Lately, my husband has been reading The Ambassadors by Henry James. I haven’t read James almost at all (The Golden Bowl, but many years ago) and I thought I would renew my acquaintance with his most famous ghost story, The Turn of the Screw.
But is it a ghost story? Critics and readers have debated ever since the novella’s publication whether the menacing ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel are real, or whether the unnamed governess whose story we are hearing is mad. The entire novella is a dance in ambiguity, and Henry James’s long sentences and “roundabout allusions” (as the governess says) add to the sense of muffled anxiety and confusion.
Underneath the suspense and the chill of the ghosts, this is (among other things) a story about class and gender. The difference of class between the governess and Mrs. Grose, between Quint and Miss Jessel, between Quint and Miles, between the governess and the children, between the two women and the servants — all of these things weave into the story to create the heavy sense of enforced silence. There are things the servants can’t hear; there are things Mrs. Grose can’t say because she can’t write; there are things Miles and Flora won’t tell the governess; Quint was “no gentleman”.
The barriers of gender are equally important. Miles — and remember he is only ten — is the only vocal male character in a houseful of women. His relationship with the governess, in which he treats her as an equal or even an inferior, and flirts with her (“my dear”) is eerie in the extreme, more troubling to me than the ghost sightings. The governess admits that she cannot control (or protect?) Miles because of his sex and class, and some of her… appreciation, let’s say, for the children’s guardian seems to come out in her treatment of this little boy. The very fact that the guardian has removed himself completely from the household affairs makes him into a kind of ghost: the children talk about him and write him unsent letters, even though it’s clear that he will never come to see them. His power to obscure, like Miles’s, is in his sex and class. Yet the main voice in the story is, of course, that of the governess, relating all the events as she sees them.
There’s also James’s conspicuous literariness. I’ve already mentioned his long and tightly-constructed sentences. He sets the story up with a framing device, and in the end this novella has three narrators: the original narrator (a stand-in for the author), Douglas, and finally the governess herself. The layering of this narration isn’t carried out at the end of the story, with its abrupt tragedy. We don’t hear Douglas’s interpretation of events, or the original narrator’s, or even the governess’s. Instead, we’re forced to engage with the impossibility of knowing what really happened — or whether, in the story-ness of this story, any of it happened at all.
It’s no wonder that this novella has had staying power, even though it’s genre fiction (!). It’s a perfectly-executed exemplar of craft; it’s a thrill ride with confusing twists and turns; it’s a meditation on class, gender, and silence. It’s prepared me, I think, for more Henry James.