It’s Steve’s fault. It’s always Steve’s fault. “The Turn of the Screw,” he said, “is just a straight-forward ghost story. The governess isn’t mad. The ghosts are real. Anything else is post-modern supposition.” So we’re in an argument. My hope is that by the end of this, I’ll have proven — to Steve, and, I guess, to myself, because Steve is usually right, and he may be right this time, but I don’t want him to be — that Henry James meant for The Turn of the Screw to be more than just a ghost story.
What follows will be the emails I send to Steve from each section I read through, and Steve’s responses.
A last bit of housekeeping: the edition I’m using is the Norton Critical Edition, Second Edition.
I thought what might make sense at the start is just to record my thoughts as I read through The Turn of the Screw. These are the notes I’ve scribbled in the margins and the passages I’ve underlined — regardless of if they support your position, “The ghosts are real; the governess is not mad”; or if they support my position, “The ghosts aren’t real; the governess is mad.”
I’d like you to do the same — and to not go past whatever section I’ve sent to you. So, for the purposes of this first email, you and I are only dealing with the introduction of the story (not James’s preface; I mean the framing narrative) and the first two chapters (because that’s as far as I got last night before falling asleep exhausted).
I’m putting quotes from TTotS in bold.
“Nobody but me, till now, has ever heard.” – That’s Douglas, our host for the story. And it brings me up to a point I jotted in the margin several pages later: this is a convoluted narrative of not-quite first-person accounts. The whole thing is brought to us by the unnamed narrator. At some points, he’s remembering conversations that Douglas had with the group (those the narrator puts in quotation marks). At other times, he’s sort of recapping stuff Douglas said — like the governess’s history (those he leaves out of quotation marks). Then, when we get to the actual story, there’s the fact that what we’re reading is a copy made of the governess’s book that she left for Douglas. (Oh, and then the narrator is recapping what the governess told Gerald about what the Master told the governess and I am going to lay down now and just lay down.)
If this were a Wilkie Collins novel, I’d say, “We just need to roll with all of this.” But part of me holds on to a critical piece of my dislike of James for calling Victorian novels “baggy monsters.” And I have to believe that James is aware – deeply aware — of the layers of obfuscation he puts between the reader and the primary source.
“She has been dead these twenty years.” – That’s Douglas, again, telling us about the governess. A few sentences later, Douglas adds, “…but she was ten years older than I.” A page later (in my edition, the Norton), a man named Griffin suggests that Douglas and the governess knew each other 40 years ago:
Whereupon Mrs Griffin spoke. “Well, if I don’t know who she was in love with I know who he was.”
“She was ten years older,” said her husband.
“Raison de plus – at that age! But it’s rather nice, his long reticence.”
“Forty years!” Griffin put in.
So I wrote in the margin: She had to have died fairly young. We know that she was 20 when she applied for the job of governess to Miles and Flora. (The fact to be in possession of was therefore that his old friend, the youngest of several daughters of a poor country parson, had, at the age of twenty, on taking service for the first time in the schoolroom, come up to London, in trepidation, to answer in person an advertisement that had already placed her in brief correspondence with the advertiser.) And, knowing that there’s a 10-year difference between Douglas and the governess, and that he was at home when his sister was at home for the governess to govern, she had to have gone pretty much directly from Bly to wherever Douglas was. And since we know that it’s been 40 years since Douglas and the governess met, and assuming that the oldest Douglas could/would be is 15, then that means he’s 55 years old now. The governess has also been dead for 20 years, so that means she died when Douglas was 35, making her 45 when she died — so I guess she actually maybe wasn’t all that young.
I don’t know why I spent as much time as I did trying to get a handle on the exact ages and timeline. Part of it will come up later, when I talk about how curious it is that so much of Douglas/sister/governess dovetails with the Miles/Flora/governess story. But mostly I just find this sort of irritating on James’s part, making it all as confusing as possible.
“You are acute. Yes, she was in love. That is she had been. That came out — she couldn’t tell her story without it coming out.” – Douglas, again. This is a piece of evidence I would use against those who want to bring up “sexual repression.” That’s just sloppy thinking and categorizing. She’s not at all repressed. She might be sexually frustrated. She’s turned on/in love/whatever with the Master; however, she has no outlet for that attraction/affection/horniness. But she hasn’t repressed any of that.
“Who was it she was in love with?”
“The story will tell,” I took upon myself to reply.
“Oh I can’t wait for the story!”
“The story won’t tell,” said Douglas; “not in any literal vulgar way.” – I think this exchange might be the key to the whole story. Or, for the moment, I’m putting it in my arsenal of “James means to do more than just a simple, vulgar ghost story.”
