Monthly Archives: January 2009

Critical condition

Reactions to the Royal Opera’s production of Die tote Stadt are slowly starting to roll in; some have been favorable, others not so much.

As I read through that second group of reviews I kept thinking about Hugo Wolf’s “Abschied,” the very last song in the marvelous set of Mörike-Lieder. The poem tells of a man who is visited quite unexpectedly one evening by a critic.

I’ll let Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore take it from there…


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The most monstrous and incredible ghost-story

One last contemporary reaction to “Turn of the Screw,” this time from the December, 1898, issue of The Critic. Quite a contrast from the scathing critique I posted yesterday!

“The subject matter of ‘The Turn of the Screw’ is also made up of feminine intuitions, but the heroine–this time a governess–has nothing in the least substantial upon which to base her deep and startling cognitions. She perceives what is beyond all perception, and the reader who begins by questioning whether she is supposed to be sane ends by accepting her conclusions and thrilling over the horrors they involve. The story, in brief, concerns itself with the hideous fate of two beautiful and charming children who have been subjected to the baneful and corrupting influence of two evil-intentioned servants. These, dying, are unable to give up their hold upon so much beauty and charm, but while suffering the torments of damnation, come back to haunt the children as influences of horror and evil, with a ‘fury of intentions’ to complete the  ruin they have begun. The story is told by the governess, who recounts her slow recognition of the situation and her efforts to shield and save her charges. It is the most monstrous and incredible ghost-story that ever was written. At the same time it grasps the imagination in a vise. The reader is bound to the end by the spell, and if, when the lids of the book are closed, he is not convinced as to the possibility of such horrors, he is at least sure that Mr. James has produced an imaginative masterpiece.”

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The holiest and sweetest fountain of human innocence

The unnamed author of this third reaction to “Turn of the Screw,” which appeared in the January 5, 1899, issue of a publication called The Independent, lays it all out on the table in that first sentence. Note the strong emphasis on the  children’s innocence and vulnerability in this review.

“‘The Turn of the Screw’ is the most hopelessly evil story that we have ever read in any literature, ancient or modern. How Mr. James could, or how any man or woman could, choose to make such a study of internal human debauchery, for it is nothing else, is unaccountable. It is the story of two orphan children, mere infants, whose guardian leaves them in a lonely English country house. The little boy and little girl, at the toddling period of life, when they are but helpless babes, fall under the influence of a governess and her lover who poison the very core of their conscience and character and defile their souls in a way and by means darkly and subtly hinted rather than portrayed by Mr. James. The study, while it exhibits Mr. James’s genius in a powerful light, affects the reader with a disgust that is not to be expressed. The feeling after perusal of the horrible story is that one has been assisting in an outrage upon the holiest and sweetest fountain of human innocence, and helping to debauch at least by helplessly standing by the pure and trusting nature of children. Human imagination can go no further into infamy, literary art could not be used with more refined subtlety of spiritual defilement.”

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Mr. James’s new book

Following up on my previous post, here’s another contemporary reaction to James’s “Turn of the Screw,” published in the November, 1898, issue of The Bookman.

