The 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.
I 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!’
This 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.
Like 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 Moreau — The 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.