Save in a dream or a old novel. – That’s the narrator (recapping what the governess told Gerald about what the Master told the governess) and I marked it mostly because I had just read The Portrait of a Lady where there was so much textual monkeying around about how things were or were not like a novel.
…at the head of the establishment — but below-stairs only. – This caught my attention because you and I had had that talk about the governess’s role in the household*. In that quote, the narrator is skimming what Douglas said about the station of Mrs Grose in the household. She’s head of the establishment, but below-stairs only. I don’t know if the governess’s arrival changes that at all; if it doesn’t, it makes the relationship complicated: the head of the household at Bly is a below-stairs servant, over the arrival of a governess who technically outranks her via class.
[* A book I mentioned to Steve, and that I think is definitely worth reading if you can find it, is The Unnatural History of the Nanny.]
“It was a vision of serious duties and little company, of really great loneliness.” – That’s Douglas describing what life must have been like for the governess at Bly. I underlined it because it might work in my favor when we’re talking about what might could influence the governess to see things that actually aren’t there. Cabin fever and all that.
Through a country the summer sweetness of which served as friendly welcome. – This is from the governess’s account. What I like about it, and a later moment (I remember as a thoroughly pleasant impression the broad, clear front, its open windows and fresh curtains and the pair of maids looking out. – this smacks a little of Duncan’s “This castle hath a pleasant seat…”), is how it subverts what we might expect of a ghost story. It starts in summer, not fall or winter, and the house is not a Catherine Morland-imagined Northanger Abbey, but a pretty country manor with fresh curtains and maids.
I slept little that night./…a second sleepless night. – These are from two different places. I marked them with cf’s, and will mark other places where the governess mentions her lack of sleep. I’ll keep these as references and pieces of evidence for me, since a woman with no sleep could be imagined to imagine a lot.
…for the possible recurrence of a sound or two, less natural and not without, but within, that I had fancied I heard. There had been a moment when I believed I recognized, faint and far, the cry of a child; there had been another when I found myself just consciously starting as at the passage, before my door, of a light footstep. – Here we have the first hint of the possibility of something supernatural. Though the ghosts haunting the manor are of a man and a woman — or, at least, the ghosts this story is concerned with. So, I’m not sure who the crying child could be. Unless, as some people suggest, some ghosts are merely atmospheric recordings of events. In this case, a ghost doesn’t interact at all with its surroundings because all that’s happened is that a moment in time has become frozen and then is replayed again and again. (The ghost I saw on the balcony of the beach house struck me as that kind of ghost — if I believed in them. Which I do not. So let’s move on.*)
[* Here’s the story of the Ghost on the Balcony in the Beachtime: We’re at Nags Head, North Carolina — we being: Becky and her husband Dave; Nancy and her husband Jerry; MaryLou and her insufferable knowledge about how everything we eat is going to kill us. Steve and Jamie and Zach all came later, and after the ghost. Anyway. Nags Head, North Carolina, and on Monday night there was a very exciting rain storm, followed by an even more exciting wind storm. And it’s the wind storm that woke me up because I had the windows open because I like the sound of the rain especially when I’m in a house I don’t own because if there’s flooding, guess who’s off the hook! THIS guy! So the wind’s now blowing, though, and, like I said, it woke me up, and I thought, “I’ll shut these windows because I can’t get back to sleep.” I shut the windows, and I take a look out of the glass door that leads from my room to the balcony and I see a woman in a bathrobe standing on the balcony looking out at the ocean and I think, “Oh, Nancy–” who was in the room next to mine “–is interested in the windstorm, too.” But I also realize that I’m standing in front of this glass door in my underpants and I’d rather Nancy not see me in my almost all-together because, well, just trust me. So, I step away from the windowed door and realize that I have to pee and so I do, and then realize that I’m thirsty, so I undo the peeing I just did by re-loading, and I share all of this not because I’m some sort of drive time DJ who wants to shock you with body functions but to firmly establish the fact that I don’t think I was in that weird twilight area of sleep where you wake up from a dream and for a few moments the things in your dream are in the room with you because your brain hasn’t quite stopped dreaming and this happened to me once, graphically, as a child, when I had a nightmare that a monster in human form made of stars was chasing me in my dream and I woke up and that same monster in human form made of stars was standing by my bed. But I digress. What I’m trying to convey is: I’m pretty awake. I’ve shut and locked windows. I’ve peed. I’ve drank some water. And with all of this done, I decide to go back to the door to see if Nancy — or, what I think is Nancy — is still on the balcony looking at the beach and she is. Or, at least, what I think is Nancy is. Because here’s the weird thing I start to notice during this second viewing of the figure: there’s a windstorm. A tremendous windstorm. But nothing is moving on the figure on the balcony. Her bathrobe is still. Her hair — which I can see, like, in shadow, as well as her profile — isn’t moving. And I think, “That…’s odd.” And then I think, “That actually doesn’t look a whole lot like Nancy.” And then I think, “Am I seeing a gho–” and right at that moment, the figure sort of…vanishes. Like, she becomes smoke? Maybe? Or dissipates? But she’s no longer standing where she was standing.