“Mr. James is in a queer mood. Nearly all his later stories have been tending to the horrible, have been stories of evil, beneath the surface mostly, and of corruption. His genius is essentially a healthy one, we have always felt, and he has had great respect in times past for the convenances. He does not outrage them now; his manners are perfect, even in his late studies of the putrescence of human existence…The circumstances, the conditions, in ‘The Turn of the Screw,’ all make for purity, beauty, and joy; and on the surface these are resplendent. But underneath is a sink of corruption, never uncovered, but darkly, potently hinted. One’s heart cries out against the picture of the terrible possiblity; for the corrupted are children of tender years. Every inch of the picture seems an outrage in our first heat. Even in colder moments, if we admit the fact of infant depravity, if we own that children are supreme actors, and can bar doors on their elders most effectually, we must deny the continuity and the extent of the corruption as suggested here. Mr. James has used symbolism to help him out with his theme; so, at least, we may speak of the two ghosts–one of a rascally valet, the other of an iniquitous governess–the origins of the evil in their lifetime, who haunt the children after their death. Their horrible invitations to evil are joyfully responded to. We have never read a more sickening, a more gratuitously melancholy tale. It has all Mr. James’s cleverness, even his grace. The plottings of the good governess and the faithful Mrs. Grose to combat the evil, very gradually discovered, are marvellously real. You cannot help but assist at their interviews, and throb with their anxiety. You are amply convinced of the extraordinary charm of the children, of the fascination they exercise over all with whom they come in contact. The symbolism is clumsy; but only there in the story has Mr. James actually failed. It is not so much from a misunderstanding of child nature that he has plunged into the deep mistake of writing the story at all. Here, as elsewhere in his work, there are unmistakable signs of a close watchfulness and a loving admiration of children of the more distinguished order. A theory has run away with him. It is flimsily built on a few dark facts, so scattered and uncertain that they cannot support a theory at all. He has used his amiable knowledge of child life in its brighter phases to give a brilliant setting to this theory. His marvellous subtlety lends his examination of the situation an air of scientific precision. But the clever result is very cruel and untrue.”

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The magic of evil

Ever since its initial publication in 1898, Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw” has been the focus of perhaps more scholarly and critical debate than just about any other piece of short fiction in the English language. It is without a doubt the author’s most widely discussed work, largely because by half concealing what it half reveals, the story allows for, and even encourages, an almost endless array of  interpretive possibilities. In his 1908 preface to the New York Edition of “The Turn of the Screw,” James’s attempts at downplaying the complexity of the tale–it is, he says, “a piece of ingenuity pure and simple, of cold artistic calculation, an amusette to catch those not easily caught … , the jaded, the disillusioned, the fastidious”–really only serve to invite the kind of analysis and exploration he claims it doesn’t warrant. It’s not surprising, then, that “Turn of the Screw” has elicited such diverse views and opinions over the years, and that it will continue to do so for years to come.

I’ll have more to say about a few of these views and opinions later on. For now, though, I’d like to start off with some contemporary reactions to “The Turn of the Screw,” spread out over three or four posts. I hope you find these glimpses into the mind of a late-nineteenth-century American critic interesting and entertaining.

This first excerpt is taken from the October 15, 1898 issue of The New York Times Saturday Review of Books and Art. Note how the unidentified author of the piece refers to Miles and Flora as “accursed, or all but damned,” and Miss Jessel as “vicious.”

“‘The Turn of the Screw’ is such a deliberate, powerful, and horribly successful study of the magic of evil, of the subtle influence over human hearts and minds of the sin with which this world is accursed, as our language has not produced since Stevenson wrote his ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ tale, a work to which this is not akin in any other sense than the one here specified….We have called it ‘horribly successful,’ and the phrase seems to still stand, on second thought, to express the awful, almost overpowering sense of the evil that human nature is subject to derived from it by the sensitive reader. We have no doubt that with such a reader Mr. James will invariably produce exactly the effect he aims at. But the work is not horrible in any grotesque or ‘realistic ‘ sense. The strongest and most affecting argument against sin we have lately encountered in literature (without forcing any didactic purpose upon the reader) it is nevertheless free from the slightest hint of grossness. Of any precise form of evil Mr. James says very little, and on this head he is never explicit. Yet, while the substance of his story is free from all impurity and the manner is always graceful and scrupulously polite, the very breath of hell seems to pervade some of its chapters, and in the outcome goodness, though depicted as alert and militant, is scarcely triumphant….[Miles and Flora] are accursed, or all but damned, and are shown to have daily, almost hourly, communication with lost souls, the souls that formerly inhabited the bodies of a vicious governess and her paramour, who, in the flesh, began the degradation of their vicitims. The awful ‘imagination of evil’ this fair boy and girl must possess, the oldness of the heart and soul in each young body, the terribly precocity which enables them to deceive their ‘pastors and masters’ as to their knowledge of the presence of their ghostly mentors, these set forth with perfect clearness and the sobriety of a matter-of-fact narrative are what serve to produce the thrilling effect.”

