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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