[For this year’s installment in my annual Halloween series, I’ll be AmericanStudying ghosts in American society and popular culture. Boo (in the best sense)!]
On two cultural fears lurking beneath Henry James’s gripping ghost story.
If you had told me back when my teaching career began that Henry James’s 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw would be one of the texts I would teach most frequently, I’d likely have reacted much like Mrs. Grose does when the Governess tells her about seeing the ghost of Peter Quint (inside Turn of the Screw joke, my bad—that means incredulously). But because Turn works so well as a foundation onto which to stack literary theories and critical frames, I’ve taught the ghost story/psychological thriller/potboiler/Victorian class study/metafictional masterpiece numerous times in both my undergraduate Approaches to English Studies and graduate Literary Theory: Practical Applications courses (as well as in my Major Author: Henry James course). It’s a fun and engaging book, with so many layers that I’m continually discovering new ones along with the students in each such class. But it’s also a horror story (whether the horror is supernatural or psychological, which depends on how you read it), and as I’ve argued in this space many times, horror stories almost always reveal shared cultural narratives and fears.
In the case of Turn, many of those embedded cultural fears focus on the story’s two young children, Miles and Flora, and what might be (as the governess-narrator sees it, at least) corrupting their innocent minds and souls. The more obvious (of the two I’ll highlight in this post, anyway—nothing is truly straightforward in James’s tortured text) corrupting forces have to do with sex and sexuality. The ghosts who may or may not be haunting or possessing Miles and Flora are of two former servants: Peter Quint, a manservant of whose sexual perversions we hear repeatedly but vaguely; and Miss Jessel, a nanny who was apparently pregnant (perhaps by Quint, perhaps by the children’s uncle) at the time of her mysterious death (likely a suicide). A number of Victorian fears overlap in those details, from worries about working-class influences on upper-class children to mores about sexual freedom. But I would argue that by far the most damning fears at play here have to do specifically with homosexuality, and with the possibly that Quint has corrupted young Miles in that vein (Miles finally admits, if still vaguely, that he “said things” to male friends at school that he should not have said, leading to his expulsion). In an era when Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for homosexuality, it’s fair to say that James is not overstating the cultural panic over such “perversions.”
There’s another 19th century cultural fear potentially buried within the stories of Miles and Flora, however. In the novella’s complex prologue/frame, we learn that the children had initially lived with their parents in the British colony of India; it was only after they were orphaned that they returned to England to live with their bachelor uncle. That’s the last we hear of India in any overt way in the text—neither Miles (10 years old) nor Flora (8) seems to have any memories of their childhood there, or at least none that they share with the governess. Which is, of course, an important distinction to make—the entire novella hinges on the question of what the children are hiding from the governess, and so it’s entirely fair to imagine that there might be secrets other than those of their prior servants that they do not divulge to her (and thus to us, since she’s our narrator and sole perspective). In any case, in an era when James’s home country of the United States was debating seriously the possibility of becoming an empire, and when his adopted country of Great Britain was considering whether and how its empire was worth sustaining, it’s at least important to note that James decides to include this imperial history within the children’s backstory, to make it a part of the heritage and identity of these two troubled young people.
Next GhostStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other ghost stories or histories you’d share?