Saturday, February 13, 2010

Reading group: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

John suggested this classic novella which he had read in the summer and found fascinating. It presents the story of an unnamed young governess employed by the uncle and guardian of two orphans - a young sister and brother whom he has established in an ancestral country house - with the specific and somewhat strange instruction that she is to take complete charge and not trouble him in his London home. Initially overwhelmed, indeed frightened by the task ahead of her, the governess is then exhilarated by finding the children 'perfect', but very soon comes to 'realize' that they are being haunted by the ghosts of two dead and reputedly evil servants, who have 'come for them'.

John said he had found the book fascinating as what seemed to him a repudiation of the certainties of Victorian realist fiction and a presentation of the ambiguities of perception. He pointed out that the governess's story itself is shrouded by layers of displacement. Most obviously it is framed: the novel begins with a narrator recounting a typical Victorian Christmastide ghost-story telling session in just such a country house in which the governess's story will take place - a comparison the narrator indirectly but explicitly draws. While the novel begins, The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, it becomes clear - though not immediately - that the story referred to here is not the one with which the novel will be concerned. Meanwhile, there is comment on the part of the house guests on the quality of each others' ghost tales. All of this serves to set the governess's story right away in a context of comparison and evaluation, while much is made of the delight that the female house guests take in being frightened, in other words of their complicit gullibilty. The governess's story is offered by the guest Douglas, who promises that it will top all the others for 'dreadfulness'. Rather than tell the story himself he says he will read them the governess's own written first-person account. Now while this may seem on the surface to be a proof of its authenticity, the story is at this point rendered peculiarly remote by the fact that, as Douglas reports, although it was once told to him in person by the governess, it had happened many years before that telling, and was written down years after that telling, and the written version was handed on to Douglas only on the death of its author, which is now twenty years past. Not only that, it is physically remote, and indeed locked away in a drawer, and Douglas must send off for it, with a key to have the drawer unlocked, and the company must wait a full two days for its arrival. Meanwhile Douglas provides the background to the story - the facts of the governess's provenance as the daughter of a clergyman, and the circumstances of her employment - which results in a temporal narrative distancing for the reader of the novel. Douglas makes much in his account of vouching for the governess's 'niceness' and 'cleverness', but the validity of his view is somewhat held in suspense by the fact that the ladies present detect in this very speech indications that - in spite of his protestations that she had been ten years older than he - Douglas had been at least a little in love with her and thus biased.

John said that, as a child psychologist himself, he was very taken with what he believed was James's questioning of the concepts of good and evil and what he saw as James's overturning of the simplistic pretty=good and ugly=bad associations one finds in novelists like Dickens. At the start of her employment, the governess sees the pretty children as utterly pure, but right from the beginning we have to question her view as unreliable: they have been orphaned, they have been more or less abandoned by their guardian, and the boy, it turns out, has just been expelled from school, yet she expresses the judgement that they have been untouched by unhappiness. This is only thrown into an ironic light when she later comes to see them as communing with the 'ghosts' and indeed, deceitful and touched by evil themselves. Everyone agreed with John that as the story progresses the governess's perceptions become less and less reliable, culminating perhaps in the moment when she reports to Mrs Grose the housekeeper that the 'ghost' of the dead governess Miss Jessel spoke to her, completely contradicting the earlier blow-by-blow account in her narration of the encounter with the ghost. Her perceptions are extreme, unsubtle, wildly reversed and, with a close reading of the text, unsubstantiated, often because of unfinished sentences when she interrupts, or fails to challenge when others - chiefly Mrs Grose or Miles the boy - break off speaking, seemingly eager to jump to her own conclusions. Finally she tips into a kind of illogical madness: all appearances of innocence must be fraudulent and therefore indicate the presence of evil.

