Since it’s Halloween month AKA spooky reads month, I thought there was no better time than to finally get around to reading The Turn of the Screw by Henry James!
An isolated country estate, creepy children and ghostly sightings – The Turn of the Screw promised to be a good classic gothic read in the vein of The Mysteries of Udolpho and other close contemporaries. It tells the story of a young woman who accepts a post as governess to two children at an isolated country estate. There is but one stipulation from her employer, who is the uncle of the children (and also, it seems, a bit of a hottie) – that she must never bother him about the children. It seems like a pretty good job to have, especially when he tells her she will be left entirely in charge of everything and the household must abide entirely by her wishes.
All seems to go well at first. Her charges, Flora and Miles, are perfect angels – though there is the case of Miles being kicked out of boarding school for some unexplained reason. And she soon becomes fast friends with Mrs Grose, the housekeeper.
But that soon changes when one evening she sees a mysterious man standing atop the tower of the house. She knows he is not part of the household yet he stands there with perfect confidence and stares right back at her before turning away.
Is he an intruder? A ghost? For some reason, the governess doesn’t do anything about this. But then she soon sees the man again – and the story eventually comes out about just who this man is – as well as his connection with the children and a former governess of theirs.
So what did I think of The Turn of the Screw?
Well, there are the good points and the bad points. Let’s start with the bad ones first.
This review on Goodreads made me laugh aloud and pretty much sums it all.
Henry James’s sentences can be pretty verbose and rambling and can lead to a lot of confusion that left me going, “What the hell? Where were we going with this?” It’s almost like listening to Mrs Watson from Susan Coolidge’s Clover – a maddening old woman who rambles on, cuts herself off mid-sentence, then continues into the middle of another sentence on another topic. You kind of get what they’re trying to say but the way they’re saying it is so all over the place, you just want to take them by the shoulders and shake them and bellow, “Pull yourself together and talk properly!!!”
Here’s a few examples:
We met, after I had brought home little Miles, more intimately than ever on the ground of my stupefaction, my general emotion: so monstrous was I then ready to pronounce it that such a child as had now been revealed to me should be under an interdict.
There had been, this evening, after the revelation left me, for an hour, so prostrate – there had been, for either of us, no attendance on any service but a little service of tears and vows, of prayers and promises, a climax to the series of mutual challenges and pledges that had straightway ensued on our retreating together to the schoolroom and shutting ourselves up there to have everything out.
Here’s another one:
I waited, but nothing came; then, in the first place – and there is something more dire in this, I feel, than in anything I have to relate – I was determined by a sense that, within a minute, all sounds from her had previously dropped; and, in the second, by the circumstance that, also within the minute, she had, in her play, turned her back to the water.
In spite of all this verbosity, though, James did manage to instil a wonderful sense of malevolence and fear in the book, particularly with the governess’s interactions with the children. Miles and Flora are more cunning than she expects – especially Miles. That boy gave me the creeps from the start! (Though at the same time, let’s face it, the governess is a bit too soft with the kids and any wayward child could have run rings around her. She wouldn’t have lasted an hour in Dangerous Minds.)
Miles and Flora definitely go on my list of Creepy Children in Fiction – in spite of their initial angelic behaviour, or perhaps even because of it. Miles in particular is super creepy. In fact, if I was the governess, I don’t know if I would be so quick to try and save the kids – I might very well just ditch them and get quick-smart out of that creepy country estate!
Judging from the way things were going, I was almost expecting a Skeleton Key-style ending. I won’t say what the ending is like – but that it did end pretty suddenly and left quite a few questions unanswered, if you like that sort of thing.
To sum it up: Henry James definitely delivers on the promise of an old-fashioned gothic ghost story complete with creepy kids, vindictive ghosts and a scary house with plenty of atmosphere. However, just be prepared to wade through a lot of ‘words, words, words.’