Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

"The Turn of the Screw" by Henry James (Penguin, 1994)

First published in 1898. I've not read it before. I didn't even know what the title meant. I don't like James' style either - Hardy wrote that it was "a ponderously warm manner of saying nothing in infinite sentences". But the book's often mentioned in text-books so I thought I'd better try it.

The prologue's set in an old house. The people are discussing a story about a ghost appearing to a little boy who's with his mother in an old house. In the story, the boy wakes his mother for her to see the ghost. Reviewing the story, someone says "But it's not the first occurrence of its charming kind that I know to have involved a child. If the child gives the effect another turn of the screw, what do you say to two children -?. So Douglas retrieves an old manuscript written by someone dead 20 years - "she was ten years older than I. She was my sister's governess ... I was an Trinity". After that there's a story in 21 sections involving a 1st-person new governess and 2 children - Miles and Flora (though names are introduced rather late in the tale).

I had trouble understanding why some sentences were so convoluted. Some sentences I had trouble understanding at all -

  • Driving at that hour, on a lovely day, through a country to which the summer sweetness seemed to offer me a friendly welcome, my fortitude mounted afresh and, as we turned into the avenue, encountered a reprieve that was probably but a proof of the point to which it had sunk. (p.14)
  • But it was a comfort that there could be no uneasiness in a connexion with anything so beatific as the radiant image of my little girl, the vision of whose angelic beauty had probably more than anything else to do with the restlessness that, before morning, made me several times rise and wander about my room (p.16)
  • The great question, or one of these, is, I know, with regard to certain matters, the question of how long they have lasted (p.27)
  • This was not so good a thing, I admit, as not to leave me to judge that what, essentially, made nothing else much signify was simply my charming work (p.30)
  • It was a pity that, somehow, to settle this once for all, I had equally to re-enumerate the signs of subtlety that, in the afternoon, by the lake, had made a miracle of my show of certitude (p.51)
  • I had perpetually to guard against the wonder of contemplation into which my initiated view betrayed me; to check the irrelevant gaze and discouraged sigh in which I constantly both attacked and renounced the enigma

The young governess (the author of the above phrases!) is intimidated by the precocious children, and wonders whether they might be trying to get rid of her. She's more concerned by social proprieties that by seeing ghosts. She wants confirmation that others are seeing the ghosts too. At the end she engineers a way to be alone with the boy - I held him - it may be imagined with what a passion; but at the end of a minute I began to feel what it truly was that I held. We were alone with the quiet day, and his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped.

I didn't think much of it.

1 comment:

  1. I agree - can't bear James. But the Britten opera is one of the best I've seen. It's amazing how much better the story is told.