The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

I keep coming across books that are said to have been inspired by or similar to Henry James’ 1898 classic The Turn of the ScrewFlorence and Giles by John Harding, This House is Haunted by John Boyne and The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware, to name a few – so it seemed ridiculous that I still hadn’t read the book itself. I decided to put it on my list for this year’s R.I.P. challenge, and have finally read it, appropriately just in time for Halloween.

The Turn of the Screw is presented as a ghost story told to a group of friends sitting round the fire at Christmas. It tells of two children left in the care of an uncle after the deaths of their parents. Not wanting to be bothered by his little niece and nephew, the uncle employs a young woman as their governess, giving her strict instructions not to contact him with any complaints or questions and to deal with any problems herself. The governess, who remains unnamed throughout the story, arrives at the family estate, Bly, and gets to know Flora, the younger of her two charges. Flora’s brother, Miles, is away at school but shortly after the governess’s arrival, he returns home, having been expelled. The governess can’t understand this, as Miles, like his sister, appears to be so charming and angelic.

When the governess begins to see two mysterious figures around the grounds of the estate, however, she begins to wonder whether the children are really as innocent as they seem. Learning from the housekeeper that the two figures she has seen closely resemble two previous Bly employees – Miss Jessel and Peter Quint, both of whom are now dead – the governess becomes convinced that she is seeing ghosts. But are the ghosts a figment of her imagination or do they really exist? Are Flora and Miles, as she strongly suspects, secretly aware of them too? And if so, what hold do the ghosts have over the children?

I do wish I’d read this book before now; it was a quick, short read and it would undoubtedly have been better to have read it before reading all those other novels it inspired! Already being familiar with the general outline of the plot before I began did spoil things a little bit, although I still found that some parts of the story were new to me. I didn’t find it particularly scary, which in a way I was pleased about as I live alone and don’t like to be terrified – but I was also slightly disappointed because surely a good ghost story should be scary. Anyway, it was certainly unsettling, mainly because of the ambiguity. Because of the governess’s unreliability as a narrator, we have to decide for ourselves whether the ghosts are real or whether they are not – and there are other questions that are never fully answered either, such as the true nature of the children’s relationship with Jessel and Quint or what exactly Miles said and did to get expelled from school.

This is the second book I’ve read by Henry James and although I found it more entertaining than my first (The Europeans), I don’t think I’m ever going to be a fan of his writing style which I find very dry and difficult to engage with. I’m glad I’ve read this one at last and I will try more of his books, but I’m not expecting him to become a favourite author.

This is book #7 read for this year’s R.I.P. event.

27 thoughts on “The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

  1. Leelynn @ Sometimes Leelynn Reads says:

    I’m so glad that it didn’t terrify you! I don’t live alone but most nights I am the only human in my house so I can’t afford to freak myself out. I’m so curious about this one now. I never read it because I just can’t do classics for some reason, but I am so intrigued to find out whether or not they are actually ghosts or something else. I feel like I’d think they were ghosts even though they aren’t confirmed.

    • Helen says:

      I assumed they were real ghosts for most of the book – it was only when I got to the end that I started to question it. It’s definitely an intriguing book, and yes, I’m glad I wasn’t too frightened by it!

  2. piningforthewest says:

    I read and quite enjoyed this one some years ago, I think the only other thing by him I’ve read is The Aspern Papers, but again – years ago so I can’t have been too enamoured of his writing. I’m definitely not into scary tales, and I don’t live alone!

  3. J.E. Fountain says:

    not a fan of Henry James myself, but this definitely sounds intriguing. It also sound unusual for HJ. There is a movie version coming out in Jan 2020, just called The Turning

    • Helen says:

      Based on the two books I’ve read, I’m not a fan either, but I enjoyed this one a bit more than the first so will give him another chance to impress me. I’ll look out for The Turning!

  4. cirtnecce says:

    I had exactly the same feeling after reading this book; I was unsettled, the ending did not really make sense and I was not scared! I mean I do not want to be scared but I do feel there should be some element of thrill or something after reading a horror novel.

    • Helen says:

      Although I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I’d hoped to, I did love the ambiguity of it all! I haven’t seen the film but I would like to now that I’ve read the book.

  5. Alyson Woodhouse says:

    I wonder why the Turn of the Screw has inspired so many re-tellings? Unsettling is about right, I don’t remember being especially frightened by it, and the governess got on my nerves for some reason. Skimming through your reviews of the other books you mentioned here, I’m intrigued by Florence and Gyles, as the story may appear different narrated from the point of view of one of the children themselves. I’ve added it to my TBR.

    • Helen says:

      I found the governess quite annoying too, though I can’t really explain why. I can’t remember much about Florence and Giles now, but I know I enjoyed it a lot more than this book. The writing style was quite unusual, but I loved it.

  6. Judy Krueger says:

    It is always interesting to read the origin of so many other tales. I tried one Henry James book once and never finished it, do not remember the title, so there you have it. I think he and Edith Wharton were great friends and I have enjoyed quite a few of her books.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I found the book interesting from the point of view of understanding its influence on other authors. I haven’t read much by Edith Wharton, but I do prefer her writing to Henry James’.

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