"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

My very own misreading of The Turn of the Screw (1898) by Henry James

John Landis Presents The Library of Horror Haunted Houses

(2020 Dorling Kindersley)

Haunted Houses collects stories in the public domain that have been anthologized-to-death in the last hundred years. This is probably not the fault of presenter John Landis, whose puerile introduction kicks off the book:

....Ghost stories are a direct challenge to our modern, science-based lives. That's what makes them so fascinating; our reasonable selves versus the unnatural, the supernatural, and the extraordinary. Ghost stories directly challenge our intellect, our sense of self and mostly... our fear of the unknown. In ghost stories, rationality comes face to face with powerful supernatural events, born of uncanny forces.

Did Landis read the stories to which he has given his imprimatur?

The Turn of the Screw (1898)

by Henry James

I took the opportunity of this collection to read "The Turn of the Screw" for the first time. Reading it straight through in a three-hour sitting helped me avoid distraction and get an appreciation for the story's power.

The correct reading of the story presents the plot as a solipsistic series of fantasies by the unreliable narrator. Edel makes the case that while James' other supernatural tales are about straight-up actual uncanny phenomenon, "The Turn of the Screw" is about a near-hysteric twenty-year-old governess sifting through her misunderstandings and hallucinations to explain kidding herself into wrong conclusions. Ultimately this reading allows the reader to assume the narration is a fiction from start to finish. A fiction which has seduced Douglas, the man who owns the manuscript and reads the tale around the Christmas fire in the framing scene. Douglas clearly loved the governess: 

...."She was a most charming person, but she was ten years older than I. She was my sister's governess," he quietly said. "She was the most agreeable woman I've ever known in her position; she would have been worthy of any whatever. It was long ago, and this episode was long before. I was at Trinity, and I found her at home on my coming down the second summer. I was much there that year—it was a beautiful one; and we had, in her off-hours, some strolls and talks in the garden—talks in which she struck me as awfully clever and nice. Oh yes; don't grin: I liked her extremely and am glad to this day to think she liked me, too. If she hadn't she wouldn't have told me. She had never told anyone. It wasn't simply that she said so, but that I knew she hadn't. I was sure; I could see. You'll easily judge why when you hear."

My own misreading of "The Turn of the Screw" assumes the narrative is accurate. The governess, sifting clues based upon her own experience and discussions with Mrs. Grose, concludes the Bly estate and her charges Flora and Miles are haunted. 

The previous governess, Miss Jessel, and the two children were seduced by Peter Quint, valet to the owner of Bly and guardian of Flora and Miles. 

Late in the story, the ghost of Miss Jessel clearly shows the ravages of her experience:

....Seated at my own table in clear noonday light I saw a person whom, without my previous experience, I should have taken at the first blush for some housemaid who might have stayed at home to look after the place and who, availing herself of rare relief from observation and of the schoolroom table and my pens, ink, and paper, had applied herself to the considerable effort of a letter to her sweetheart. There was an effort in the way that, while her arms rested on the table, her hands with evident weariness supported her head; but at the moment I took this in I had already become aware that, in spite of my entrance, her attitude strangely persisted. Then it was—with the very act of its announcing itself— that her identity flared up in a change of posture. She rose, not as if she had heard me, but with an indescribable grand melancholy of indifference and detachment, and, within a dozen feet of me, stood there as my vile predecessor. Dishonored and tragic, she was all before me; but even as I fixed and, for memory, secured it, the awful image passed away. Dark as midnight in her black dress, her haggard beauty and her unutterable woe, she had looked at me long enough to appear to say that her right to sit at my table was as good as mine to sit at hers. While these instants lasted, indeed, I had the extraordinary chill of feeling that it was I who was the intruder. It was as a wild protest against it that, actually addressing her—"You terrible, miserable woman!"—I heard myself break into a sound that, by the open door, rang through the long passage and the empty house. She looked at me as if she heard me, but I had recovered myself and cleared the air. There was nothing in the room the next minute but the sunshine and a sense that I must stay.

Flora, not much more than a toddler, shows a similar aged and knowing countenance when the narrator confronts her at the pond. The child has turned her back on another manifestation of Miss Jessel.

...."She's not alone, and at such times she's not a child: she's an old, old woman."

Miles, upon whom in life the "low hound" Quint lavished his time and attention, seems preternaturally at ease with the governess, to the point of over-familiarity.

     ...."Oh, I don't want to go back!" [to school] he broke in. "I want a new field." 

