'If the child gives the effect another turn of the screw, what do you say to two childen—?'
Before I read The Turn of the Screw, just now, for the first time, I had a vague sense of the story (a governess, two young children, a boy and a girl, some kind of ghostly visitation, and the lingering question of whether the events in the story are real, and horrible, or only the result of a suggestive imagination. I love Henry James, honestly I do, but whenever you read him it’s helpful to know the bones of the story. Otherwise, unless you’re paying very close attention, you can get lost in all the words.
The ghost story is framed by a scene set at a Christmas house party, among a cheerful group of friends, offers some initial humor…
I can see Douglas there before the fire, to which he had got up to present his back, looking down at this converser with his hands in his pockets. ‘Nobody but me, till now, has ever heard. It’s quite too horrible.’ This was naturally declared by several voices to give the thing the utmost price, and our friend, with quiet art, prepared his triumph by turning his eyes over the rest of us and going on: ‘It’s beyond everything. Nothing at all that I know touches it.’
'For sheer terror?’ I remember asking.
He seemed to say it wasn’t so simple as that; to be really at a loss how to qualify it. He passed his hand over his eyes, made a little winding grimace. ‘For dreadful — dreadfulness!’
'Oh, how delicious!’ cried one of the women.
He took no notice of her; he looked at me, but as if, instead of me, he saw what he spoke of. ‘For general uncanny ugliness and horror and pain.’
‘Well then, ‘ I said, ‘just sit right down and begin.'
The manuscript itself, we learn, was held by Douglas under lock and key after it was given to him by his friend , a woman ten years his senior, who had served as his sister’s governess. The pages, ‘in an old faded ink and in the most beautiful hand,’ contain a story that the woman has never told before, and there is ambiguity, and gossip, about the reason.
I fixed him too. ‘I see. She was in love.’
He laughed for the first time. ‘You are acute. Yes, she was in love. That is she had been. That came out — she couldn’t tell her story without its coming out. I saw it, and she saw it, but neither of us spoke of it….’
Mrs. Griffin, however, expressed the need for a little more light. ‘Who was it she was in love with?’
‘The story will tell,’ I took upon myself to reply.
'Oh, I can’t wait for the story!’
‘The story won’t tell,’ said Douglas, ‘not in any literal vulgar way.’
…’Won’t you tell, Douglas?’ somebody else enquired.
He sprang to his feet again. ‘Yes — to-morrow. Now I must go to bed. Good-night.’ And, quickly catching up a candlestick, he left us slightly bewildered. From our end of the great brown hall we heard his step on the stair; whereupon Mrs. Griffin spoke. ‘ Well, if I don’t know who she was in love with I know who he was.’
From this point, the ghost story, told by the governess unfolds. She is sent by her new employer to a country house to care for his two young wards, Flora and Miles, with instructions that she is not to bother him again, for any reason. The scene set there is that Flora and Miles are beautiful, and angelic, and eventually secretive and cunning, and that they have formed strong attachments to the Master’s valet, Peter Quint and the former governess, Miss Jessel.
Throughout the book, it's left to us, as readers, to determine what has happened before, and what is really happening now. I enjoyed reading this, and found myself gasping with pleasure from time to time at Henry’s turns of phrase. But as for it's being scary... I would imagine that a reader in James’ time (someone not spoiled by special effects) might have drawn more of a sense of horror from his prose style than I did. For me, any feeling of dreadful dreadfulness was muffled by James' language. For example, for the governess, what happens in this scene is absolutely frightening:
Of the positive identity of the apparition I would assure myself as soon as the small clock of my courage should have ticked out the right second; meanwhile, with an effort that was already sharp enough, I transferred my eyes straight to little Flora, who, at the moment, was about ten yards away. My heart had stood still for an instant with the wonder and terror of the question whether she too would see; and I held my breath while I waited for what a cry from her, what some sudden innocent sign either of interest or of alarm, would tell me. I waited, but nothing came, then in the first place — and there is something more dire in this, I feel, than in anything I have to relate — I was determined by a sense that within a minute all spontaneous sounds from her had dropped; and in the second by the circumstance that also within the minute she had, in her play, turned her back to the water.
Did you get that? What has happened here is this: after seeing a mysterious figure in the house, and learning from the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, that the man she saw resembles Quint, the governess, sitting by the lake one afternoon with Flora playing nearby, sees another apparition. Flora sees this figure, too, but she is not alarmed or surprised. This proves to the governess that the children are enmeshed in what is happening: ‘They know — it’s too monstrous; they know, they know!’ It is wonderful storytelling, but reading Henry James can be like translating from a foreign language. I literally had to go back and read these paragraphs again to parse out exactly what had happened and what was known.
'No, no, — there are depths, depths! The more I go over it the more I see in it...I don't know what I don't see, what I don't fear.'
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