Category: Henry James

book review – The Turn of the Screw – Henry James


“If the child gives the effect another turn of the screw, what do you say to two children?”

The first comment that is unavoidable when describing the experience of reading Henry James is the language. On telling a book loving colleague about my pleasure at getting the paperback free with The Times he commented that he had always found it impossible to get on with James.

It is funny how one comment, it hardly takes anything at all, will stick in your mind and influence your experience of how you approach a book. So it was with no surprise that the construction of the language was an obstacle.

but, and it’s a but worth sticking with, underneath there is a good little ghost story waiting to be discovered. As a bunch of friends sit round the fire side enjoying a ghost story or two one of their number promises to top it all with an account from a governess of her time looking after two children in a remote and bleak country house.

The children seem to be as good as gold but there is something odd about them. Miles the boy has been expelled from school yet he appears to be an angel. The little girl also appears to be keeping secrets. Then strange things start happening and the old man servant Quint appears and then the former governess Miss Jessel.

The governess is convinced that the children are somehow connected with the appearance of the ghosts and goes out of her way to prove it. She is believed and supported by the house keeper who seems to go along with it. Her willingness to agree with what could sound like a proprosterous idea indicates that the children are a problem and have been for a while.

More sightings of Quint and Jessel are seen and the governess seems convinced that they mean to do the children harm. She brings things to a head. But she fails to understand the depth to which the children and the spirits have become intertwined and by breaking that bond she breaks their life.

get past the language and the stilted way the characters express themselves and it is possible to feel the fear that Jame’s first readers must have felt in the scenes where the governess sees the ghosts and the climatic moment when Quint is perring through the window.

The Turn of the Screw – post II

Once it has been established that the children appear to be haunted by the ghosts of the former man servant and governess then the story picks up the pace.

It becomes a question of trying to stop the children from being destroyed by the ghosts and the governess, with the help of the house keeper, sets out to do just that.

With a fairly limited story and cast of characters James nevertheless manages to get over a sense of growing horror. In the best traditions of tales of this type it is the anticipation of a visitation that keeps the reader on the edge of the seat. Although the ending, which will not be given away here, is also unexpected.

Once you cut through the difficult language conventions and get to the underlying story beneath this is a great little nugget that will provide seeds for future thoughts and nightmares.

A review will follow soon…

Turn of the Screw – post I

What you have to face reading this relatively short story by Henry James is that it is going to take a while because of the language. He uses very stilted phrases that prevent this from flowing.

The only reason this book manages to keep your attention is because underneath the painful construction of the text is a solid story. The mix of the supernatural and the aristocracy is a well used one but never fails to get the hairs on the back of your neck going if done well.

This takes a while to get going with the story being related second-hand at a meeting of friends in the country. One of the guests promises an account of something so disturbing that the rest of the company will never forget it based on the idea of a child being connected with a ghost.

So the story of a governess sent to a large house in the country to look after two children unfolds. The children are angels and yet there is something troubling the governess who is informed that the older of the two, the boy, has been expelled from school.

Tales also of the former governess dying shroud the house in some sort of darkness.

But things get moving when the governess comes across a stranger walking in the grounds, a stranger not to the rest of the staff, who describe him as the former man servant for the owner. So far creepy but no problem but then the screw gets turned with the revelation that the man the governess saw is a ghost.

More tomorrow…