Many critics have pointed to the ambiguity of the figure of the governess in Victorian fiction, caught between upstairs and downstairs, and John said he thought that this was pretty central to the ambiguities of this novel, and pushed here to a particular limit. With what seemed to him something of a plot manipulation (the governess not allowed to contact her employer), James forces her into extreme isolation, a situation in which she has no employer to talk to but cannot talk freely to the servants, not even the housekeeper Mrs Grose of whom she longs to make a friend but from whom she must keep a certain professional distance, resulting in a deeply ambiguous relationship. (We hear in passing that she is also isolated from her family by the fact that they are suffering their own troubles, to which she will not add in correspondence.) John pointed out that James often names his characters symbolically (Miss Jessell, was, it seems, a Jezebel, as someone else in the group pointed out; one meaning of the name Miles is 'uncertainty') and John wondered about the apparent negative connotations of the name Mrs Grose, as well as its possible meaning of 'big'. Could it be that the housekeeper is a more significant element in this story than many interpretations have allowed for? It seemed to John that the housekeeper who appears so homely and dependable in the (unreliable) governess's eyes would in reality resent her arrival in the household, having previously been left to run it herself, and having been very close to the little girl Flora who must now remove her affections to the governess. It is interesting that at the end, when Flora turns against the governess and becomes frightened of her, Mrs Grose 'reclaims' her, even to sleep in her room, and then flees with her, albeit it with the governess's 'blessing'. Mrs Grose might well, in terms of social and psychological reality, want the governess out of the way. Could it be that the whole 'haunting' is a setup engineered by Mrs Grose to achieve that very thing?

At this point the room erupted, and everyone said that it seemed that John had been reading a different novel from the rest of us. Everyone else had read the novel aware only of two main conventional and opposing interpretations: either that the ghosts were indeed real (as early critics of the novel assumed) or that they were a figment of the neurotic imagination of the (thus dangerous) governess, the Freudian reading established by the critic Edmund Wilson. There was now some discussion in which people spoke up for either interpretation, but on the whole people were unable to decide, though Trevor said that he reckoned there were definitely two ghosts in this book.

I said that, having read the novel previously, this time I had read it very carefully, trying to see which of those two interpretations held water, but that I had found that neither did, and the places where it all came unstuck were in the conversations with Mrs Grose which were unfathomable in their ambiguity. It was often impossible, I found, to know exactly how to assess Mrs Grose: when she was being sincere in her sympathies, or when she was perhaps humouring the governess over her belief in the ghosts. The extent of the unreliability of the governess-narrator was not always clear. Others in the group nodded in agreement. I said that on the whole I came down on the side of the psychological interpretation (James was a psychological novelist, after all), but that there was one particular scene where that simply doesn't hold water at all. After the governess sees the 'ghost' of Quint looking in through the dining-room window, she describes his very distinctive appearance - red hair, strange little whiskers - in great detail to Mrs Grose, who immediately recognises the description (with apparent horror) as that of Quint, the master's previous valet. At this precise point the governess has never even heard of Quint and has yet to be told that he is dead. This would seem to indicate that in the objective terms of the novel, the ghost does indeed exist as an objective reality. It had seemed to me that the only conclusion to draw was that a novelist as conscious as James and unlikely to make a mere mistake, must thus, as some critics have concluded, be deliberately creating an ambiguity of possibilities. However, I now wondered if John could be right, and we all reconsidered the novel in the light of his suggestion.

John drew our attention to something in that dining-room window scene which had indeed struck me as very strange and the meaning of which I'd been unable to fathom. At the end of her description, the governess says of the ghost: "He gives me a sort of sense of looking like an actor." Mrs Grose responds: "An actor!" and the governess-narrator comments: It was impossible to resemble one less, at least, than Mrs Grose at that moment. Does this mean that Mrs Grose is so shocked by the governess's unwitting touching on the truth (ie that someone is indeed posing/acting as the ghost) that she momentarily has no need to go on acting herself? (EDITED IN: It now seems significant that Douglas, in commenting on the ghost story which he says has parallels with the one he will read out, refers to its 'ghost - or whatever it was.') There is a passage very soon after the governess's arrival which I couldn't make much sense of, but which in the light of John's interpretation seems to be the governess-narrator's (and the author's?) implication, or indeed statement, that in retrospect (ie from the years-later perspective when she is writing the account) she should have been suspicious of Mrs Grose. Having persuaded herself at the time that Mrs Grose is an ally, the governess then wonders:
The one appearance indeed that in this early outlook might have made me shrink again was that of her being so inordinately glad to see me. I felt within half an hour that she was glad - stout simple plain clean wholesome woman - as to be positively on her guard against showing it too much. I wondered even then a little why she should wish not to show it, and that, with reflexion, with suspicion, might of course have made me uneasy.
In other words, she noted at the time that Mrs Grose was dissembling, and comments now, while writing it all down, that it should have made her uneasy (and the housekeeper was dissembling in a different way from the one which the governess at the time assumed). What we have in this novel is not so much an unreliable narrator, as a narrator reviewing with hindsight a situation she couldn't fathom at the time and indeed misinterpreted. There are many subsequent instances in the unfolding story when the young governess sees Mrs Grose apparently reining in her own emotions and 'holding herself in', and she spends much of her time with the woman assessing her and trying to work out her reactions, but failing to question her and rashly jumping to conclusions. Some of the passages which I earlier felt portrayed Mrs Grose as possibly humouring the governess and indeed suspicious of her (though I wasn't sure), can, in the light of John's interpretation, be read without trouble as portraying Mrs Grose as genuinely shocked by the extent to which the governess has run with the idea of the haunting, but then cleverly deciding to use it. In the scene where the governess reports her first sighting of Miss Jessel's ghost, Mrs Grose is at first shocked, but then turns away to the window (in thought, and to hide the fact that she is thinking?) and then: After a little while she turned round... She slowly came back to me. 'Miss Jessel was infamous [this in fact has been the governess's suggestion].' She once more took my hand in both her own, holding it as tight as if to fortify me against the increase of alarm I might draw from this disclosure. 'They were both infamous,' she finally said - the 'slowly' and 'finally' indicating calculation rather than growing conviction as to the reality of the ghost as I had previously considered and which the governess assumes. The young governess is unreliable in her perceptions, but not just in the matter of the ghosts and the children: she is misreading Mrs Grose.

