The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

Henry JamesThe first time I read The Turn of the Screw, I hated it. I hated the over-stuffy prose, which seemed to be hiding a good ghost story behind thickets of Victorian verbiage so tangled the only emotion to get through was the most insistently hysterical. The characters seemed nothing more than embodiments of the era’s most conventional attitudes: the oh-so-angelic children, the distant, paternalistic gentleman-employer who of course knows best about everything, the loyal housekeeper with an unquestioning faith in her superiors, and the governess, a wide-eyed innocent country parson’s daughter on her first adventure out into the world…

And then, on a recent re-read, I realised this was, of course, the point. The story, told by the governess (that country parson’s daughter on her first adventure into the world) is infused with her hysterical insistence that things be as the Victorian world liked to pretend they should be, precisely when they’re revealing themselves to be the opposite. Those thickets of Victorian verbiage are her way of trying to keep a destabilised world in check, a world in which children aren’t little angels but human beings (and so can seem, at times, like devils); a world in which distant paternalistic gentleman-employers don’t know best, but simply don’t care; a world in which some servants aren’t so unquestioning and loyal.

turn-of-the-screw-01I suppose what wrongfooted me on that first read was I expected The Turn of the Screw to be a ‘straightforward’ ghost story (which was the only type I’d read, at the time). By this I mean a story in which a normal world is invaded by the supernatural. To make this sort of ‘straightforward’ ghost story work, you need characters who are straightforwardly normal, whose very normality acts as a baseline to which the abnormality of the supernatural can be compared. But The Turn of the Screw isn’t of this type. It is, I’d say, one of the first truly modern ghost stories, whose characteristic is that they tangle the supernatural with the psychological to such a degree it’s impossible to unravel the two.

The Turn of the Screw is the famous example of a ghost story that can be read entirely psychologically (the governess, coming apart at the seams, hallucinates ghosts as an expression of her own super-heated repressions) or supernaturally. As someone who doesn’t like their ghosts to be explained away, but who also likes the fantastic to feel psychologically significant, I prefer to read it as the perfect meeting of haunters and haunted — a pair of ghosts who, though real, fit exactly into the dark cracks of an unhinged, still-living mind. The governess, in The Turn of the Screw, is as much a monster as that ‘horror’, the dead manservant Peter Quint, only she’s a monster of the opposite extreme: Quint is ‘much too free’; the governess is as tight-laced and primly judgemental as any inexperienced, over-romantic Victorian pastor’s daughter can be. And whereas Quint is transgressive of all boundaries — between the classes, between the sexes, between adult and child, and, now, between life and death — the governess insists on everything being filed way into the absolute, binary opposites of her age: people are either ‘gentlemen’ or they are ‘horrors’, children are ‘angelic’ and innocent or ‘corrupt’. While eight-year-old Flora is at first ‘the most beautiful child I had ever seen’, she is, at the end, ‘hideously hard… common and almost ugly’.

It’s the governess’s relationship with the housekeeper, Mrs Grose, that’s key to both her personality, and my own initial reaction against the novel. Once the governess realises she can, effectively, bully Mrs Grose into agreeing with her, she’s constantly finishing Mrs Grose’s sentences, forcing her own (often wild and illogical) interpretations on what Mrs Grose has seen, heard, or suspects, as though they were the only possibilities:

‘He was looking for someone else, you say – someone who was not you?’

‘He was looking for little Miles.’ A portentous clearness now possessed me. ‘That’s whom he was looking for.’

‘But how do you know?’

‘I know, I know, I know!’ My exaltation grew. ‘And you know, my dear!’

Turn_of_the_screw_02This is what I found so repellent about the book that first time I read it — the governess isn’t merely hijacking Mrs Grose’s point of view, she’s hijacking the reader’s too. No room is left for any doubt that those infamous horrors, Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, are seeking to corrupt the children, and that the children are willing accomplices. And, while the governess herself freely corrupts Mrs Grose with her own hysterical insistence, she knows she can’t put words into the children’s mouths. The Turn of the Screw becomes a battle with silence — with, in a way, a sort of tortured social propriety, in which the only way to find out if something awful has happened to the children is to suggest that awfulness, but to do that is to potentially ruin what is (to the governess’s mind) most valuable about them, their innocence. So they must be made to speak without prompting, and the more they refuse to do so, the more the governess, in her twisted way, takes the children’s silence as proof of their corruption. Silence, in The Turn of the Screw, becomes a palpable thing, identical both with the ghosts (‘the silence itself — which was indeed in a manner an attestation of my strength — became the element into which I saw the figure disappear’) and with horror, too:

‘Not a word – that’s the horror. She kept it to herself! The child of eight, that child!’

