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The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (1898)

Novella review: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (1898)

The opening of this Victorian novella is that it’s someone listening to a friend reading a manuscript or letter from someone he knew who once was a governess, and oh gosh, the reading is sure to disturb anyone, for it contains such unspeakable horrors!!

So, anyway, we get to hear what the governess has to say. She was hired by a man who can’t really be bothered to raise his orphaned niece and nephew by himself. He stays in London, and does not wish to be disturbed.

The two children are Miles, currently at boarding school, and his younger sister Flora, who lives at their uncle’s country estate with the housekeeper, Mrs Grose. The two children seem so perfectly angelic, that there’s great cognitive dissonance when Miles comes home with a letter saying he’s been expelled, but doesn’t explain why. The governess is hesitant to ask him what happened, because it must have been something horrid, but he seems like such a nice lad.

Then the governess starts seeing ghosts: a man and a woman, allegedly the former governess and a groundskeeper (or something like that), who had an affair. They were both fired and later died, but in life they had been very close to the two children, and the governess begins to suspect that the children are also aware of the ghosts. Something sinister is surely afoot, because why won’t the children admit to seeing the ghosts?

The only reason I looked for this story is because I found it on a list of Jane Eyre-inspired stories. Personally, I would not put it on such a list. So there’s a country estate and a master that’s away a lot, a housekeeper and a young governess. That’s about all the similarities with Jane Eyre, and considering the time this novella was written, there were plenty of country estates, they all had housekeepers and if there were children involved, there were governesses to look after them. There’s never an actual ghost present at Thornfield, and while we can argue (which it seems many have over the years) that the governess here is insane, the same can not be said for the Brontë classic. So no, I don’t buy that, sorry.

The Turn of the Screw might be tricky to read for some simply because it was written over a hundred years ago. I found it incredibly tricky to read because the sentences were so eye-wateringly long that whatever Henry James was trying to say, it frequently got lost in a torrent of words. Here are a mere three examples:

What I had undertaken was the whole care of her, and she had remained, just this last time, with Mrs. Grose only as an effect of our consideration for my inevitable strangeness and her natural timidity.

I was aware afresh, with her, as we went, of how, like her brother, she contrived – it was the charming thing in both children – to let me alone without appearing to drop me and to accompany me without appearing to surround.

I waited, but nothing came; then, in the first place – and there is something more dire in this, I feel, than in anything I have to relate – I was determined by a sense that, within a minute, all sounds from her had previously dropped; and, in the second, by the circumstance that, also within the minute, she had, in her play, turned her back to the water.

Less is more, dude; less is more. The third sentence – for it is indeed just the one sentence – is particularly hard to follow. The whole story is written like this! And there’s plenty of uses of the word “literally” too, most of which are redundant, even if they are technically correct. By technically correct I mean “not used instead of ‘figuratively’ which is what they actually meant”. Like, “I started up with a strange sense of having literally slept at my post.” It’s correct, but superfluous?

One of the things that got lost among all those words were the story itself. I read on Wikipedia that the story is considered to be really ambiguous, and having finished the darn thing, I concur. Sort of. The governess is rambling on a lot about the kids and what she thinks might have happened to them – at times, you get the feeling that they were molested by the man who is now a ghost, but as nothing is ever put down as a definite, you can only speculate.

The way the children behave is also very non-eventful, even though the governess is trying to big it up. Perhaps it’s something to do with the times, and that this story made perfect sense and was shocking when it came out, but its shock value nowadays is entirely missing. The kids don’t want to talk to grown-ups, they go outside when they’re not supposed to just to spite their governess, and they refuse to admit to seeing ghosts. Doesn’t sound exactly sound like they’re possessed by evil, does it?

All things considered, it’s a difficult novella to read because of the writing style, and nothing really happens until the very end, which would indicate that the governess was at least driven to insanity. It’s just a bit meh, to be honest. It’s atmospheric enough, sure, but if you’re writing a ghost story and seem to be on the way to write quite a good one, then keep writing a ghost story and let the ghosts be sinister and possess the kids and what have you. Not this strange concoction which starts out like a ghost story and ends up … nowhere.

2 out of 5 staircases.


An easily distracted and over-excited introvert who never learns to go to bed at a reasonable time. Enjoys traveling (when there's not a plague on), and taking photos of European architecture. Cares for cats, good coffee and Boardwalk Empire. A child of her time, she did media studies in school and still can't decide what she wants to be when she grows up.

10 thoughts on “The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (1898)

  1. If you can find the DVD, check out “The Innocents” from 1961. Debra Kerr plays the governess. It is a creepy, (psychologically, of course,) movie version of “The Turn of the Screw”.

  2. I am sure Henry James would take your pointers on grammar and usage to heart!

  3. The link between Screw and Eyre is very clear. The governess in Screw desires that kind of relationship with her master – the bit where she’s thinking of him in the garden on the battlements is a direct reference to Eyre. However, she’s not allowed such feelings because of Victorian prudishness of the time, so she suppresses this desire, which comes out in her insanity and later murder of Miles. Also there **is** insanity in Eyre – the mad woman in the attic, no? Many theories suggest that this is the physical manifestation of Jane’s repressed desire/insanity.

    The syntax is long and detailed a) because that’s how people wrote back then – no 140 character Twitter style for them b) Don’t you think it highlights the gov’s insanity? Rambling erratic narration? No?

    A lot happens throughout the book. The governesses decent into insanity, paranoia, the intensity of whether Miles **is** actually evil and torturing the gov… How can you say nothing happens?!

    I think you might want to read the book again…

    1. Thanks for the comment, but way to go with the spoiler.

      The governess in Jane Eyre isn’t insane is what I said, not that there wasn’t insanity in Jane Eyre. The feeling I get from TotS governess is that she wants the master to be involved with his niece and nephew, not that she wants to be romantically involved with him.

      You may have a point in the rambling, erratic narration on behalf of the governess, but what about the original narrator? I read plenty of 19th century novels and am familiar with the language of the time. Charlotte Brontë could go on quite a lot as well, but she still managed to be more to the point (YMMV).

      We all have different tastes, thankfully, so you can enjoy TotS and think it’s a brilliant piece of storytelling as much as you like, while I … go read something else. I’m sure there are plenty of books I like that you wouldn’t give the time of day and vice versa. And that’s perfectly fine.

    2. Well now I feel stupid … when I read TotS many years ago I knew that Miles died, but I didn’t realize the governess did it. Thanks for the spoiler!

      And I must say that I agree with you, Traxy. I’ve read many 19th century novels (the Brontes, George Eliot, Dickens) so I’m very familiar with the language and style of that time, but Henry James was simply too much for me.

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