Sunday, 19 October 2014

The Turn Of The Screw - Henry James

A bit of a dry writer is Henry James which doesn't make for him being the easiest of reads but this, his best book by far as opined by a good many people is simply sublime. The Turn Of The Screw is a ghost story. Or is it? And it's this very equivocation that makes it so very interesting.

Written in 1898, it's the story of a young woman taking employment as a governess to two orphaned children in a mansion house in Essex. Her employer is a gentleman bachelor based in London and he's the children's uncle. Their parents have both died in India and though he feels it's his duty to now take care of the children, having no experience in such matters he makes available his countryside residence for them to live where he has staff running the house but needs a governess for the children. His only proviso being that under no circumstances must he be contacted with regards to the children and that any problems be dealt with entirely by the governess.

The two children - Miles and Flora - turn out to be the most well-behaved, beautiful, angelic creatures imaginable which makes it impossible to understand why for some unexplained reason Miles has been expelled from his boarding school and is not going to be allowed back. The governess can only presume that some grave misjudgement has occurred and quickly settles down to tutoring and looking after them both.
Everything is sweetness and light until one sunny afternoon the governess spies a stranger peering down at her from up on the balcony of one of the mansion's towers. The only conclusion she can come to is that the man is an intruder, though simply curious about old houses, who has made his way to the top of the mansion to take in the view then stolen out as he came. Thus, she makes no more of it, assuring herself that she'll see no more of him. Her rather naive conclusion, however, is shattered some days later when upon entering a room she sees the same stranger peering in through the window from outside but after rushing out to confront him, she finds he's vanished. On describing the man to the housekeeper, the governess is informed that she has just described Peter Quint, the uncle's old valet. The only problem being that Quint is dead.
Days later, whilst sitting with Flora next to the mansion's lake, the governess realises there is a figure of a woman standing amongst the reeds on the lake's far side. To her horror, she realises Flora is also aware of the woman's presence but is not acknowledging it.

The governess learns that during his time at the mansion house, Quint had exerted much influence upon both staff and the children, and had been particularly close to Miles. According to the housekeeper, Quint was "much too free - with everyone" and took many liberties. She also learns that Quint and the previous governess to the children had been having an affair that had ended horribly. Quint had been found frozen dead on the road, suspected of falling over whilst drunk when returning one night from the village. The previous governess - Miss Jessel - had abandoned her job through shame of the affair and had moved away, only to be reported to have later died also.

The governess concludes that the figures she is seeing are demonic apparitions; the ghosts of Quint and Miss Jessel who have returned to the mansion to possess and stamp their claim upon the children. She also believes that the children are both fully aware of their presence but are keeping it secret. Miles never talks of his close past-relationship with Quint and never hints as to why he's been expelled from his boarding school. Flora denies being able to see Miss Jessel even when she appears again and the governess tries to force her to admit that she's there: "She's there, you little unhappy thing - there, there, there, and you see her as well as you see me!" But Flora simply won't have it and the situation isn't helped by the housekeeper taking Flora's side and denying that she can see anything also. The governess decides that only she can save the children and tells the housekeeper to take Flora away from the mansion, leaving her alone with Miles to confront Quint. The story concludes, as might be expected, in tragedy.

There is a lot of ambiguity throughout The Turn Of The Screw, with deeds and relationships being hinted at but never openly expressed. Henry James may well have been inhibited by the times in which he was living and by what was deemed suitable to be openly spoken of. The governess in the story is herself an innocent though in the full flush of her very pent up emotions. The housekeeper, though having bore witness to past unscrupulous events and interactions is unable to bring herself to talk about them in any detail. The children, though mere infants are mature beyond their years and their angelic behaviour seems only to be a facade; a mask to hide the horribleness they have suffered and that has manifested within them. Quint and Miss Jessel are silent figures, bonded together by potentially dark and unacceptable secrets.
Did something occur between Quint, Miss Jessel and the children? What did Quint teach Miles that seems to have led him to be expelled from boarding school? Quint, as disclosed by the housekeeper was certainly a manipulative individual; able to worm his way into having the trust of his employer, bypass class distinctions and conduct an affair with the governess at the time, plus enjoy the close companionship of a young boy. Is there something paedophilic being hinted at here? Or is it indeed the governess who is the corrupter? Feeding the children and the housekeeper disturbing ideas but to what ends? Just as she tells the housekeeper how the children manoeuvre situations so that one or the other may be alone with the apparitions, does she do likewise so as to end up alone with Miles at the end? Or is the governess simply imagining she can see Quint and Miss Jessel and it is actually she who is possessed by a madness?

The Turn Of The Screw has been cited as one of the greatest ghost stories ever written and this may well be true but only because it can be read as so much more than a ghost story. The film version - The Innocents - made in 1961 and directed by Jack Clayton features a tour-de-force performance by Deborah Kerr and is without any question one of the greatest ghost/horror films ever produced. Both book and film are well worth reading and watching and are guaranteed to remain in the memory for a very, very long time.
John Serpico

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