The Turn of the Screw – Henry James [Review]

One evening my friend Mary and I were discussing books over a cup of coffee, as we usually do. This time we were talking about gothic novels due to the fact that we had just watched BBC’s The Art of Gothic  Britain’s Midnight Hour. The Brontes came up as they usually do in our discussions, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and many more. Mary told me that she has not read Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, I told her that she should when she got the time as Northanger Abbey is not a typical Jane Austen book. It is different from her others and you can tell from the theme of the book and the various circumstances that appear. However, Northanger Abbey will have to wait for another post as I could go on forever. Whilst I recommended Northanger Abbey to Mary, she recommended Turn of a Screw by Henry James to me. She had loved the book when she first read it and told me that it will disturb me and leave a chill. I was intrigued and borrowed her copy of Turn of the Screw and started reading.

turn of the screw2One thing I can tell about this novel. She was right, I was greatly disturbed by the children in this book. Especially Miles as he acts and talks like an adult which creped me out immensely. The story begins with an unknown narrator, who listens to Douglas, a friend, read a manuscript written by a former governess whom Douglas claims to have known. The manuscript tells the story of a young governess hired by a man  who has become responsible for his nephew and niece after their parents had died. He lives in London while the children and governess live in the countryside. He wants to have nothing to do with the care of the children.  The children, Miles and Flora, are not the typical sweet children you would expect. They are described as beautiful, angelic and majestic… how can one not love them!  Are they as innocent as they seem? Soon, the young governess starts seeing two ghosts and it seems to be the ghosts of Miss Jessel (the previous governess who died under a mysterious circumstance) and that of Peter Quint, a previous employee. Do the children see the ghosts or not? Or is it the imagination of the young governess? She sees them peering in threateningly through the window, standing silently and starting at the children from the top of the tower.

This story is absolutely chilling and very clever. It’s a story within a story, told as a ghost story. It is dark and melodramatic, telling the story of good and evil with hints of sexual relations, reflecting the Victorian society at the time. Throughout the book you wonder whether the children know about the ghosts and whether they see them.  You wonder whether the governess has gone mad as you only read her side of the story. We don’t get to see what the other characters think about these spirits. However, when the governess describes the figures to the housekeeper, Mrs Grose, the later does not seem to think that she has lost her marbles (as one can put it!) and recognises the spirits as Peter Quint (the late valet) and Miss Jessel ( the late governess). You are still left wondering even if you come to the conclusion that the young governess in not the only one who can see these wandering spirits.

Henry James somehow keeps the tension mounting. His story grows ever grimmer, ever scarier.  You are kept on the edge of your seat (or bed in this instance)  trying to solve the puzzle, solve the mystery. Who is Peter Quint and Miss Jessel? What do they want with the children? What was their relationship?  Is the governess mad or not? It’s the darkest and richest story I have ever read — thus far. I am left wondering whether Miles and Flora did know about the presence of the ghosts and how innocent or guilty they really are in the end. It is left open for the reader to interpret however he or she wants.

I will say this; Turn of the Screw is a very good story, I loved every minute of it, even though I was a bit disturbed in certain passages and was on edge throughout the story. It is a story that stays with the reader, even after the final and shocking last page.  Thank you Mary for recommending this great book to me. 🙂

—- K.J.Koukas