     He said it with admirable serenity, with positive unimpeachable gaiety; and doubtless it was that very note that most evoked for me the poignancy, the unnatural childish tragedy, of his probable reappearance at the end of three months with all this bravado and still more dishonor. It overwhelmed me now that I should never be able to bear that, and it made me let myself go. I threw myself upon him and in the tenderness of my pity I embraced him. 

     "Dear little Miles, dear little Miles—!" 

     My face was close to his, and he let me kiss him, simply taking it with indulgent good humor. 

     "Well, old lady?" 

     "Is there nothing—nothing at all that you want to tell me?" 


Earlier in the same interview Miles states: "Oh, you know what a boy wants!"

At this point the reader realizes the dialogue between Miles and his governess is at cross-purposes. She has assumed he was involved in thefts at his school. But Miles has been expelled from school for showing a few students whom he "liked" something we realize he learned from Quint. 

     ...."Is that what you did at school?"

     Oh, what this brought up! "At school?"

     "Did you take letters?—or other things?"

     "Other things?" He appeared now to be thinking of something far off and that reached him only through the pressure of his anxiety. Yet it did reach him. "Did I steal?"

     I felt myself redden to the roots of my hair as well as wonder if it were more strange to put to a gentleman such a question or to see him take it with allowances that gave the very distance of his fall in the world. "Was it for that you mightn't go back?"

     The only thing he felt was rather a dreary little surprise. "Did you know I mightn't go back?"

     "I know everything."

     He gave me at this the longest and strangest look. "Everything?"

     "Everything. Therefore did you—?" But I couldn't say it again.

     Miles could, very simply. "No. I didn't steal."

     My face must have shown him I believed him utterly; yet my hands—but it was for pure tenderness—shook him as if to ask him why, if it was all for nothing, he had condemned me to months of torment. "What then did you do?"

     He looked in vague pain all round the top of the room and drew his breath, two or three times over, as if with difficulty. He might have been standing at the bottom of the sea and raising his eyes to some faint green twilight. "Well—I said things."

     "Only that?"

     "They thought it was enough!"

     "To turn you out for?"

     Never, truly, had a person "turned out" shown so little to explain it as this little person! He appeared to weigh my question, but in a manner quite detached and almost helpless. "Well, I suppose I oughtn't."

     "But to whom did you say them?"

     He evidently tried to remember, but it dropped—he had lost it. "I don't know!"

     He almost smiled at me in the desolation of his surrender, which was indeed practically, by this time, so complete that I ought to have left it there. But I was infatuated—I was blind with victory, though even then the very effect that was to have brought him so much nearer was already that of added separation. "Was it to everyone?" I asked.

     "No; it was only to—" But he gave a sick little headshake. "I don't remember their names."

     "Were they then so many?"

     "No—only a few. Those I liked."

     Those he liked? I seemed to float not into clearness, but into a darker obscure, and within a minute there had come to me out of my very pity the appalling alarm of his being perhaps innocent. It was for the instant confounding and bottomless, for if he were innocent, what then on earth was I? Paralyzed, while it lasted, by the mere brush of the question, I let him go a little, so that, with a deep-drawn sigh, he turned away from me again; which, as he faced toward the clear window, I suffered, feeling that I had nothing now there to keep him from. "And did they repeat what you said?" I went on after a moment.

     He was soon at some distance from me, still breathing hard and again with the air, though now without anger for it, of being confined against his will. Once more, as he had done before, he looked up at the dim day as if, of what had hitherto sustained him, nothing was left but an unspeakable anxiety. "Oh, yes," he nevertheless replied—"they must have repeated them. To those they liked," he added.

     There was, somehow, less of it than I had expected; but I turned it over. "And these things came round—?"

     "To the masters? Oh, yes!" he answered very simply. "But I didn't know they'd tell."

Perhaps here the governess realizes the appalling consequences for the children of what went on at Bly when Quint ruled as seducer and beguiler over Flora, Miles, and Miss Jessel. Certainly even a casual reader has picked up clues along the way and has had them confirmed in this devastating scene. The implications are not merely scandalous. 

After Mrs. Grose has taken Flora and fled from Bly, the governess has a final showdown with Miles and Quint's specter. Miles dies and the narrative swiftly ends. James, in his abstract, suggestive, and occult mode of narration, does not even return to Douglas and his audience at the winter fireside. The finale is a brutal piece of artful craftsmanship. James seems to tell the reader: Enough of explanations; you have the clues you need: start rereading.


27 January 2021

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