Wednesday 27 May 2015

The fireside opening, travellers gathered, an intimate narrator with a tale of an English country house, a mysterious, absent owner, a new governess, an old housekeeper, two ghosts, two angelic children, several unexplained deaths by 10pm as I like to say of italian tv: you can revel in the tropes as in creamy summer seas. At least for a while.

The Turn of the Screw by was Henry James' most popular book and his shortest, which is why, snob that I was, I thought when I first read it that it must be an aberration, an exercise in 'general uncanny ugliness and horror and pain'. The children's beauty, the English country house, the English country garden, all are flawed like the golden bowl, not a hairline crack, more of a gash, or many spectral gashes half-revealed. There is more atmosphere than plot, more anguish than causes.
No, no—there are depths, depths! The more I go over it the more I see in it, and the more I see in it the more I fear. I don't know what I don't see—what I don't fear!
Thus the governess. And one of her charges, the boy eventually admits that he was thrown out of school because he said things to a few people, the ones he liked.
Those he liked? I seemed to float not into clearness, but into a darker obscure, and within a minute there had come to me out of my very pity the appalling alarm of his being perhaps innocent. It was for the instant confounding and bottomless, for if he were innocent what then on earth was I?
The horror and the infamy that play about these two sunlit children and the two ghosts (of the previous governess and a valet) in whose power they seem to be held, anticipates the murky darkness of Freud, (The Turn of the Screw was first published in 1898), to say nothing of the lurid and graphic accounts of abuse and false memory to which we are now inured. We can't read it as a ghost story any more.

Not that Henry James knew what he was suggesting. Not exactly knew. (See Cynthia Ozick, What Henry James Knew). He is temperamentally and artistically inclined to leave things open, every motive uncertain, every outcome a maze of suggestion and unresolve. I used to love all that, and still do, when I want to be kind to a former self who grappled endlessly, obtusely with what could and couldn't be said.

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