Some may accuse me of exhibiting Grinch-like qualities at this most festive time of year, but did you know it was once a tradition to tell ghost stories on Christmas Eve, the scarier the better?
Have you read Henry James’ most celebrated short novel (novella) “The Turn of the Screw” recently? If not, have a look. It’s available as a free e-book from many sites on the internet, or, if you, like me, prefer good old-fashioned ink and paper, that is nice too.
To sum up briefly, the story concerns a governess and her two charges, a boy and a girl, in a large English country house. It is told by a narrator as a “frame” during Christmas Eve to a gathering of friends, around the fireside, as though the governess left the manuscript of her story to him. The “turn of the screw” is the added horror of the “visitation” involving young children.
Are the children being visited by the ghosts of the former caretaker and his girlfriend, the previous governess? What is the evil thing the caretaker may or may not have done with the boy? And why was the boy then expelled from his elite boarding school? Or is the whole thing a projection of repressed libido on the part of the governess, who then ruins the lives of the children she is supposed to protect?
We may never know, and much ink has been spilled trying to analyze this mysterious story. James himself, to add to the confusion, always maintained that it was simply a tale, a “perfectly independent and irresponsible little fiction” as he called it. A writer as self-aware as James, however, seems to have plotted even that remark to deflect inquiry away from his process.
James’ style is so convoluted, indirect, and oblique that it may not be to everyone’s taste. This is all deliberate, as the difficulty in reading represents the impossibility of direct communication so key to understanding James. No one ever seems to actually say anything, yet they “speak volumes” in their ornate evasions. James wanted the reader to “think the evil for himself” to freshen the overworked genre of the Gothic horror story. Despite the elusive diction, the story builds logically all the way to its tragic ending, with a few suspenseful “wrong turns” beforehand.
“The Turn of the Screw” was first published in 1898, in serial form over three months in Collier’s Weekly. Much important literature was first published just that way, especially in the nineteenth century, as periodicals were less expensive than books for the average citizen. What a treat it must have been to eagerly await the “next installment.”
American-born James was educated all over Europe with the resources of his wealthy parents, so his style is very cosmopolitan. In his large novels, he often writes about Americans “getting it wrong” in Europe—an inexorable clash of the two cultures. He himself settled in a large manor house in England for much of his life. His high-power friend the archbishop of Canterbury, Edward White Benson, actually gave him the raw material for this story, around a fireplace one Christmas Eve in 1895.
Composer Benjamin Britten set the story to music in 1954, in an eerie, effective scoring for chamber orchestra and soloists, including great parts for the two children. It deserves a bigger place in the repertoire. The novella has also been turned into numerous movies and inspiration for countless adaptations. Perhaps the most memorable is “The Innocents” (1961), starring Deborah Kerr as the unhinged governess.
So before all the wrapping paper is thrown away and batteries that were not included have to be bought for toys that may already be broken, let’s remember these words (Britten’s librettist Myfanwy Piper):
“Day by Day the bars we break
Break the love that laps them round
Cheat the careful watching eyes,
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.”
(cue evil laughter . . .)
© 2009 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs
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