A few of you commented on my mention on The Turn of the Screw the other day, and I’m afraid this is confession time. I’m well aware that this almost certainly a case of wrong reader/wrong time, rather than wrong book, but… it didn’t work for me at all.
I’d seen the production at Christmas (partly filmed in the graveyard of my church in Somerset, doncha know); I’d seen another production about a decade ago. I’m reading lots of fantasy theory books at the moment, and it keeps being mentioned as a famously ambiguous text. Simon, I said to myself, get over your dislike of Henry James (based entirely on one interminable ‘short’ story) and get The Turn of the Screw off the shelf.
So I did. The plot is well known. A governess is hired to look after a man’s niece and nephew, Flora and Miles, the latter of whom has recently been expelled from school. The uncle puts her in charge, with only one stipulation: he is on no account to be disturbed. But it’s the governess who is disturbed – she starts to see mysterious figures wandering the grounds, who don’t seem to be seen by any other members of the household. And she learns that the previous governess, Miss Jessel, and her lover Peter Quint, had died under curious circumstances… events come together to convince the governess that the figures she sees are their ghosts, and she suspects the children may not be as unaware and innocent as they seem… Even writing that synopsis, I am intrigued – I’m imagining it in the hands of Shirley Jackson, and am enthralled. I daresay she owes a lot to James. But…
The novella is one of those stories-within-a-story, and is framed by an unnamed narrator reading a manuscript account to a friend. This is just the first of the techniques which put the reader as a distance – the most strident being James’ complex style. The tangle of his sentences means that the reader – or at least this reader – clambers along the surface of the text, never dipping below the words on the page to the caverns of images they should produce.
The day was grey enough, but the afternoon light still lingered, and it enabled me, on crossing the threshold, not only to recognise, on a chair near the wide window, then closed, the articles I wanted, but to become aware of a person on the other side of the window and looking straight in. One step into the room had sufficed; my vision was instantaneous; it was all there. The person looking straight in was the person who had already appeared to me. He appeared thus again with I won’t say greater distinctness, for that was impossible, but with a nearness that represented a forward stride in our intercourse and made me, as I met him, catch my breath and turn cold. He was the same – he was the same, and seen, this time, as he had been seen before, from the waist up, the window, though the dining-room was on the ground-floor, not going down to the terrace on which he stood. I picked that section more or less at random, but it is actually one of the few moments which actually made an impression on me – but even now, re-reading it, his sentences are so convoluted and intricate that I am barely able to rescue a picture from the effort of disentangling his syntax. It’s not because I’m unused to 19th century books – I’ve read a lot in the past, and quite a few recently. It’s definitely James.
Is this all deliberate? Is it worthwhile? Did The Turn of the Screw flounder for me because I was so tired when I read it? I can admire James – I can certainly admire the imagination which structured the ambiguity of the novella’s conclusion, but I cannot love or enjoy him. Worse, a lot of the time I can barely understand him. Please, counsel for the defence, step forward and tell me what I’m missing?