I’ve heard James’ The Turn of the Screw as being a classic Gothic novel, the one that basically begat a genre and inspired authors like Shirley Jackson (whose books I’ve loved so far in my readings). I chose this one for the ‘This Old Thing’ bingo square (it was published in 1898), and I was really excited to finally sit down and read it Unfortunately, I was disappointed.
The plot is about a young governess who takes a posting that’s too good to be true in an old country manor house, for a charming (and neglectful) man who is the ward of his orphaned nephew and niece. The governess is basically alone except for the housekeeper, a few members of staff, and the two children, who seem utterly and completely angelic, even though there is some shady past–the young boy is expelled from his boarding school without any reason given. Yet there is a strange history to the children before the governess’ arrival, and the governess becomes convinced that her charges’ bodies–and souls–are in terrible danger.
It was really hard for me to get into the spookiness of what I hoped for in a gothic novel. Everything seemed melodramatic rather than spooky. It’s hard to discuss without getting into spoilers, so, uh–SPOILER WARNING for this 120 year old book from here on out.
So the real question is, I guess, if the governess is going mad or if she really sees the ghosts of the former valet and governess. But the problem is that I didn’t think there was any question of the former from the way the book is told–which, of course, is from the governess’ perspective. Maybe I read so much fantasy that I’m able to suspend my disbelief quite happily. I just took it for granted that there were ghosts, but wasn’t really scared by them.
The second problem in many ways is that what is supposed to be terrifying in this book is.. well, only slightly disturbing to a modern reader: that the children would have been exposed to–gasp, horror, grab the smelling salts–SEX. That while they seem so sweet and angelic, THEIR SOULS ARE IN DANGER OF BEING CORRUPTED FOREVER by knowing that the valet and governess had had an affair. But if this were really the case, why was the governess so worried about the children if they had already been exposed to that ‘forbidden knowledge’? Thinking back on it, the danger might have been that the ghosts were trying to lure the children to their deaths–whereupon the children would go to hell for being so corrupted (?!?). It was all rather confusing and less scary than I think it would have been 120 years ago.
This might have been a book that actually would have benefited from being read in the classroom, where discussion could bring out some of its deeper meanings. I looked up a few things online and there were some suggestions that the sex the children had been exposed to was actually pedophilia rather than the valet and governess gettin’ it on (but I thought it was suggested that the governess died in pregnancy). That is sad, but I thought seemed a bit of a stretch (and also doesn’t really change the problem of the children already having been exposed to that forbidden knowledge/scarring experience).
I was hoping more for actually evil children under the guise of angelic lovable scamps. They do pull the wool over the governess’ eyes a few times, and the little girl freaks out at the end in a way that seems unjustified, but they really were rather disappointing overall.
Perhaps my expectations for a creepy read were just too high for something that was a forerunner of its genre. And I wasn’t really in the mood to have to do work to understand it. Perhaps I’ll try it again at another point and see if I enjoy it (or get it) more. If anyone has suggestions for how I’ve misunderstood this book, I’d love to hear them!
On another note, this makes my half-Cannonball, which was my goal for this year! And I’ve read LOTS more books; I just need to review them before the end of the year. Maybe I can actually make a Cannonball for the first time.