Friday, October 13, 2023

This Day in Literary History (‘Turn of the Screw’ Scares Up Much-Needed Sales for Henry James)

Oct. 13, 1898—As The Turn of the Screw came out in book form following its serialization in Colliers’ earlier in the year, Henry James didn’t bother to hide his disgust with this “abject, down-on-all-fours pot-boiler, pure & simple, that a proud man brought low ever perpetrated.”

Readers, however, differed sharply, making this “ghost story” the novelist’s most successful work of fiction since Daisy Miller over two decades before. In time, James—needing the money from this tale of terror to boost his finances, and its widespread acclaim to soothe his spirit from his recent disastrous foray into the theater—came to feel differently about it, too.

I’m sure he would feel surprised but delighted that even Ivy League English departments today put it on their reading lists for American Lit classes.

What has made the novella so enduringly popular, 125 years after publication? Successive generations have discovered something creepy in this study in ambiguity that has left readers guessing as much as frightened.

In the late Victorian Era when the tale came out, readers would have picked on the fact that the story is being told “on Christmas eve in an old house.” Ghost stories told by the fireside remained an English tradition during the holidays. Already, the atmosphere in the tale is threatening.

Well into the 20th century, critics offered Freudian interpretations of what transpired. Did the ghosts of past servant Peter Quint and governess Miss Jessel really exist—or did they spring from the imagination of the neurotic new, unnamed governess, the sheltered daughter of a vicar who may have been projecting her own sexual fantasies onto others?

Or was James being prescient but careful in alerting readers to child molestation—a crime that, like many other sexual matters, could not be discussed openly in the repressive late-Victorian age?

Structurally, Turn of the Screw is an “envelope story”—a story within a story, with one narrator hearing the tale from another, who yields it in turn to another. This framing device—influencing, among other cases, Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome and Willa Cather’s My Antonia—seemingly testifies to the credibility of the narrative.

But that very authority is undercut in the prologue by complications of time that are disclosed. Consider:

*It opens in our age (or, for Victorians, their) age;

*The narrator immediately says the events are in the past;

*Douglas’ narration of the tale happens two days after the fireside scene;

*A short time elapses when the narrator transcribes the governess’ manuscript;

*Still further back in time, when Douglas reads the governess’ manuscript, which had been willed to him;

*Earlier still, when the governess writes the manuscript;

*Yet earlier still, when the governess tells Douglas the events;

*Earlier yet, when the events took place.

In short, the events happened 50 years before the tale proper begins. The possibility can’t be ruled out that some of what happens has been misremembered, forgotten, suppressed—or made up.

A few words should also be said about the employer of the governess, “a bachelor in the prime of life…handsome and bold and pleasant, off-hand and gay and kind.” Left as guardian of little Flora and Miles through the death of their parents, he has no experience in dealing with children, and neither the time nor the wish to be bothered with them.

So he offers the governess the job, with the provisos that she will have absolute authority over them and he is not to be disturbed by news of them. She accepts, carried away by his looks and manner—and, Douglas relates, “She never saw him again.”

The governess comes to believe not only that Flora and Miles have seen Quint and Miss Jessel, but that they’re somehow in league with the apparitions. But James never reveals what, if anything, happened between the children and the dead house help, leaving the reader to infer the most horrifying possibilities.

As R.W.B. Lewis perceptively notes in his family biography, The Jameses, The Turn of the Screw was written when both Henry and his brother William, the pioneering psychologist- philosopher, had become increasingly concerned with the supernatural.

Though Henry wrote the first of his 10 ghost stories as far back as 1868, they grew in number, length, and psychological complexity in the 1890s, as more family members and friends passed away.

This genre also enabled the novelist to extend, in a realm he never imagined, the dramatic devices and themes he had learned in his brief attempt to conquer the London theater world (culminating in the disastrous play Guy Domville, a fiasco I discussed in this blog post from 15 years ago).

The dramatic possibilities of The Turn of the Screw have been exploited by others in several genres in the 20th and 21st centuries:

*As the play The Innocents, written by William Archibald;

*As a 1961 movie by the same name, written by Archibald and Truman Capote and starring Deborah Kerr (shown in the image accompanying this post);

*Several TV adaptations;

*Benjamin Britten’s 1954 opera The Turn of the Screw.

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