Tuesday, 30 October 2012

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

I could only get on at all by taking "nature" into my confidence and my account, by treating my monstrous ordeal as a push in a direction unusual, of course, and unpleasant, but demanding, after all, for a fair front, only another turn of the screw of ordinary human virtue.

I’ve seen it denied that this is a ghost story. That makes nonsense of so much of the internal evidence that I can only interpret it as a rationalist attempt to shrink the data to fit a view that of course there are no such things as hauntings or possession. James himself as outlined in the opening quote above makes a conscious decision to contain the attempt at combating the evil force of Quint and Jessel within the personal power of the Governess. Why was an exorcist not used? The service of exorcism is available within the Anglican Liturgy and even in modern times people have recourse to it. James may have been personally sceptical but being early exposed to the teachings of Swedenborg through the medium of his father, as it were, was well aware of the arsenal of spiritual combat. Why the daughter of a Vicar would not call in the service of a priest of the church that is within walking distance is a mystery but it makes for a more dramatic tussle for the souls of Flora and Miles.

James is a master of voice and he can perfectly render the pluck of a girl who
unlike the other applicants for the job that declined the extra money and the onerous conditions, plunged on. She is never to bother her employer and she is to take the full responsibility for the children. She is on her own which is I suppose a psychological rationale for the curious containment of the struggle.
I proffered the idea that James may have created a slightly unrealistic scenario in which a vicar’s daughter does not seek the aid of an exorcist to combat the forces of evil but is not her isolation a part of the predator’s strategy: Like a pair of wolves Peter Quint and Miss Jessel cut out the Governess who is disabled by the conditions of her employment. Is this not a recurrent theme in the novels of James, a young woman cut out of the herd by a wolf couple for their prey? That these predators are, for the moment, discarnate makes her cornering apparently inevitable for how can you fight invisible evil? Somehow by her pure love of the children she can enter into their sensibility, see for herself, not be overcome, and retain her freedom to forestall. She has the care of their souls and it is never absolutely certain whether she will prevail.

But does she?

Addendum: 1/11/12
The connection between the Bensons and James is further established by the fact that The Turn of the Screw story had its genesis in an anecdote told by Benson Pere, the Archbishop of Canterbury to James in 1895. As related above in my post on Expiation E.F. Benson aka 'Fred’ took up the lease of Lamb House after the death of James.

Having purposely not read anything about the anti-apparitionist school of criticism in relation to the story I remedied that deficit by a perusal of the rather complete history of the critical reception of the story from the earliest times at turnofthescrew.com
Edmund Wilson it was that famously Freudianized the interpretation ingeniously subverting in a determined manner the plot and James’s intentions. Others have followed him into that labyrinth and having lost the clew remain trapped. I wonder if it is possible for the noonday mind to enter into a true reading of stories which involve limens, portals and parallel realities. I trail my ectoplasmic coat.

‘So get thee gone Von Wilson but with a blessing on thy head’. I have a copy here by me of Memoirs of Hecate County which I read some years ago but as a public service I will read Ellen Terhune again and see whether it is worthy of the haunted house seal of approval or drops into a bucket of whimsy.

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