And what about the fact that, when things reach a crisis, and the decision is made to write after all to the uncle, the supposedly illiterate Mrs Grose says that she'll write to him? The governess questions her: how could she write? and Mrs Grose quickly says that she communicates with the master through the bailiff. Has this been a slipup on the part of Mrs Grose, who found it useful to go along with the governess's assumption of her illiteracy - which in fact has never been substantiated? In fact, in social reality Victorian housekeepers needed to be literate - particularly those left for extended periods in sole charge of a household, as Mrs Grose has been - which the naive governess overlooks. Was Mrs Grose indeed acting her illiteracy when she refused to look at the letter from the school announcing Miles' expulsion? Could this very strange unexplanatory (and indeed thus unlikely ) letter be part of some plot which is linked with the deaths of the former servants? Do the circumstances around those deaths need to be covered up? And if so, is that the reason little Miles must be kept from school, to stop him blabbing - saying things, as he later puts it to the governess. And the bailiff who Mrs Grose says writes for her? Where did he pop up from? He has never previously been mentioned. And what's this 'communicating', apparently in the continuous present? Have they already contacted the master behind the governess's back? Could it be that Mrs Grose and the bailiff are in league in some way - could the bailiff, indeed, be the 'actor'? - and capitalising on the very young governess's nervousness, suggestibility and overactive imagination based in sexual repression and fear (what, indeed, in her years-later narration she calls her 'obsession')? Is Quint so named by James - the name means 'fifth' - because he is the fifth player in an intrigue concerning the housekeeper, the bailiff, the hoodwinked governess and the two dead servants? It's an interpretation that seems to gather credibility in light of the fact that, with his brother William, James was involved in attempts to make scientific studies of paranormal phenomena, many of which were of course uncovered as frauds. (At this point one sees parallels with Affinity by Sarah Waters.) Is the message of the novel that an over-readiness to believe in ghosts, indulged in by the houseguests at the beginning of the book, can actually get you into serious, indeed deadly trouble (and open you up to manipulation)?

John said that he thought that this possible interpretation had been overlooked by critics out of middle-class prejudice: that as a female servant Mrs Grose and her role have been invisible to them. Everyone agreed that Mrs Grose is indeed a major character in the book - she is so often present and constantly referred back to - yet critics so often treat her as minor player, or a mere foil. Some of us said that we now wanted to read the novel again in the light of this interpretation but others groaned, Doug the loudest, and said No way, they had had real difficulties with James' convoluted prose, and when I said that it did actually suit the governess's convoluted oxymoronic mentality, they retorted that all James's prose was like that. Hans read out the very worst sentence, which others of us had noted, and in which the young governess persuades herself with Jamesian pomposity that the house is a benign place: But there was everything, for our apprehension, in the lucky fact that no discomfortable legend, no perturbation of scullions, had ever, within anyone's memory, attached to the kind old place. Jo, however, a real lover of James, jumped to the defence of the prose.

