Tuesday, 26 May 1998

Henry James: The Aspern Papers / The Turn of the Screw (1898)

Edition: Penguin, 1984
Review number: 53, 54 (combined)

The Aspern Papers is a story of a scholarly obsession. The narrator is an expert on the (imaginary) American poet, Jeffrey Aspern. He and a friend are working on a biography of Aspern, when they discover that his lover, the inspiration for some of his most famous poems, is not dead as they expected but living as a reclusive old lady in Venice with her niece.

Believing her to have some papers which might make his name academically, and the direct approach to the old lady to ask for them having failed, the narrator makes his way to Venice determined to trick the Misses Bordereau (as they are known) into giving them up. He takes a room in their palazzo under an assumed name, paying an extortionate rent to do so.

The story is really about obsession, and its dehumanising effects; the narrator is prepared to do just about anything to get his hands on the papers - and he doesn't know what is in them, so they could be completely meaningless - up to the point of making love to the neice and attempting to steal the papers by rifling through the old lady's furniture while she lies on her deathbed.

The Turn of the Screw is one of the most famous ghost stories ever written, and is a psychological horror story to rival any written since. Like many ghost stories, it begins at a houseparty where people are telling stories; the first person narrator of this part tells his friends that he needs to obtain the journal that he received from the woman whose story it is, and forces them all to wait for several days while this is sent for.

The story then, consists of that journal; it must be remembered when reading this, and even more so when reading some of the theories people have had about this short novel, that a first person narrative is liable to distortion. The Turn of the Screw is, like The Aspern Papers, a study in obsession.

The narrator is hired as a governess by a strange man she immediately falls in love with. She is to go to his country house and there take on the education of two small children, his brother's children. One, Flora, will be permanently under her care; the other, Miles, will be for her to look after during his vacation from school. But there is a mysterious condition, not explained anywhere by James, that she must under no circumstances bother her employer with reports about the children.

On arriving, she discovers that Miles has now been expelled from his school for some awful crime which is unnamed in the letter sent by the headmaster. The governess' immediate response is to disbelieve that such an angelic child can possibly have done anything wicked whatsoever.

This feeling starts to change when she begins to see two important figures from the children's past, two figures emanating evil: Miss Jessel, Flora's previous governess, and Peter Quint, servant and Miss Jessel's lover. These are the people who have corrupted the angelic children, and these are the presences who are continuing to corrupt the children.

The book develops with a struggle for "possession" of the children between the living and the dead, which ends with Miles being freed from the influence of Quint only to die himself.

The reason this novel is so disturbing is because of the apparent innocence of the children. The struggle is for control over (or even, possession of) the children, so it is not surprising that many modern readers see suggestions of paedophilia in the story. I'm not sure how much James meant this to be read into this story; it is more than effective without the idea.

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