Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Adventure classics -- What the governess saw

“The Turn of the Screw”

by Henry James


Who would have thought Henry James, master of nuance and of intricately constructed sentences covering half a page or more of type, yearned to write plays, those marvels of succinctness? Luckily for all of us, he failed.

Because if his dream of theatrical success hadn’t turned to nightmare, he might never have written one of the world’s most famous ghost stories -- a story whose gist he heard from the Archbishop of Canterbury shortly after his play closed in complete shambles.

When James made a promised visit to the archbishop five days after hearing his work proclaimed from the audience as “a rotten play,” “it must have been soothing to the injured playwright’s self-esteem to be received in the ecclesiastical family circle with warmth and affect,” Leon Edel wrote in the fourth volume of his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of James.

The writer and the archbishop spoke, oddly, about ghost stories. Both lamented the effect of the late nineteenth century’s psychical research in divesting ghosts of their traditional mystery and horror.

In that atmosphere, the archbishop told an incident he had heard years before, of a spectral visitation to a couple of small children. The tale, as James remembered it later, was only “the shadow of a shadow.” He made a note of it. But nearly three years would pass after the 1895 failure of his theatrical hopes before James could bring himself to write “The Turn of the Screw.”

Even if you haven’t read the text, seen the movies, or heard the opera, you know the story. The callous guardian of a young brother and sister engages a governess, insisting she is not to bother him with any details of the children’s upbringing in his remote country house. Of course, the governess is very young, very inexperienced, very unsophisticated. Of course, the guardian is rich and handsome. Of course, the governess is infatuated with him.

Although the brother is supposed to be away at school, the governess arrives at her destination to learn he has been expelled from his school, leaving her with two charges. And a pair of very malignant ghosts. Can anyone but her see them? Is there a conspiracy between the little children and the ghosts of her predecessor and the predecessor’s lover?

Despite all the commentary the story inspires, Edel recommends reading it “as one reads the fairies and ghosts of one’s childhood -- in all innocence and with a willing suspension of disbelief. . . (to) capture the horror and ghostliness, and discover in the story all the evil he is capable of feeling.”

I must have had a lot of innocence and very little feeling of evil when I read this as an adolescent, because, frankly, it baffled me. The governess seemed merely silly. When rereading it years later, she seemed not silly but naïve, in the horrifying way of someone who believes in her own interpretation of events, no matter how much the evidence contradicts her. Believes with enough assurance to destroy an innocent life.

But I’ll follow James’s example and leave you to judge for yourself. Both Edel’s biography, simply titled Henry James, and “The Turn of the Screw” are widely available at  

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics continues its month of Halloween horror with William Faulkner’s tale of another troubled woman, in “A Rose for Emily.”)


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