The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (1898)

Novella review: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (1898)

theturnofthescrewThe opening of this Victorian novella is that it’s someone listening to a friend reading a manuscript or letter from someone he knew who once was a governess, and oh gosh, the reading is sure to disturb anyone, for it contains such unspeakable horrors!!

So, anyway, we get to hear what the governess has to say. She was hired by a man who can’t really be bothered to raise his orphaned niece and nephew by himself. He stays in London, and does not wish to be disturbed.

The two children are Miles, currently at boarding school, and his younger sister Flora, who lives at their uncle’s country estate with the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose. The two children seem so perfectly angelic, that there’s great cognitive dissonance when Miles comes home with a letter saying he’s been expelled, but not why. The governess is hesitant to ask him what happened, because it must have been something horrid, but he seems like such a nice lad.

Then the governess starts seeing ghosts: a man and a woman, which seem to be the former governess and a groundskeeper or something like that, who had an affair. They were both fired, and are now dead, but before they left the estate, they were very close to the two children, and the governess begins to suspect that the children are also aware of the ghosts. Something sinister is surely afoot, because why won’t the children admit to seeing the ghosts?

The only reason I looked for this story is because I found it on a list of Jane Eyre-inspired stories. Personally, I would not put it on such a list. So there’s a country estate and a master that’s away a lot, a housekeeper and a young governess. That’s about all the similarities with Jane Eyre, and considering the time this novella was written, there were plenty of country estates, they all had housekeepers and if there were children involved, there would be governesses to look after them. There’s never a ghost present at Thornfield, and while we can argue (which it seems many have over the years) that the governess here is insane, the same can not be said for the Brontë classic. So no, I don’t buy that, sorry.

The Turn of the Screw might be tricky to read for some simply because it was written over a hundred years ago. I found it incredibly tricky to read because the sentences were so eye-wateringly long that whatever Henry James was trying to say, it frequently got lost in a torrent of words. Here are a mere three examples:

What I had undertaken was the whole care of her, and she had remained, just this last time, with Mrs. Grose only as an effect of our consideration for my inevitable strangeness and her natural timidity.

I was aware afresh, with her, as we went, of how, like her brother, she contrived – it was the charming thing in both children – to let me alone without appearing to drop me and to accompany me without appearing to surround.

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 sounds from her had previously dropped; and, in the second, by the circumstance that, also within the minute, she had, in her play, turned her back to the water.

Less is more, dude; less is more. The third sentence – for it is indeed just the one sentence – is particularly hard to follow. The whole story is written like this! And there’s plenty of uses of the word “literally” too, most of which are redundant, even if they are technically correct. By technically correct I mean “not used instead of ‘figuratively’ which is what they actually meant”. Like, “I started up with a strange sense of having literally slept at my post.” It’s correct, but superfluous.

One of the things that got lost among all those words were the story itself. I read on Wikipedia that the story is considered to be really ambiguous, and having finished the darn thing, I concur. Sort of. The governess is rambling on a lot about the kids and what she thinks might have happened to them – at times, you get the idea that they were molested by the man who is now a ghost, but as nothing is ever put down as a definite, you can only speculate.

The way the children behave is also very non-eventful, even though the governess is trying to big it up. Perhaps it’s something to do with the times, and that this story made perfect sense and was shocking when it came out, but its shock value nowadays is entirely missing. The kids don’t want to talk to grown-ups, they go outside when they’re not supposed to just to spite their governess, and they refuse to admit to seeing ghosts. Doesn’t sound exactly sound like they’re possessed by evil.

All things considered, it’s a difficult novella to read because of the writing style, nothing really happens until the very end, which would indicate that the governess was at least driven to insanity, and it’s just a bit meh, to be honest. It’s atmospheric enough, sure, but if you’re writing a ghost story and seem to be on the way to write quite a good one, then keep writing a ghost story and let the ghosts be sinister and possess the kids and what have you. Not this strange concoction which starts out like a ghost story and ends up … nowhere.

2 out of 5 staircases.

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