The governess herself is bound to silence: by the children’s uncle, who wants someone to look after his niece and nephew and not bother him, but also by her society, that expects women to have no voice, and children to be ‘seen and not heard’. Miles’s expulsion from school is because of his saying unspecified ‘things’ (and he later steals a letter, from the governess to the uncle, which was itself an attempt to break a silence). Words are how innocence is corrupted. But, at the same time, confession — breaking silence — is linked with salvation:

‘I’ll get it out of him. He’ll meet me. He’ll confess. If he confesses he’s saved.’

The governess exists in a weird duality with the ghosts. She first sees Quint standing in the tower where she was standing some time before; when she next sees him, through a window, she feels compelled to go outside and stand where he stood, looking in, like two chess pieces chasing one another round a board. She sees Miss Jessel at the foot of the stairs, crying, then later finds herself in the same place, in the same turmoil. When she sees Miss Jessel sitting at the teacher’s desk of the schoolroom where she herself usually sits, the words she comes out with — ‘You terrible, miserable woman!’ — could be her own judgement of herself. Quint is the shadow image of her over-romanticisation of the children’s uncle; Miss Jessel is an image of her own possible ruin. The governess’s utter inability to see herself for what she is (those windows she keeps seeing Peter Quint through could be acting as mirrors), her inability to break a silence she shares with herself, are what makes her monstrous.

OWC DraculaLike the other great horror stories that came out at the time — that embarrassment of graveyard blooms from The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, to Dracula, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and H G Wells’ science-fictional horrors, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, and The Island of Doctor MoreauThe Turn of the Screw gets its power from a new awareness of how our inner lives can entangle us with dark powers, creating far more complex relationships with the horrific and supernatural than merely that of fear. The end of the Victorian era thus saw the creation of a set of stories that have proved fertile for more than a century of ongoing adaptations and reimaginings. Thanks to Freud and co., those Victorian times came to symbolise, in a way, repression itself. The governess of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw is perhaps, then, the perfect Victorian monster, so deeply does she embody the strictures, mores, prejudices, idealisations and judgements of what we now tend to look on as an over-straitened age; but she also presents a rich portrait of human self-blindness that continues to be relevant well into the present.

The Innocents

I love subtle, suggestive horror & weirdness in films, but really effective spookiness is quite hard to find. The industry itself — whether in the form of its producers, its studio executives, or its “audience” (someone’s idea of its audience, anyway, because they certainly don’t include me in that) — can’t help but give in to the urge to sensationalism, and even a little bit of sensationalism can ruin a perfectly good fright. For me, the more subtle and understated the horror, the more your imagination is teased and your rationality piqued, the better. That tense balance where your conscious mind can’t understand what it’s seeing but your subconscious can is what it’s all about. As soon as you add in other elements — a jump, a laugh, a gross-out — and you give your rationality enough excuse not to have to pay it any more attention. The effect is ruined. The Innocents, a 1961 adaptation of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, is a classic example of a horror film that really does work on this level, even if it does have flaws.

The flaws, to my mind, are almost all in the person of Deborah Kerr, who plays Miss Giddens, the inexperienced (and highly ineffectual) governess sent to look after a pair of orphaned children on a big, lonely estate. The previous governess, Miss Jessel, has died, and Miss Giddens soon learns there was another death shortly before, that of the sadistic manservant Peter Quint, and that the two deaths might have been linked. But the real tension in the story comes from what can and cannot be said about this mysterious history. Miss Giddens is forbidden from mentioning the tragic Miss Jessel to either of the children — supposedly because it might upset them too much — but, after witnessing two ghostly figures, one of a wicked-looking young man and the other of a mournful young woman, Miss Giddens starts to suspect that Jessel and Quint are present in a way the dead shouldn’t be — and, what’s more, that they’re still in touch with the children.

