Saturday, December 3, 2011

My introduction to Henry James

The Turn of the Screw, Henry James

I have never read Henry James before.  I knew his books, but I was a little intimidated by his reputation for dark, complex stories, told in baroque language.  As with George Eliot, though, several things lately have pointed me toward his books.  The first was Kate Summerscale's The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, which connected The Turn of the Screw and What Maisie Knew to the Constance Kent case.  (Fortunately I'd forgotten that it gives away the ending of The Turn of the Screw.)   The second was seeing James' books on various blogs this year, particularly Audrey's posts on The American at books as food.  The last was reading Penelope Lively's How It All Began, in which What Maisie Knew plays an important part.  I decided it was time to try one of his books, but I also decided to start with one of the shorter works.

I have been putting together a mental list of holiday-themed books to read in December, but I realized pretty quickly that while this story opens on Christmas Eve, it would not be a holiday story.  I was just as quickly drawn into the story, the familiar scene of people sitting around a fire late at night, telling ghost stories.  According to a note in my copy, this is a traditional Christmas eve pastime, which explains A Christmas Carol's ghosts.  After a story involving a child and a ghost, one of the group, Douglas, claims to have the ultimate ghost story, one with two children.  "It's beyond everything. Nothing at all that I know touches it," he says, "For dreadful - dreadfulness."  But he can't tell the story that night.  He has to send to town for a manuscript.  And like the people gathered around the fire, we have to wait a little, anticipating the story.

In this story within a story, Douglas is reading an account of the experiences of a young woman, never named, the daughter of a clergyman, who accepts a position as governess to two young children.  Their parents are dead, and their guardian, an uncle who does not wish to be bothered with them, has sent the boy, Miles, to school; and the girl, Flora, to a country home.  He makes it a condition of employment that the governess have no further contact with him, only his solicitor, that she take complete responsibility for the children.

And so she arrives at her isolated post, this new and inexperienced governess.  There she finds a pastoral scene and an angelic young girl, a dark old gothic house and an ally in the housekeeper, Mrs Grose.  But then a letter arrives, saying that the boy Miles has been dismissed from his school, for unstated reasons.  The governess's question, "Is he really bad?" becomes one of the central questions of the story.  Like his sister, Miles has an almost unearthly beauty.  But with his return come other, eerie arrivals, and the governess learns about two former members of the household, one the previous governess.  Both are now dead, but are they gone?  Are they the mysterious figures that the governess sees?  More importantly, what do the children see?

The image of a tightening screw is a perfect metaphor for this story, with its heightening tension. The governess's first-person narration adds to this, though as with George Eliot, I found that James's verbose language and confusing constructions sometimes took me out of the story.  Yet the final chapter builds to one of the most unexpected, shattering conclusions I have ever read, and I turned the last page unable to believe that the story had ended.

The ending left me with so many questions unanswered (and I'm moving into spoiler territory here): what happens to Flora?  Removing her from the house doesn't seem to be the answer, or at least it didn't work in Miles' case, given what happened at school.  And what happens to the governess?  How on earth does she explain what happened, particularly after Flora's accusations?  What does the children's uncle do now? Presumably the governess doesn't stay with Flora; is she dismissed without a reference?  We know from the first that she did go on to other situations, since Douglas himself met her when she was governess to his sister.

It turns out that I read this under a major misapprehension, which colored my reading and confused me.  I thought I remembered from The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher that the Kent case had inspired The Turn of the Screw, so I went into the story expecting the children to be guilty of something, even murder.  Still confused as I am by the ending, I think now that they were themselves innocent, but possessed by evil spirits.  I will need to read this again.  My copy includes a second novella, The Aspern Papers, which seems to be about a family archives, always an intriguing setting to an archivist, and I plan to read that as well as What Maisie Knew.


  1. This was the first Henry James novel I ever read, and I must confess that I didn't get on with it at all. Same with Daisy Miller, which was in the same volume. I think the prose was part of the barrier for me, and it might also be that I was a less sophisticated reader and intolerant of ambiguity in those days. I did eventually try James again, with The Portrait of a Lady, which I loved and didn't find a struggle at all. So I do plan to read more--and I may even try this one again!

  2. I read this in college and really liked it - the ambiguity makes it all the more fascinating to me. Because I loved it, I was eager to try more Henry James. I have started The Portrait of a Lady more times than I remember and haven't liked the style one bit. I have decided, however, that 2012 is the year I read The Portrait of a Lady - even if it kills me!

  3. It's my understanding that James gets more convoluted in his later works. I've read The Turn of the Screw at least a couple times, had a different idea each time as to what actually happened, but was unimpressed overall. I got on much better with Daisy Miller and absolutely LOVED The Portrait of a Lady. My next James novel will be Washington Square (hopefully over the winter). I'd also like to read Colm Toibin's novel about Henry James, The Master.

  4. Teresa, for me I think this was a good introduction because I was interested in the background (though wrong about it), which carried me through the language.

    Anbolyn, the ambiguous ending fascinates me - I'm still thinking about it, and curious what other people think about the story, characters, etc.

    JoAnn, I see two recommendations for The Portrait of a Lady (and one contre), so I will keep an eye out for that one (at least before Jan. 1st). I haven't read anything about James himself yet.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!