a few before The Turn of the Screw, so he wrote that story as a ghost story and I think it holds up as a ghost story. Whether or not it remains a ghost story throughout its duration is up to the reader's reading, though. My own estimation is that there's a spectrum between a certain type of psychological thriller and the ghost story, with maybe The Haunting of Hill House edging closer to the latter and "The Beckoning Fair One" still closer, and The Turn of the Screw maybe not as close as either. Another thing that interests me is how other writers have responded to Turn...; certainly Jackson was aware of it, and I even bet Guy Endore was aware of James' tight-rope walk when writing The Werewolf of Paris. I've just started Paul Tremblay's A Head Full of Ghosts and I don't think it would have existed the way it is without that earlier work to point the way. Whatever else James wrote, at least in popular literature The Turn... seems hands down the most influential.


Randy M.
 

Extollager

Well-Known Member
Joined
Aug 21, 2010
Messages
5,275
#13
yesterday reread "The Romance of Certain Old Clothes" and read "The Friends of the Friends" for the first time. The latter should appeal to readers who like a noticeable element of psychology in a story of the supernatural or paranormal. I wonder if Robert Aickman knew and liked "Friends." Jorge Luis Borges did like "The Friends of the Friends." See #23 at this link:

Jorge Luis Borges' Favorite Short Stories (Read 7 Free Online) | Open Culture
 

Extollager

Well-Known Member
Joined
Aug 21, 2010
Messages
5,275
#14
Today read "The Author of 'Beltraffio,'" in which a devoted admirer of a noted author, staying as country-residence guest with him, his wife, their little boy, and the author's sister, inadvertently and ironically precipitates disaster among them. Whew. Now reading "The Altar of the Dead."
 

Extollager

Well-Known Member
Joined
Aug 21, 2010
Messages
5,275
#15
Elsewhere, Randy M. wrote:

"Concerning The Turn of the Screw: I suspect you're right about the majority of general readers, but critics and academics and some general readers have been arguing whether or not The Turn of the Screw is a ghost story for over 100 years. The only character in Turn... who sees a ghost is the governess. Her conversation and questions are leading, drawing information from the housekeeper about the previous governess and the groundskeeper, Quint. James plays with that, showing how the governess draws inferences from the housekeeper's information and what else she can piece together, but because no one else sees a ghost, there's the possibility she is making it up or delusional, a very young woman overtaxed by a larger responsibility than she's ever had and emotionally needy, desiring her young charges' complete devotion but with no confidence that she has that devotion."
 
Last edited:

Extollager

Well-Known Member
Joined
Aug 21, 2010
Messages
5,275
#16
Okay. I'm going to argue that the governess is sane, though under great stress, and that the ghosts are to be understood as apparitions of the dead rather than as hallucinations caused by some form of mental illness.

Here's my first point of evidence. The novella begins with Douglas, who knew the governess after the events at Bly. She got a job(s) as his sister's governess after those events. I see nothing to suggest that she did so by devious means, either on her own part or those of someone else -- that knowledge of her supposedly insane behavior was suppressed. Whatever happened immediately after those events, the governess emerged with her reputation intact, despite the fact that Miles died while under her care. How could this be? We can only infer that the governess gave a satisfactory account of herself and what happened; that Mrs. Grose in some way backed her up; that evidence from Miles's school indicates that he really had conducted himself in an exceedingly alarming manner for which James has provided no alternative explanation than that he was in contact with Quint. (It would have been easy for James to insert a subtle hint suggesting that maybe Miles had got to know some bad lot at his school, but he doesn't do this.) It must be inferred that Flora didn't have any horrible stories to tell about the governess's behavior when she, Flora, was taken away from Bly.

So, in short, before the main story begins, and when we reflect about the implications of the introduction after we have read that main story, James has left us no reason to believe that the governess was insane. For her, life has gone on satisfactorily. Douglas "'liked her extremely,'" found her "'the most agreeable person'" he's ever known in that kind of position (of trust, requiring good manners, stability, etc.).

(That's certainly not to say that, during the Bly period, she always reasoned appropriately, etc.)

Those who would like to contend that the governess was insane or had a severe episode of madness need to account for how the introduction allows for, or even supports, their view.
 

Randy M.

Well-Known Member
Joined
Mar 7, 2012
Messages
1,143
#17
Thanks for transferring my statement, Extollager.

