After all the excitement of the Ham and High Literary Festival, EmilyBooks was whisked off by a kind and generous friend to Italy, to one of those rare and wonderful places with no internet, and not much of a phone signal either. Hence there was no post last week.
Truth be told, I’ve been rather restless with my reading, flitting between various novels and memoirs, not quite managing to get stuck in. Maybe it’s been a kind of hangover from the sheer wonder of Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger. At Emily’s Walking Book Club yesterday, I found I was not alone in immediately wanting to re-read it. Many of us felt unwilling to leave it behind, perhaps because its teasing elliptical nature makes you want to go back and look for clues, as with a detective story. I suppose I ought to have just given in and re-read it straight away, rather than suffer this funny couple of weeks of dipping in and dipping out of things.
The only thing I did manage to read cover to cover is The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. This was no doubt aided by its extreme brevity and gripping ghoulishness. I was also chairing the Southbank Centre’s Book Club about it last week, and turning up not having read it since university would have been cheeky to say the least.
Why has Henry James earned a reputation for being so impossibly difficult to read? I adored The Portrait of a Lady; What Maisie Knew is what first inspired me to try to write myself; I remember The Ambassadors being pretty ace; and The Turn of the Screw is unputdownable!
I expect you know the story. Some friends are gathered around the fire telling ghost stories when one of them boasts of a story that is so horrible that:
It’s beyond everything. Nothing at all that I know touches it … for dreadful – dreadfulness!
This ushers in the main story. A young woman goes to work as a governess for two orphans in a big country house. Before long, she starts to see two ghosts – a man and a woman, who she deduces used to be a valet and her predecessor at the house. She grows convinced that they want to take control of the angelic children, and so does everything she can to stop them. Needless to say, it doesn’t end well.
The knot at the heart of the book is whether or not we believe the governess. She is such a persuasive, powerful narrator that, at first, it is hard to doubt her. You can’t fail to be sucked in, terrified of the ghosts, unnerved that the children seem to be in cahoots with them.
Yet, read it more closely, and you see that Henry James encourages us to question the reliability of her narrative. She is by the lake with Flora, one of the children, when she sees the ghost of the old governess. Flora is apparently ignorant of the ghost, and yet this is how she reports the incident to Mrs Grose, the housekeeper:
‘Two hours ago, in the garden’ – I could scarce articulate – ‘Flora saw!’
Mrs Grose took it as she might have taken a blow in the stomach. ‘She has told you?’ she panted.
‘Not a word – that’s the horror. She kept it to herself! The child of eight, that child!’ Unutterable still for me was the stupefaction of it.
Mrs Grose of course could only gape the wider. ‘Then how do you know?’
‘I was there – I saw with my eyes: saw she was perfectly aware.’
Henry James voices our doubts through Mrs Grose. How exactly does the governess know? How much do we trust what she saw with her eyes? We grow aware of quite how subjective her account is.
The ‘unreliable narrator’ is perhaps the ultimate Jamesian trope and one of those things that make teachers sweat with excitement. Once you start to question the governess, it is easy to jump on that school of thought that sees her as an unreliable narrator – mad, suffering from hysteria or from a displacement of her own anxiety or whatever else might explain these hallucinations or fabrications. Yet James doesn’t let you off so easily. He doesn’t make it irrefutably clear that the governess is making it up; there remains the distinct terrifying possibility that the ghosts are real.
Once you become aware of this knot, you see that every paragraph can be read both ways – as proof of the governess’s unreliability, or of the ghosts’ existence. It lends the book an intense claustrophobia, as its pages begin to close in on you and you feel desperate but unable to escape. I suppose it’s not unlike how the governess must feel – stuck in the house in the middle of nowhere with only ghosts and haunted children for company.
People get wretchedly caught up trying to argue this one way of the other. Truman Capote thought the ghosts were real; Edmund Wilson thought the governess was mad. It’s an argument that could go on forever. Henry James is the master of ambiguity. He teasingly tells us, when the friends are gathered round the fire:
The story won’t tell.
(His italics.) No, indeed it won’t.
In his Preface to the New York Edition of his work, James wrote the following about The Turn of the Screw. It comes at the end of a paragraph about different types of fairy tale:
The charm of all these things for the distracted modern mind is in the clear field of experience, as I call it, over which we are thus led to roam; an annexed but independent world in which nothing is right save as we rightly imagine it.
I love this idea of a fairy tale as ‘an annexed but independent world in which nothing is right save as we rightly imagine it’. This is what makes The Turn of the Screw at once intoxicating and terrifying. The governess imagines the ghosts and so they are ‘right’ and real to her. It is up to us whether we decide to go along with her and imagine the ghosts too, or whether we decide not to. What is right or not depends entirely on our imagination. Not just a fairy tale, but all fiction is a place where imagination roams free, and in The Turn of the Screw we see the horrifying edge to this – we are tantalisingly close to what might happen if we let our imagination roam a little too freely.