Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Notes on Re-reading The Turn of the Screw

The Norton Critical Edition which reprints the New York Edition text and includes background material, contemporary reviews and selected criticism.

It’s odd to discover Turn was initially serialized in 12 installments – the Norton marks the end of each.  So much of the effect depends on a unity of purpose which must have been lost in such a presentation, or if readers even remembered the story.  If the journal was a weekly that’s three months for what now most of us read in one sitting.  If twice-weekly that’s still a month and a half and even if it came out every week day that’s over two weeks.

I’d never noticed before that the governess is not named.

Are Quint and Miss Jessel evil?  That’s clearly how the apparitions are given though even being presented through the governess’ account they don’t do much.  In the backstory all they seem to have done is engage in a romantic liaison – outside good taste perhaps but even in 1898 hardly evil.  (Though the story is set decades earlier it still feels much of the time of its composition.)

Surely somebody has written a story about Flora after the events of Turn.

What’s the purpose of the frame story?  To some degree this is a convention but I suppose partly it serves as evidence that the governess is in fact not insane, to account for some readings of the actual text by earlier representing these in the frame’s characters, and possibly to make the story more “final” by presenting it as a fixed text two removes in time (many years from when it was actually written by the governess who was then recounting events many years in her past).

This second edition of the Norton Critical came out in 1999 and most of its sampling of recent criticism is already useless.  Remember when academics valued the ability to write well?

The impression I get from the supplemental material is that it didn't occur to readers for years that the governess might be imagining the spirits.  Not sure I quite believe that.  If that’s true though the interesting point is how ingrained a way of interpretation is that it’s hard to imagine another way.

If I’m reading the Blackmur piece correctly he’s suggesting that both the ghosts are real and also that the governess is imagining – basically that the ghosts are mostly blank and she’s projecting the evil onto them.

Interesting that James called Turn a “potboiler” several times and dismisses it for not being as attentive to reality as his other work.  I’m hardly a pro-realism guy but admittedly do see some of his point. 

Also can’t help but wonder how conscious James was of class differences.  He was certainly aware of it but I suspect in a way that would be offensive today.  Some of the servants are listed in Turn but barely figure in the story though you have to wonder why not considering the events that may or may not be happening would have involved them as well.  In A Portrait of a Lady servants sometime flick by almost like, well, ghosts with just a passing mention during scenes where until then I didn't suspect they were even present.

Since the Quint and Jessel relation is never clearly defined it’s hard not to think that the most offensive transgression was their difference in class.

Is Mrs. Grose’s illiteracy an indication of her inability to interpret the events? Of course if the governess is imagining then she’s not missing the ghosts, she’s missing the threat of the governess.

There are many more film versions than I realized.  This would appear to be a book very unsuited to film but must be tempting to filmmakers.