Okay. I'm going to argue that the governess is sane, though under great stress, and that the ghosts are to be understood as apparitions of the dead rather than as hallucinations caused by some form of mental illness.
I agree about stress. Youth, inexperience, a desire to be beloved of her charges (and some jealousy when she's not sure she is and believes them more enamored of Miss Jessel and Quint), what seem like extraordinary conditions of employment (essentially, you're in charge, make the decisions, don't bother me kid), and the mystery surrounding the departure of Miss Jessel and Quint all act on a full imagination, contributing to that stress that she feels and which skews her judgement. Which may mean that however she maintained her reputation, her later behavior, presumably under more normal conditions -- for instance, in households where the parents or suitable substitutes were present and available -- was above reproach. Whatever triggered her behavior at Bly wasn't present in her later environments.

Here's my first point of evidence. The novella begins with Douglas, who knew the governess after the events at Bly. She got a job(s) as his sister's governess after those events. I see nothing to suggest that she did so by devious means, either on her own part or those of someone else -- that knowledge of her supposedly insane behavior was suppressed. Whatever happened immediately after those events, the governess emerged with her reputation intact, despite the fact that Miles died while under her care. How could this be? We can only infer that the governess gave a satisfactory account of herself and what happened; that Mrs. Grose in some way backed her up; that evidence from Miles's school indicates that he really had conducted himself in an exceedingly alarming manner for which James has provided no alternative explanation than that he was in contact with Quint. (It would have been easy for James to insert a subtle hint suggesting that maybe Miles had got to know some bad lot at his school, but he doesn't do this.) It must be inferred that Flora didn't have any horrible stories to tell about the governess's behavior when she, Flora, was taken away from Bly.
On finishing the novel, it boggled me a bit to think of her again tending to children. If she admitted to seeing ghosts, one would have expected her not to have many more appointments. "Oh, a ghost governess and a phantom groundskeeper, you say? Colluding to get the children? How very ... interesting. Well, we'll be in contact soon. ..."

But still, what name did she go by at Bly? What name did Douglas know her by? There may be multiple ways to account for her continued employment as a governess.

So, in short, before the main story begins, and when we reflect about the implications of the introduction after we have read that main story, James has left us no reason to believe that the governess was insane. For her, life has gone on satisfactorily. Douglas "'liked her extremely,'" found her "'the most agreeable person'" he's ever known in that kind of position (of trust, requiring good manners, stability, etc.).

(That's certainly not to say that, during the Bly period, she always reasoned appropriately, etc.)

Those who would like to contend that the governess was insane or had a severe episode of madness need to account for how the introduction allows for, or even supports, their view.
But sticking closer to the text, Douglas doesn't narrate that section and the one who does and others in the audience speculate Douglas was in love with her, so he's not an entirely unbiased witness.

Maybe more to the point, James isn't interested in making this easy for us. We reach our own conclusions from our own experience, as though viewing a literary Rorshach test and deciding the shape of what we see. However we create backstory that fills in the gaps he left, by linking the sightings solely to her, James allows for doubt as to whether the sightings are actual or induced by her circumstances and emotional state.


Randy M.
 

Extollager

Well-Known Member
Joined
Aug 21, 2010
Messages
5,275
#18
James could have given us just the governess's account, if he had wanted readers to focus on an unreliable narrator. (By the way I think there's at least one piece of evidence in her story that pretty much clinches the ghosts-not-hallucinations theory, but I'll hold off on that for now.)

Instead he gives us several pages that provide our only independent attestation to her character, and those pages are strongly favorable to her. If we are to take Douglas as an unreliable narrator, I'd say he could have found ways to do that. Someone might mention that in the space of a few words Douglas is perhaps teased for possibly having had a boyish crush on his sister's governess, but it is hard for me to think that that is the key to the whole thing, and that this is supposed to show us that she is some sort of psychic seductress.

I don't dismiss your points, Randy, but I'm arguing that -- however harrowed, at the time, the governess was by her experiences -- The Turn of the Screw is a ghost story. It's a ghost story with ambiguities,* but that it is indeed a ghost story is what I'd want to contend.

James's governess contrasts greatly with Lovecraft's narrators. The latter basically never make mistakes. It may take them a while to get hold of what is going on, but Lovecraft always -- or so it seems to me -- presents them as just needing to, and competent to, accumulate evidence. He never really dramatizes the effects of their growing awareness of something wrong; he may say that they struggled with it, but he can't or won't make that truly part of the story. James does. I think she does make a big mistake, which I will address in my next message.

*For example, there's the question of the governess's feelings for the children's uncle.
 

Extollager

Well-Known Member
Joined
Aug 21, 2010
Messages
5,275
#19
Here's a tentative reading of the governess's actual problem.

It is not that she is (temporarily or permanently) insane. It is that, as a 19th-century Anglican clergyman's daughter, she does not understand the danger of evils spirits, and so she tries to deal with them on her own, with disastrous results although she is not guilty of deliberate wrongdoing.

