The Turn of the Screw (Henry James)

I have been reading quite a lot of Gothic literature recently, including The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James. It is supposed to be definitive in the ghost genre. I have never read a full length ghost novel before, and I was intrigued as to how the author would narrate the ethereal appearances. I must confess, I expected this book to be Victorian ‘pulp’ literature, but I was surprised to be wrong.

The novel is built into a framing story of several friends meeting one evening to read the memoirs of an acquaintance. These memoirs describe how she, a parson’s daughter, takes a job as a governess to the niece and nephew of a busy Londoner. His only desire is that she should not bother him, so they go his country home, while he remains in London. Unfortunately, this house is haunted by the ghosts of two now deceased servants. Or they were deceased until now. The governess does everything to prevent her young charges encountering them, but as she does, she realises their real desires: to take Miles and Flora from her care. With Mrs Grose, the housekeeper, they try their best, but despite all their efforts, they fail. The novel is full of intrigue, suspicion of things that certainly doesn’t appear to be true. The governess convinces herself that Miles and Flora are in league with the dark side on the basis of their more than perfect behaviour.

The register is a fairly easy to read for Victorian, literature, and is nothing as dense as most of Dickens. Written as a thriller, the pace is fast moving, although now, most authors might manage significantly more in 24 chapters. The characters have the typically high flown Victorian speech, even as children. The framing story is used is used exceptionally well, however unoriginal- it does create a limited sense of credibility. Also, Henry James sets the novel up well to introduce the action, increasing the credibility, mainly by increasing the reader’s familiarity with the setting.

The novel is incredibly Victorian. Everyone duly attends church on Sundays. But the main influence seems to me to be the Victorian views on children, at least children of the bourgeois. The governess will do anything to protect the children, as they are clearly too weak to encounter what, as far as we can see, is the figment of her imagination. The children must be inherently saintly! The portrayal of the housekeeper as intellectually and emotionally weak shows another Victorian attitude that now seems distasteful.

Little can be said about it’s literary worth, although you might disagree with me. The writing is good, although sometimes immature. Henry James skilful portrays how imagination can blur into reality. I expected it to be pulp, but was surprised to be wrong: it’s not pulp, but it isn’t great either. To read it online was okay, but I won’t be buying the book.

The Turn of the Screw is in the public domain. You can read it online at


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