The Turn of the Screw, aka The Story That Gave Me Nightmares

It’s been a while since I looked at my reading challenge list from the beginning of the year. Sadly, I can’t say I’ve done amazingly well with it so far. It’s not that I’ve not been reading, but just that the books I’ve chosen haven’t all managed to fit in to one of the categories listed. Not to worry though – still plenty of the year left (she says as she struggles to believe we’re halfway through June)!

I’m happy to say that Henry James’ ‘The Turn of the Screw’ does definitely cross something off my list. Published in 1898, this short novel counts as my book from over 100 years ago. This category is one that I didn’t think I’d have any trouble with anyway, as a big chunk of books on my To Be Read list are classics, but I definitely didn’t think this would be one of the ones I’d cross off first.

Before I go any further, let it be known that I’m a massive wimp. Horror of any kind, be it novels, films, TV shows or my brother jumping out at me from behind a door – yeah, I’m not a fan. A few years ago, the BBC did an adaptation of The Turn of the Screw and I agreed to watch it with my mum. I was intrigued by the story, but it also resulted in a fair few sleepless nights where I imagined ghosts at my window. Even now, windows at night scare the crap out of me. What can I say, I’m a bit rubbish.

The first thing to note about The Turn of the Screw, or maybe Henry James as a writer, is that he certainly isn’t shy of using a comma or five. He revels in long sentences. It took me a while to settle into the style of it, but once I had, I was keen to keep reading and piece together what was happening. The story is actually another story being told to a group of people gathered together, with a man called Douglas reading from a manuscript, given to him by a governess – the very governess who witnesses the ghost story first hand.

Spoiler alert – I’ve got questions to pose that will give certain things away…

Is this actually a ghost story? Okay, so the governess documents that she sees a man, Peter Quint, and a woman (the old governess), Miss Jessel, both of whom we find out are dead. But does she really see them? Throughout the whole novel, she seems to be the only one who actually sees them. In fact, the very first time she sees Peter Quint, she’s imagining the master (who she’s in love with) and is presented with this apparition of a man. It’s not the master, but it does fulfil two things: firstly her wish for a man, and secondly a way to draw the master to the house, even though he’s explicitly asked not to be troubled with anything.

That being said, there is also evidence for her genuinely seeing them, mainly that she says she does and, despite never having seen them in real life, can give vivid descriptions of each to her companion Mrs Grose, who instantly recognises who she’s talking about. There’s also the strange effect that they seem to have on the children when they’re near, regardless of whether they can see them or not. Whether it’s the fact that the little boy is possessed by ghosts, or that he is frightened to death by the idea of them, he ends up dead by the end of the novel. No matter what the truth is, there’s something weird going on throughout.

My second main question is tied to that as well I suppose – is the governess mad? At times I felt she was sane, although this was mainly towards the beginning of the novel. By the end, I was almost certain she was insane, whether that was an inherent madness that had been there all along, or madness caused from the stress of the events that either happened or she thought had happened. She made assumptions about so many things, which at first made me feel like I’d misread parts, but going back I realised that she was being constantly subjective to make her suspicions seem more concrete.

James covers a lot in this novel in terms of undertones, and I like novels that do that. They force you to make your own mind up about what’s really going on, so you end up feeling like you’ve read two stories at once: the surface and the inferential. Part of me wonders whether it almost left too much to the imagination though. The fact remains that it’s from a completely different time, a society where you couldn’t say outright that two people of different stations were in a consensual sexual relationship, or worse still that a man was perverting and potentially abusing children.

I’m not sure this is the kind of book I’d recommend to someone, but I’m glad I’ve read it. It feels like it’s doing something ahead of its time, and really it must be to be around still all these years later.

Have any of you read The Turn of the Screw? What did you think of it?

Holly x

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