The Turn of The Screw, by Henry James – Book Review

The Turn of the Screw

This month Allie (Hist-Fic Chick) and I are featuring Harrowing Historicals in our Month Long Celebration of All Hallows, in other words, books with a scary bent that take place before 1960.

In The Turn of the Screw, Henry James has written as much a Rorschach test as a ghost story.  Craftily put together, this tale leaves it up to the reader to determine the real forces, supernatural or psychological, that may be at play in the lives of a young governess, housekeeper and their two beautiful young charges.

The Turn of the Screw is not a James book that had been on my radar.  More know to me were Daisy Miller and Portrait of A Lady.  It was when I read The Little Stranger and heard about all of the comparisons between that book and this one that my interest was piqued. James cleverly stages his novella, which is easily read over the course of a few hours, as a story within a story – dropping several clues about the character and situation of the governess.  It is her manuscript which comprises the bulk of The Turn of the Screw. The framework of the framing story is what reels the reader in, in the intimation that this story is one worth waiting for, and based upon on events that actually happened to a young woman (she know the man in possession of her papers). He may have been in love with her, though it seems that she loved someone else.

James’ dexterity with the complex ambiguity of this narrative is admirable. from the very beginning, readers will think they know what is between the governess, and the children, Miles and Flora.  I was absolutely on pins and needles trying to figure out which way the story would go, and for me the ending bore out the way that I suspected that it would – but I think the same can probably be said for any reading applied.  Therein lies the beauty.  Although I must admit, that it was also a very frustrating read for many of the same reasons.  I spent a lot of time with the language and with my feelings about the veracity of the governess.  Everything hinges on whether or not you think she is telling the truth.  There is also an interesting class dynamic at play between the governess and the housekeeper.

I wasn’t particularly scared by anything I encountered, and my threshold for being scared is pretty low, so keep that mind if you are looking for something terrifying to read.  This isn’t it.  There is an uncomfortable tension throughout the novella that made it into a page turner, but I was able to sleep just fine.

1DA652C2516038AE4D02F55645591F39 Shutter Island, by Dennis Lehane

Make sure you check out Allie’s review of Dracula in Love, by the fabulous Karen Essex. Allie and I were both impressed by the broader perspective of late eighteenth century British community and society which is explored in Dracula in Love.

And just a reminder, Harrowing Historical giveaway prize packs will be awarded on Halloween night at midnight. Leaving a comment on any Harrowing Historical post automatically enters you for one of the many prize packs.  You can also link up to reviews of your own harrowing historical reads at the main introduction post.  We would love to hear about the other spooky books you have read in this vein.

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14 Comments

  1. This one hasn’t really been on my radar screen either but I’m adding it to my future list. I like a good page turner that keeps me thinking.

  2. I tried this several years ago and couldn’t get into it. However, a podcast that live acts/read classic tales has recently posted this one. Hopefully in that format I will be able to listen to it. Lovely review gals 🙂

  3. I had to read this book for class about two years ago and I thoroughly enjoyed it. At its conclusion I thought it revealed as much about the reader as it did about the author. Many of us in the class had slightly different interpretations and I found that fascinating.

  4. I listened to this story one day at work and just did not get the appeal. I’m wondering if I’d like it more if I read it because so many people seem to really enjoy it. Perhaps a bit more of a focus on it on my part.

  5. I haven’t read this in a hundred years. James was never my favorite but I remember that this one wasn’t so bad. That’s about all I can recall about the book.

  6. This book has been recommended to me but I’ve not got round to it yet. I like the aspect you allude to, the governess telling the truth or not, it sounds really interesting. I wasn’t aware of the short length, maybe I’ll read it sooner.

  7. I can’t remember if I’ve read this book or not. I seem to recognize some things, and Jason thinks I read it, but if I did, I don’t remember! I need to reread it.

  8. I didn’t realize The Little Stranger and The Turn of the Screw shared similarities! Of course, I haven’t read either one, which probably doesn’t help! I’m intrigued now. I like it when contemporary books draw on classics.