The real menace in the story is not in the existence of the ghosts, nor in the influence these “horrors” might have on the minds of the supposed innocents. The film becomes truly disturbing once we see how obsessed Miss Giddens becomes with getting the children to confess to seeing, and conversing with, their deceased former governess and her cruel lover. As she can’t mention the names of Quint or Jessel, the whole thing becomes a tortuous psychological game in which Miss Giddens, ever more insistently neurotic and entrenched in her belief, persecutes the children over what, the viewer knows, could well be nothing but hallucination on her part.

This is how it should work, anyway. To my mind Deborah Kerr doesn’t play Miss Giddens with anything like the subtlety or ambiguity required. Perhaps it’s just down to how the film has dated — the governess’ stilted upper-class accent (and the chirpy gosh-oh-golliness of the kids’ dialogue) masks any possible subtlety of emotion, and in the main the music seems to put forward the idea that this is a period melodrama rather than a spooky story.

But one way in which the film hasn’t dated — in fact, what seems to jolt it right into the 21st century, alongside the surreal suggestiveness of Ringu‘s haunted videotape — is in Miss Jessel’s ghostly appearances, which are so staunchly under-sensationalised, and often so brief and matter-of-fact, that they have an effect like a cold brick between the eyes. (The music stops dead each time, too, which helps.)

Take this example, which may be the best in the film. Miss Giddens and her young charge Flora are sitting by a lake. Flora is humming a tune which, we come to learn, is associated with the departed Miss Jessel, but doesn’t answer when quizzed about it. Miss Giddens starts to look disturbed. (The ghosts always appear after we have first focused on Miss Giddens’ look of growing horror. She always sees them before we do.)

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Abruptly we see it: Miss Jessel, an out-of-focus, slumped figure in black, standing, quite bizarrely, among the reeds in the middle of the lake, just staring at us, not moving.

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Then she’s gone.

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It’s the almost surreal details which make it work, for me. The fact that Miss Jessel’s ghost is standing in the middle of a lake. The fact she’s not in any sort of frightening pose, but seems almost bored or tired. The fact she’s in broad daylight. Her being slightly out of focus and off-centre underplays the whole scene wonderfully, as if even the cameraman can’t see her, only we can, and that not too well. She’s beyond the clear, sharp grasp of the rational mind, and staring right into you out of some… other place.

A literary anecdote (not mine)

A while ago I bought The Writer’s Voice by Al Alvarez, hoping for some hints and tips, but really all Alvarez had to say was that, at some vague point, writers find their “voice”, but he has nothing practical to say about (a) how it’s found or (b) what it is, which was a bit disappointing.

The one good thing about the book, which had me chuckling to myself for a while, was this anecdote. It’s not laugh-out-loud, perhaps, but it still gets me. It’s not by Alvarez, but by Edith Wharton, from her book A Backward Glance, and starts with herself and fellow author Henry James in Wharton’s chauffeur-driven car:

James and I chanced to arrive at Windsor long after dark. We must have been driven by a strange chauffeur — perhaps Cook was on a holiday; at any rate, having fallen into the lazy habit of trusting him to know the way, I found myself at a loss to direct his substitute to the King’s Road. While I was hesitating, and peering out into the darkness, James spied an ancient doddering man who had stopped in the rain to gaze at us. “Wait a moment, my dear — I’ll ask where we are”; and leaning out he signalled to the spectator.

“My good man, if you’ll be good enough to come here, please; a little nearer — so,” and as the old man came up: “My friend, to put it to you in two words, this lady and I have just arrived here from Slough; that is to say, to be more strictly accurate, we have recently passed through Slough on our way here, having actually motored to Windsor from Rye, which was our point of departure; and the darkness having overtaken us, we should be much obliged if you would tell us where we now are in relation, say, to the High Street, which, as you of course know, leads to the Castle, after leaving on the left the turn down to the railway station.”

I was not surprised to have this extraordinary appeal met by silence, and a dazed expression on the old wrinkled face at the window; nor to have James go on: “In short” (his invariable prelude to a fresh series of explanatory ramifications), “in short, my good man, what I want to put to you in a word is this: supposing we have already (as I have reason to think we have) driven past the turn down to the railway station (which, in that case, by the way, would probably not have been on our left hand, but on our right), where are we now in relation to…”

“Oh, please,” I interrupted, feeling myself utterly unable to sit through another parenthesis, “do ask him where the King’s Road is.”

“Ah-? The King’s Road? Just so! Quite right! Can you, as a matter of fact, my good man, tell us where, in relation to our present position, the King’s Road exactly is?”

“Ye’re in it,” said the aged face at the window.