As I said, I don’t usually believe in ghosts. But here are a few things that make me think I may actually have seen something: (1) She was in a bathrobe. Not a Victorian bathrobe, or a Victorian gown, or anything that one usually correlates with ghostly women on the beach. Dave, Becky’s husband, got very fascinated by the story when I told it the next morning because I was hoping someone would say, “Oh yeah. That was me. I was on the balcony,” only no one did. But Dave said, “Oh! I bet it was the ghost of a widow of a ship’s captain!” And I said, “sigh.” (2) I was very awake. (3) The figure showed no awareness of me at all. Or awareness of its literal surrounding. I didn’t have an encounter so much as it feels like I witnessed something.
And that’s the of the Ghost on the Balcony in the Beachtime.]
“You will be carried away by the little gentleman!”
“Well, that, I think, is what I came for—to be carried away. I’m afraid, however,” I remember feeling the impulse to add, “I’m rather easily carried away. I was carried away in London!” – The governess tells us baldly that she can be carried away. I’m putting this aside in my Evidence File. (I don’t know if James wanted at all to echo Faerie Lore — but it would be something Mrs Grose would be hip to. And “little gentleman” would be a term that some would use to talk about faeries, and faeries often carried away women. I found that statement a little chilling when I read it this time around.) Oh, and just some more fodder against the stupid Sexual Repression folk who read TTotS as some sort of Freudian Treatise: the governess can’t stop talking about her sexual feelings for the Master.
“What has he done?” – That’s Mrs Grose and her despairing reply to the letter that the governess mentions from Miles’s school. What I like about this is the ambiguity a re-read offers. Is Mrs Grose asking what Miles has done? Or is it a rhetorical wail of despair wondering what Quint has done to make Miles so horrible at school?
What I don’t think is in question at all is the malignancy of Quint. Quint could very well have molested Miles and harmed Jessel and all of that and we don’t need ghosts at all for this to be horrific. I’m just saying.
“Why, he’s scarce ten years old.” – Mrs Grose, expressing some disbelief maybe. And that can be interesting, and maybe even more fodder to go along with the above point I just raised: Grose may not want Miles labeled; she may be hoping that he can still overcome whatever Quint did to him.
The reason I included this, though, was because of that dovetailing I brought up earlier. Miles is scarce ten. The governess is 20. We also know there’s a 10-year age difference between Douglas and the governess. And sure, you can say, “Well, Douglas never says, ‘Hey, this happened to me!’” But why would James make everything fit so well together if he didn’t mean for the reader to have this in mind?*
[Er. Of course: Douglas isn’t dead. Miles — spoiler alert — is by the end of the story. Boy, am I not very good at reading.]
I began to fancy she rather sought to avoid me. – This is the governess, complaining a little about Mrs Grose. She thinks maybe Mrs Grose is avoiding her because of the revelation about Miles. I’m going to keep track of any point where the governess “fancies” or “imagines” or otherwise represents that she’s interpreting the reality around her, perhaps incorrectly.
“I take what you said to me at noon as a declaration that you’ve never known him to be bad.”
She threw back her head; she had clearly, by this time, and very honestly, adopted an attitude. “Oh, never known him—I don’t pretend that!” – This could be a piece of evidence for you, since clearly Mrs Grose is not above not being entirely honest all the time and willing to misstate reality to suit her purpose.
“He seems to like us young and pretty!”
“Oh, he did,” Mrs. Grose assented: “it was the way he liked everyone!” She had no sooner spoken indeed than she caught herself up. “I mean that’s his way—the master’s.”
I was struck. “But of whom did you speak first?”
She looked blank, but she colored. “Why, of him.”
“Of the master?”
“Of who else?” – At first, I found this very clever, especially because this time through is a re-read. But the more I think about it, the weirder it is. And not weird in an intentional way; more like, “Why would James do this?” Because it’s a piece of confusion that doesn’t make any sense. Why would Grose be thinking that the governess at all would be speaking of Quint? The governess, at this point, does not of Quint at all.
Of course, what could be happening is that the governess is embellishing after the fact since what we’re reading isn’t the journal. She’s telling the entire story in one sitting after the fact.
“Did she die here?”
“No — she went off.” – The governess has asked about the previous governess. What I’m wondering, though, is if Jessel left because she was pregnant, and then did she subsequently die in childbirth? Especially this language later in the paragraph: “She was not taken ill, so far as appeared, in this house. She left it, at the end of the year, to go home, as she said, for a short holiday, to which the time she had put in had certainly given her a right.”