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A piece of ingenuity plain and simple

I mentioned in my last post that I wanted to provide a brief synopsis of James’s “Turn of the Screw,” and so here, in greatly reduced form, are what seem to me to be the main events of the story.

In an old house on Christmas Eve, a man named Douglas tells of his sister’s governess, who had reported seeing ghosts several years ago and had recorded her experiences in a manuscript that is now in his possession. As Douglas relays the story, we learn that the governess was hired to take care of the orphaned niece and nephew of a handsome bachelor living in London. As a condition of employment, the uncle stipulated that the governess was to deal with any problems on her own and that she was never, under any circumstance, to contact him about any aspect of the children’s upbringing or education.

The governess’s story actually begins on the day she arrives at Bly, the remote country estate that will be her home. Whatever reservations she might have expressed about the enormity of her position are quickly put to rest when she meets the friendly housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, the helpful staff and servants, and eight-year-old Flora, whose beauty and charm completely captivate her. The next day the governess is surprised to receive a letter from her employer which contains a note from Miles’s headmaster telling of the boy’s expulsion from school. Mrs. Grose informs her that Miles may on occasion misbehave, but no more than most children his age. The governess is satisfied with this explanation, and she prepares to pick Miles up from the train station.

Despite this temporary disruption, it’s clear that the governess is adjusting nicely to the daily routine of her new surroundings, and she even fantasizes about how wonderful it would be if her employers could observe just how well she’s doing. One afternoon, while taking a casual stroll around the grounds of the estate, she spies an unidentified man standing on a tower attached to part of the house. At first she thinks this might very well be the children’s uncle, but upon further investigation, she realizes that she’s mistaken. Some time later, she spies this same individual peering in dining room window, and she runs outside to investigate. Mrs. Grose, who did not see the figure this second time, is nevertheless able to identify it from the description the governess provides—it is, she declares, Peter Quint, the uncle’s recently deceased valet.

The governess next spots the image of a woman, which Mrs. Grose subsequently determines to be that of the children’s former governess, Miss Jessel, who has been dead for about a year. Upon further questioning, the housekeeper divulges that Quint and Miss Jessel were lovers and that Flora and Miles may have been involved in some way in the relationship. The governess quickly concludes that the apparitions are interested in the children, who in turn seem to know that the spirits have returned for them, and that she must protect her young charges at all costs.

Following a confrontation with Miss Jessel in the classroom of the house, the governess catches sight of her predecessor standing on the bank of a nearby lake. When she asks Flora whether she is aware of the apparition, the young girl denies being able to make out anything. The stress of the governess’s interrogation is too much for Flora to bear. She begs to be taken back to the house, where she spends the night screaming obscenities at Mrs. Grose.

The governess decides that the housekeeper should accompany Flora to London. Left alone with Miles, she plies him for details about his unexplained activities at school and urges him to confess to stealing a letter intended for the child’s uncle. Soon, she glimpses Peter Quint staring in the window at her. Although Miles cannot see the apparition, he cries out its name, then falls lifeless into the governess’s arms.

There is, to be sure, much, much more to “Turn of the Screw” than I’ve hinted at here. The story has generated perhaps more critical discussion and debate than any other in the English language, and for good reason. It’s an amazingly rich, dense, and complex tale, one that raises all kinds of fascinating questions about interpretation, and one that continues to confound anyone who tries to come to terms with it.

I’ll talk more about some of the issues associated with the story’s critical reception in my next post.

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Turning the screw

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be blogging quite a bit about Benjamin Britten’s Turn of the Screw and the Henry James novella that served as the basis for its libretto. (To make the distinction between the two a little clearer, I’ll use italics when referring to the opera and quotation marks for James’s tale.)  I’m interested in exploring some of the areas that have struck me most about the story and Britten’s operatic treatment of it, and in providing a little additional background information for both versions. If there’s something you’d like me to cover, please drop me a line or send me a comment. (And don’t worry–I promise to post non-Screw-related items too.)

I’ll get things started tomorrow with a brief synopsis of the story and a few observations about its complex critical reception.

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