Think of Anthony Trollope's Barset novels, or George Eliot's Anglican clergymen, etc. My sense is that, while Church of England clergymen in the 19th century would have recognized the truth of the New Testament accounts of evil spirits, they would had little interest in demonology, would likely have thought of rites of exorcism as reflecting Romish superstition, and so on, with the important, possible exception of accounts from mission fields. The governess grew up in the household of a pastor. It is almost certain that she would not have any sense of exorcism as a possible response to anything likely to happen in England.

I hasten to add that I don't suppose Henry James believed in evil spirits.

"Evil spirits" is an ambiguous term, by the way. It could refer to the malevolent ghosts of dead people manifesting themselves, or it could refer to appearances assumed by demons/devils.

For some reason, James has established that the governess is a clergyman's daughter. I think it is usually assumed that this is just so that she can be an excessively sheltered young woman, psychologically vulnerable to extreme emotional stress if ghosts appear. That's true as far as it goes and that may go far enough.

But James could be doing a thought-experiment along these lines: Suppose there were evil spirits, and an active haunting really did occur here in England. Would English people have sufficient resources for dealing with them?

The governess never considers calling for a pastor's help. It never crosses her mind, in the story. She take upon herself the challenge of delivering the children. She does not seem to do so in very specifically Christian ways, e.g. by equipping her mind through studying the relevant Bible passages, by prayer, by fasting, etc.. Nor, perhaps, should she; it's not her calling to deal with such things; but she knows no better than to do just that. Hence the catastrophes.

To me, the attribution of the disaster to a sane (if sorely stressed) person's error of judgment is more interesting than just: here's the story of a nutter.

It lets James raise interesting questions about the competence of the state Church. Suppose, he might say, that the New Testament and the Christian tradition, which holds that there are such things as evil discarnates, were true. Isn't it obvious that the Anglican Church, with its typical attitudes towards the extraordinary, the supernatural, would be ironically ill-prepared to deal with them?

I grant that the conventional explanation for why James made the governess a clergyman's daughter (so that she could be a sheltered young lady who has to deal with terrifying experiences -- intensifying the suspense that way) works, but I'm wondering if perhaps there's more to it than that.
 

Extollager

Well-Known Member
Joined
Aug 21, 2010
Messages
5,275
#20
Here's something I tried to add to #18 above, but wasn't allowed to, because the time limit expired while I was writing it. My postings #18 and #19 above are the ones I especially hope will invite comment.

In case the following is worth sending --

Randy wrote,

------On finishing the novel, it boggled me a bit to think of her again tending to children. If she admitted to seeing ghosts, one would have expected her not to have many more appointments. "Oh, a ghost governess and a phantom groundskeeper, you say? Colluding to get the children? How very ... interesting. Well, we'll be in contact soon. ..."

But still, what name did she go by at Bly? What name did Douglas know her by? There may be multiple ways to account for her continued employment as a governess.-----

Yes, but such things would need to be indicated by James. He doesn't provide such indications. It seems to me that, if we stay with what James wrote and what he didn't write, the story's status as a ghost story is assured.

Randy, your scenario seems to imagine that the governess must have used a false name when she got the Bly post (and thereafter didn't use it). But why would she do that, and how could she document herself using a false name when she was seeking employment the first time? Alternatively, she could have used her true name for the Bly posting, and a false name thereafter. Why would she show Douglas an account of her experiences at Bly at all if she wished to suppress what happened there?

It seems that we must assume she was able to get a good reference from the children's uncle. We are given no reason to think that he thought she was grossly at fault, by reasons of insanity or moral turpitude, for Miles's death and Flora's presumably temporary severe distress yet wrote a favorable reference for her.

Nor is there any indication that she forged a reference letter, etc.

So I come back to this, that on the evidence we have, for what happened, it seems we must accept that the governess was sane and that others accepted her sanity and good character.

This is a bit of a stretch, but -- if we consider that Bly was haunted, we might also gain a possible insight into why the uncle didn't want to be bothered in any way about Bly -- namely, he already had reason to think something was wrong there and was uneasy. This would be like the situation in The Woman in Black, in which Arthur's London employer sends him to Crythin Gifford and Eel Marsh House, not wanting anything to do with things there. He was happy for this unsuspecting young woman to go there. After all, probably nothing scary would happen. In any event he wouldn't need to know if it did. (I don't suppose he thought anything really horrible would happen.) Fair?

Thematically, it's interesting to consider The Turn of the Screw as a story exhibiting the vulnerability of children in a society in which law and family may neglect them and (as I proposed in the previous message) the state church also fails to be prepared to meet their needs.
 

Similar threads

Top