CW: death, ghosts, vague hints of child molestation or other unspecified activities of the sort, sexism, general upper-class snobbishness
I found a vintage edition of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw and Daisy Miller some time ago and have long thought that both stories in this volume sounded perfectly appealing to me. But it wasn’t until learning this year that Ruth Ware’s The Turn of the Key (which I intend to read) might loosely connect to James’s classic, and the second season of Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House (which I intend to watch) is also based on Bly Manor from The Turn of the Screw, that I was finally motivated to pick up this slim Gothic volume.
In The Turn of the Screw, a new governess is hired to care for the two young children residing at Bly Manor; the deaths of their parents has left them in the care of an uncle who has no interest in raising children, and has instructed the governess to oversee them without contacting him for any reason. The governess is charmed by the uncle and the children, and wishes to comply, but two issues complicate the matter. The first is the boy’s unexplained expulsion from his boarding school. The second is the appearance of two figures around the house, who appear to be the ghosts of deceased former employees at Bly. The governess does her best to keep the household running smoothly, but soon discovers she’s in over her head.
“An unknown man in a lonely place is a permitted object of fear to a young woman privately bred.”
By far the longer piece in this volume, The Turn of the Screw is formatted as a ghost story dictated by the governess (dead by the time this story is shared) and read aloud to a group of eager listeners safe around their own fireplace. This framing device seemed a bit unnecessary (and outdated- originally published in 1898) to me, as the governess’s unexplained death doesn’t seem to add anything of import to the tale of her life, nor are these background listeners crucial to the story in any observable way.
As for the governess’s account, it is atmospheric and eerie almost from the get-go, her fear and tension apparent in every chapter. Interestingly, what she is afraid of remains vague and nameless through the book. It appears that she is not afraid of the ghosts, nor of the children, but rather the fact that the ghosts appear to the children. Her every seemingly ordinary interaction with them is disected into what the governess sees as horrifying implications: whether the children are aware of the ghosts, whether they know the governess is aware of them, whether they are concealing interactions with the ghosts from her, etc. It’s all very unsettling, but the reader must do a bit of guesswork to make meaning of it. For example, one particular “horror” is the governess’s realization that the two ghosts, while alive, were having an affair that the children may have been aware of. No further information is given- are we to assume the children were somehow made complicit in this affair, somehow involved inappropriately in the adults’ exploits? For the governess’s fright to be taken seriously, the reader must find some sort of significance in this revelation (one of many), into which no further insight is granted by the narration.
As a result, the themes of the story are a bit muddled, and perhaps more than desirable is left up to the reader’s own intuition. Immediately upon finishing this story, I thought it made little sense. As the days passed, however, I found my thoughts continually returning to this puzzling story, and came to appreciate that The Turn of the Screw can be read two ways: straightforwardly, as a ghost story in which supernatural forces are at play and manipulating the living; or psychologically, as an examination of the governess’s mental health with the possibility that her interactions with the children reveal increasing paranoia rather than ghosts. I appreciated this story more with time, as I was able to look at the plot as a whole and examine it from several different angles, each as plausible as the next. I came to see its lack of concrete answers as a strength, rather than a weakness, though I do think it’s a book to be applauded for its ambiguity rather than any particular perspective that might be found within.
In Daisy Miller, we leave the ghosts behind for a satirical sort of romance.
A young man (named Winterbourne) leaves his studies for a brief visit to his aunt in another city. While there, he meets a girl named Daisy Miller, a polite but unconventional person whose family possesses enough money to allow them to do as they like, without much reproach. Though most see her as an “uncultured” American, Winterbourne nonetheless follows her to Italy during the winter holiday. Though he likes her, he doesn’t seem to understand that he can’t fit her into a traditional relationship; his desire for her company and his sense of propriety compete for precendence, to disastrous effect.
“Winterbourne wondered how she felt about all the cold shoulders that were turned towards her, and sometimes it annoyed him to suspect that she did not feel at all. He said to himself that she was too light and childish, too uncultivated and unreasoning, too provincial, to have reflected upon her ostracism, or even to have perceived it. Then at other moments he believed that she carried about in her elegant and irresponsible little organism a defiant, passionate, perfectly observant consciousness of the impression she produced.”
I found Daisy Miller much more immediately engaging and thematically rich. Daisy is wonderfully outspoken and sure of herself, a character that has truly stood the test of time (this story was originally published in 1878). Though there is very little plot, Winterbourne’s gradual shift of opinion is fascinating- even humorous- to follow. When he arrives in Italy, he goes first to visit another woman, so as not to appear too eager to see Dasiy. When he does see her, he’s annoyed to discover that she’s become close friends with another man. Daisy (and James’s narration) notes this double-standard and doesn’t let him get away with it. In the end, Winterbourne will learn the truth Daisy has been enacting all along- that some things are more important than society’s opinion. Much to my delight, it presents as a bleak rather than trite case of “lesson learned.”
The only downside to Daisy Miller, on the tail of The Turn of the Screw, is that while thought-provoking, Daisy doesn’t require nearly as much contemplation upon completion. It’s messages are more readily apparent, and easier to file away.
In this sense, the two stories in this volume read rather opposite for me- I wasn’t won over by The Turn of the Screw until I could mull over the full story and draw my own conclusions, whereas Daisy Miller convinced me immediately but didn’t hold my attention long afterward. Together though, they make for an intriguing- if unusual- pair, and I’m glad to have finally read them both!
My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Individually, I’d rate these each the same, which makes a cumulative rating convenient this time around. I don’t think I’ve ever read Henry James before, but I enjoyed the experience enough that I’ve now added his Portrait of a Lady to my TBR.
The Literary Elephant