The Turn of the Screw – Henry James

A.K.A. How I keep desperately trying to avoid saying The Taming of the Shrew.

I always find it faintly amusing how editions of this novella always look so harmless, so quaint – perhaps even slightly dull – with pictures of country houses, governesses and the odd garden vista. Hate to break it to you, but innocuous is one thing it ain’t.

The unnamed narrator is the youngest daughter of a country parson doing the classic thing that all respectable middle-class Victorian women in the need of a bit of cash do, – namely becoming a governess. After briefly meeting her (very attractive) employer in London, she is sent down to his country estate, Bly, to take charge of the running of the house and of the education of his niece and nephew. Miles and Flora are both very charming, charismatic  and intelligent children – to the point of being a little disturbing. Before long, things get a whole lot more so, as mystery upon mystery piles upon suggestion and implication to create a psychological minefield of a story.

Very little is definite in this novella. James was not kidding when he called it a jeu d’esprit, (contrary to popular belief this does not mean “spirited game”, but “mind game”) it really does screw with your head if you spend too long reflecting upon the plot and second-guessing it. The crux of the lack of stability, so far as reality is concerned, is that we are forced to view everything through the perceptions of our Governess – who is the very definition of an unreliable narrator and has the habit of jumping to very certain conclusions on minuscule amounts of evidence. Does the fact that there are ghosts (possibly) running about the place mean that the children’s eternal souls are in danger? Do the ghosts even exist at all, or are they the result of the repressed educator’s burgeoning sexual desires? James keeps us guessing right up until the very end, well – beyond, in fact. To this day, critics and readers align themselves in to “pro” and “anti” Governess parties, with the former regarding her as perfectly sane (if buttoned-up) human being caught up in ghost story – and the latter as a stark-raving lunatic with Freudian subconscious issues that ought to be kept as far away from children as humanly possible. 

The crux of the anti-Governess bias is, I suspect, more to do with the fact that the ghosts come across as far more interesting than she does. We hear from Mrs Grose (a dumpy housekeeper with some equally stodgy dialogue) that both Quint and Jessel (the ghosts) were beautiful, charismatic and utterly immoral in life; rather a contrast to the bland, moral and nameless narrator who can become quite tiresome company after a while. Thus, the temptation is to see the ghosts (and all subsequent inferences/suspicions around them) as the projections of the Governess’ subconscious desires.

But I don’t believe in any such Freudian rubbish. So far as I’m concerned, it’s a straight-forward ghost story – and to pin anything else on it is to fall into James’ trap of jeu d’esprit. Phewph. In other news, stylistically it’s generally pretty good and rarely predictable – although with a few epic fails on the style front, (Mrs Grose, definitely a case of function over form). Although I do warn you, you do need to be in the right mood to read it and, ideally, you should read it all in one go or in as few chunks as possible. The nature of the prose makes it a bit hard-going if you’re not feeling receptive, or the story is too fragmented.

I award this book 4 out of 5, with points deducted for a some prose and characterisation flaws – not just with the blessed Mrs Grose, Flora is eight in theory, and yet almost all of her actions etc would be more suited to a two year old. That might be an authorial decision – but I don’t think it works in terms of the story. Read and decide for yourself if the Governess is sane etc.

Over and out.