Gotham Diary:
7 May 2012

The power of great fictions to change over time — to produce different effects, to revert into more than occaasional unfamiliarity, and to blot up the sense of alteration as thought it were not the case that it is we who have changed, not the texts that we’re re-reading for the third or fourth time over a period of many years — is a fact of life that can’t be taught. I’m in the middle of Henry James’s late novella, The Turn of the Screw, and it’s nothing like what it has been before. For one thing, it’s funny. The humor is altogether inadvertent; I don’t think that I’ve mined a vein of intended comedy. But I find that I’m “reading” The Turn of the Screw as if it had nothing really to do with governesses and remote mansions and wicked ghosts. What I’m seeing instead is the problem of in-laws.

I’m reading the novella because I chanced to watch The Innocents a few weeks ago. Jack Clayton’s production, with a script to which Truman Capote contributed, seemed to want to trace Gothic horror back to Freudian roots, and that was clearly something that James could not have compassed. So I thought I’d read the story again. I don’t recall which time it was, but I remember once re-reading The Turn of the Screw in a lather of frustration: it seemed imperative that Edward Gorey be commissioned to illustrate it, but I had no idea how to go about this. (Gorey was very much alive at the time.) That urge has palpably passed; the very idea of illustrating the story itself seems gauche. (And in any case many of Gorey’s little works could be said to “illustrate” Henry James, particularly on the points of children and innocence.) What I’m going for now is the character of the unnamed governess who narrates the tale. James knits character and tale together in such a way that a claim can be made that the governess is a deluded madwoman, so hysterically attached to her little charges that she manufactures devils from whom she cannot protect them. Her story altogether lacks corroborative detail. That she is able to prevail upon the housekeeper, illiterate Mrs Grose, to agree with her hypotheses is nothing remarkable; she, after all, is a lady. And she is a lady in contest with another lady, the only other kind of lady — a fallen lady. This would be Miss Jessel, her predecessor.

Miss Jessel, the new governess learns, abandoned herself to the attentions of Peter Quint, the valet of the rich man to whom the care of little Miles and Flora has devolved. On its face this is an unspeakable mésalliance, almost to the point of outright bestiality. Whether Quint died (in an accident, slipping on an icy patch while drunk) before or after Miss Jessel’s departure from Bly (the great house), I’m not sure; I’m not sure that it matters. Miss Jessel is believed to have died, too. The governess comes to believe that the ghosts of the man and the woman have come back to claim the children. Unless you’re very out of sympathy with James’s writing, his story will flow by without striking any rocky questions about why the ghosts of Quint and Miss Jessel haven’t better things to do; the governess’s belief in their malignancy is so convinced that it is somewhat beyond convincing: we don’t interrogate the governess — we let Mrs Grose do that, in her half-hearted way. Instead, we let the governess set our teeth chattering with her lurid anxieties.

The great problem in all of Henry James’s fiction is other people’s knowledge. What do other people know — about the things that we know, about us; what plans do they harbor? Writing in a somewhat simpler moral universe, James presented the problem in terms of candor and dishonesty; he appears to have believed that people know what they know, and can share it or not as they choose. (We are today quite sure that this is never the case.) The difference between what I know and what you know is a crack in which the flowers of evil can take root — when it is not a fatal abyss. 

What children know — children of any age, as Maggie Verver’s history reminds us — is an aspect of the larger problem that interested James throughout his career. What Maisie Knew is a tour de force of what we might call disimagination, as James cramps his point of view into the head of a little girl, allowing her no thoughts beyond her tender years. (Such thoughts are the abstractions from which we erect our “understanding.”) In The Awkward Age, knowledge takes on a hymeneal significance; the lack of it is a badge of virginity. Trying to figure out what other people know is hard enough. What children know is of a bafflement!

What distinguishes the governess from other James characters is her impetuous inference of what Miles and Flora “know.” No sooner has a possibility occurred to her than it becomes a sure thing. At the same time, she persists in a sentimental view of childish innocence that was one of the Victorian era’s most insistent daydreams. Mere possession of wicked knowledge does not taint Flora or Miles. In the early stages of being “on to” the children, the governess worries that her attentiveness will tip them off to her suspicions. But not her worry is calmed in the most interesting way.

It would have been easy to get into a sad wild tangle about how much I might betray; but the real account, I feel, of the hours of peace I could still enjoy was that the immediate charm of my companions was a beguilement still effective even under the shadow of the possibility that it was studied. For if it occurred to me that I might occasionally excite suspicion by the little outbreaks of my sharper passion for them, so too I remember asking if I mightn’t see a queerness in the traceable increase of their own demonstrations.

Reading this, I was attacked by the most inconsequent image. I remembered holding my grandson in my arms, and he was studying my face with a view to playing with it, pulling my ears and whatnot. He likes to try to put my glasses on, but until recently it was always with the air of poking an eye out to see what might happen. What this recollection had to do with anything I’ve no idea, but I suddenly understood that the governess was in the position of a mother-in-law, or perhaps a grandmother, who has allowed herself to believe that the relations of her child’s spouse are something less than a good influence on the marriage, on the grandchildren. And the position of the children, Flora and Miles, is exactly that of any perspicacious grandchildren, careful to suppress any intimations of bad influence. In The Turn of the Screw, it is precisely the children’s model behavior that convicts not them but the dreadful Quint and his paramour, Miss Jessel.

These insights, if that’s what they are, don’t make The Turn of the Screw a funny book, but they do raise a smile, because James has so cleverly (whether he knew it or not; unintended masterstrokes are always a risk with cleverness) repackaged a family problem that is as common as dirt in glitteringly scary wrappings.  


Perhaps I misspoke about Henry James’s “apparent belief” that people can choose whether or not to say what’s on their mind. It might be better to propose that his characters labor under that hope. Whatever he himself thought, his prose is a manifestation of the difficulties of clear and complete expression. Ultimately, it is impossible; James ends up listing the things that he does not mean to say, and hedging them in with highly nuanced qualifications.