We then discussed the sexual undertones or indeed overtones of the novel. Clare said she totally went along with the interpretation of the film some years ago now, which presented the whole thing as a portrayal of child sexual abuse - ie in which the children had indeed once been sexually abused by the now dead servants. There is something about this interpretation that rings true, but the question remains: how much of it is intended as factual reality, and how much the governess's imaginings? As subscribers to Freudian interpretations have pointed out, a close reading shows that the sexual interpretations stem from the governess herself: Mrs Grose's confession about the licentious relationship of the two dead servants is, as we have seen above, prompted by the governess's own decision that Quint is 'infamous'; it is the governess who first interprets in homoerotic terms the fact that Miles spent time alone with Quint (and Mrs Grose picks up on it and 'elaborates'). We never hear the foul language which Flora is meant eventually to speak: it is only ever reported by Mrs Grose, and at a time when, in John's interpretation, Mrs Grose is far gone into manipulating the governess and taking advantage of her psychology and assumptions. It is to be remembered that, in love/lust with the absent master (a point which Douglas makes much of in his opening introduction), the governess is in a heightened state of (repressed) sexual frustration, and the fact that the sexual spin on things stems from her psychology seems proven in one of the most unsettling statements of her narrative that when she and Miles were finally left alone in the house together, she compared the two of them to some 'young couple' 'on their wedding journey' (and there is an earlier conversation between the two in the churchyard which has unsettling sexual undertones). To the governess the abuse is 'out there' (with the ghosts) but ultimately, she is the abuser, clasping the children too tightly out of her own need for affection, flirting with the child Miles, and finally, through her own sexual fears, frightening Flora to the extent that she won't come near her and frightening or suffocating Miles to death. Nevertheless, there are hints of the sexualization of the children, or at least of Miles: he appears to flirt back at the governess and there is the very strange conversation in which he confesses that the reason for his expulsion is that he has been 'saying things' to boys he liked, and that they in turn have passed them on to boys they 'liked'. Is this the author's portrayal of the cycle of corruption set in motion by corrupting adults? And if so, how many of the adults are involved? Are the two ex-servants really dead, or have they been dispatched as the result of a scandal? Mrs Grose is certainly evasive when the governess, with rare straightforwardness, questions her about the circumstances of their deaths, and when Mrs Grose eventually recounts those of Quint's they bear suspicious similarities to Rochester's fall in Jane Eyre. Could it be that this is Mrs Grose's derivative made-up tale and that Quint is in fact still around, and, rather than the 'bailiff', is performing his own 'haunting'? Does the quintet of abusers include the master (rather than the conjured-up bailiff) who, although he so strangely never comes to house now was clearly once there, attended by his valet Quint? (EDITED IN: No bailiff appears in the list which Douglas gives in his introductory account of the persons associated with the household, a list so oddly precise and inclusive that it includes 'an old donkey'). Could Mrs Grose's shock at the governess's sexual interpretation of the ghosts' motives be indeed genuine, but a reaction to the governess's once more stumbling (unwittingly) on the truth? At any rate, this seems a remarkable tale of a convoluted series of abuses: the neglect, or more, practised by the master, the shadowy but certainly dubious doings of the two past servants, the manipulation of the governess by the housekeeper, and the unwitting abuse of the children by the governess.

Towards the end of the evening I remembered that for years I had carried with me the very idea about this book that John had suggested: that the housekeeper dunnit; but in the intervening years had forgotten.

We mentioned the glances in the book towards other classic ghost/country house stories, the reference to the Mysteries of Udolpho and the echoes of Jane Eyre (another governess isolated in a lonely country house), and the fact that the novel thus operates as a comment on the convention. We discussed the fact that the frame breaks at the end of the novel: the narrative does not return to Douglas or the narrator, but finishes with the end of the governess's account and the dramatic denouement of her tale. Mark said that to return to the frame would have clearly watered things: the dramatic moment obviously makes the best end. In retrospect, it seems to me that James's intention is more subtly to indicate the power of the unconscious to break through (and break down) the kind of civilised structures that the opening frame represented.

Anyway, time for another close reading, in my opinion, whatever the rest of the group may think.

Our archived discussions can be found here, and a list of all the books we have discussed here.

1 comment:

Rachel Fenton said...

What a brilliant 'reading'! I love this book and - funnily enough - read it not long after I also read Mysteries of Udolpho, and some other gothic novels. I think the way it draws you in and gets you puzzling over these people - who have become very real within your own mind - is just fantastic.

I think of other books which have drawn on the psychology of it - you mention Eyre and from there you have Rebecca but there were other writers such as Wilkie Collins with The Moonstone who took the psychological and used it to make the reader a character. Brilliant stuff.