Monday 28 October 2013

Halloween Feature: Review of The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

As the eighth part of my Halloween feature is a review of The Turn of the Screw by the really really wonderful Janet Emson!


Widely recognised as one of literature’s most gripping ghost stories, this classic tale of moral degradation concerns the sinister transformation of two innocent children into flagrant liars and hypocrites. The story begins when a governess arrives at an English country estate to look after Miles, aged ten and Flora, eight. At first, everything appears normal but then events gradually begin to weave a spell of psychological terror.
One night a ghost appears before the governess. It is the dead lover of Miss Jessel, the former governess. Later, the ghost of Miss Jessel herself appears before the governess and the little girl. Moreover, both the governess and the housekeeper suspect that the two spirits have appeared to the boy in private. The children, however, adamantly refuse to acknowledge the presence of the two spirits, in spite of indications that there is some sort of evil communications going on between the children and the ghosts.

This is the first Henry James novel I have read and I came to it with an open mind and the expectation of a well told, scary ghost story.
The story opens with a group, who each take it in turns to tell ghost stories. One night one of the group, after claiming to know of a story all the more chilling for it being true, and entreated to tell it, starts to narrate the tale.
A governess, who remains nameless, is engaged to care for two orphaned siblings by their bachelor uncle. Whilst he wants to provide for them he makes it clear he does not want any involvement with them, which should perhaps have been a warning to the governess.
She, accepting the position, soon arrives at the estate and on meeting Flora soon falls in love with the beautiful child. Flora is soon joined by her brother Miles, who has, for unexplained reasons been expelled from school. Both the governess and the housekeeper Mrs Grose, also under the spell of the children, can imagine any reason why Miles would have been expelled.
Soon after arriving the governess notices a man on a tower in the house. Sure he is not one of the staff she describes the visitor to Mrs Grose who is shocked to discover the description matches that of Quint, the old valet of the children’s uncle but who was dead. This valet was known to be a horrible vile person and was the lover of Miss Jessel, the former governess and also dead. It is not long before Miss Jessel’s ghost appears and the governess is filled with a sense of evil and wrongdoing. She is sure that the spirits mean harm to Flora and Miles and that the children are aware of them.
She sets out, determined that the ghosts won’t harm the children and to discover why the children refuse to acknowledge they are in contact with Miss Jessel and Quint.
Sadly I was disappointed with this story. The ghosts themselves were intended to be depicted as evil spirits but I was always left wondering as to what evils they had done, both when alive, and what their intention was towards the children or indeed the governess. The descriptions of their actions where vague and left me wanting. The children however, as they are described by the governess give more of a hint at potential evil. There seems something amiss with them but this is hard to pinpoint. The governess extols their virtues and beauty from the first meeting, falling for them and showering them in attention. Both her and Mrs Grose seem to be under their spell.
It’s difficult to see whether the children were possessed, there were ghosts or whether the governess was having a psychological breakdown. All are possibilities and it is this vagueness which made me feel let down by the story, together with the fact that I couldn’t feel the terror supposedly felt by her. There seem to be too many unanswered questions and the story ends somewhat abruptly, which too was a let down.
I am glad I read the story and it hasn’t deterred me from reading more Henry James novels but if you are looking for a scary ghost story this Halloween I’d perhaps look elsewhere.
6 out of 10

A big thank you to Janet for taking part in my Halloween Feature and taking the time to read Turn of the Screw. I remember watching the television adaptation of this when I was little!

You can find the lovely Janet on Twitter: @JanetEmson

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