The Turn of the Screw and The Aspern Papers – Henry James

There is something about the classics that just wouldn’t go away. Not that I want it to, I have to add. Every now and then I feel the need for the convoluted language, the turned phrases, the intricately constructed sentences that make my head spin and my mind feel like I’ve just been mentally tortured. And yet, it is a sweet torture, and one I find comfort in from time to time.

The only other book by Henry James I’ve read was The Portrait of a Lady and while I wasn’t exactly swept away by it, I refused to give up on the author, at least not until I have had the chance to read more of his writing. After all, it took me three books to get to like Paulo Coelho’s work: The Zahir was just not for me – too ‘fantastical’ and liberal, the adventure in The Alchemist I liked very much, while Brida fell somehow in the middle.
That is why, when I saw the two short novellas between the same covers, I knew it was time to give Henry James another chance.

The Turn of the Screw tells the story of a 20 year old governess who finds a job caring for two orphans at an old house in the English countryside. Her employer, a young bachelor, is willing to pay handsomely for her services, and he only asks that under no circumstances is he to be involved in the whole matter from that point on.
The two little children, his niece and nephew, prove to be perfect little darlings, the dream of every governess: beautiful, attentive, smart and obedient, one can only wonder how nature created such perfection. Their names are Flora and Miles and they live under the care of the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose.
For a while, everything seems perfect – even though the return of little Giles, who was dismissed from boarding school, triggers the first sign of doubt as to the boy’s behavior. Then the new governess starts seeing people whom she shouldn’t be able to see because they were dead; in time she becomes convinced those people want to harm the children. It becomes her life’s mission to protect them but as she is trying to do so, there’s a notable change in the behavior of the children.

The end is strange to say the least – one can only draw their own conclusion, as the events leading to that point are just as strange. Things are far from being clear and I was left with many unanswered questions. It’s one of those books where you are led in step by step with the promise of a good denouement only to be left at the end to fill in the blanks with your own version. Normally I wouldn’t have any problem with that (I do like to have the option of choosing my own ending) but in this case the whole story was too foggy to make a lot of sense.

What I liked:
– The young bachelor – I kind of hoped the author would give more clues as to how he came to be the guardian of the two children. And what happened to his brother anyway?
– The whole atmosphere, very dark and creepy.
– The governess – she seemed like such a nice dedicated person.

What I didn’t like:
– Too much confusion. Why were the “ghosts” haunting the house and more specifically what was their connection with the children? I feel like I’m missing something but I don’t know what. Maybe I should read it again. Maybe I should take notes.

The Turn of the Screw reminded me of another book, The Woman in Black by Susan Hill – the narrator reads (or remembers, in the case of the latter book here mentioned) a story involving some sort of ghost. Both have a woman dressed in black as one of the characters, and both involve children. The Turn of the Screw is much more devious in its ambiguity – the conversations are so cleverly constructed as to be both terribly intriguing and absolutely ambiguous, a trick I appreciated and admired even though I didn’t like it very much.
Did I enjoy the story? I did. I just wish there was more to it.


The Aspern Papers

What would you do to get the thing you want the most? For the protagonist of this story, the answer is ‘quite a lot’.
The story is set in Venice, home of the water canals, gondolas and old palaces. The narrator, an admirer of the famous American poet Jeffrey Aspern, makes it his goal to locate and read the famous correspondence of the late poet. He embarks on a mission to get acquainted with Juliana Bordereau, an old lover of the poet, in the hope of getting access to the letters and other important papers he suspects she keeps under lock and key. The old woman lives with a niece, Tina, a rather gullible and harmless spinster.
Under the pretext of looking for some rented rooms where he can write undisturbed, the man succeeds in persuading the two ladies that he will make an excellent tenant and not even Juliana’s exorbitant rent deters him from his purpose. His greatest fear is that the old woman will burn the letters before she dies and so he decides to confide in Miss Tina who promises to help.

This is a rather neat story – the man who warms his way into the house under false pretenses finds himself trapped by the unexpected turn of events caused by the death of Juliana. He is given a choice, one that could get him what he wants but which comes with a dear price and while he resists at first, in the end his determination to get those famous papers wins. But it is too late – the deceiver is deceived and he is forced to give up his plans.
I liked this story – reading it felt like a game in which I got to watch as each player made his move: Juliana, who in the end realizes what the man wants and is determined to make him pay (in more ways than one) for his foolishness, and the protagonist, whose obsession and admiration for the great poet makes him go to great lengths to get those valuable papers. Miss Tina seemed like such a harmless creature but in the end it is she who turns things around. I have to admit I underestimated her role in the story and I was punished for it.

Now I can safely say I like Henry James a little bit better. Even though both stories were gloomy, they managed to keep me guessing until the last moment (nothing predictable here, fortunately). The author’s capacity to reveal the cunning side of his characters is admirable – appearances are deceiving and the one who falls into that trap has to pay for his mistake.

*Read in August 2011

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10 Responses to The Turn of the Screw and The Aspern Papers – Henry James

  1. Vishy says:

    Glad to know that you liked these novellas by Henry James! I always used to get confused between Henry James’ ‘The Turn of the Screw’ and Shakespeare’s ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ 🙂 I haven’t read ‘The Turn of the Screw’, but have the movie version of it called ‘The Innocents’ starring Deborah Kerr. I should watch it sometime. I have read ‘The Aspern Papers’ and liked it when I read it. Miss Tina is definitely an underestimated character in the story till she surprises the reader in the end. Thanks for these wonderful reviews!

    • Delia says:

      I can understand why you would get confused. 🙂 I haven’t read “The Turn of the Screw” – Shakespeare is kind of like Henry James for me, I’ll have to read more of his work to decide if I like it or not.

  2. Ella says:

    I am sad to say I have not read Henry James. I am curious now, thanks to your review!
    Reminds me of a movie called “The Others” with Nicole Kidman. I will have to add it to my list~ Nice to meet you~

    • Delia says:

      Hi Ella,
      If you are new to Henry James I recommend you start with these two stories. They are not too long and they would make for a good warm up if you decide to try one of his longer stories after that (“The portrait of a Lady” is a thick book if memory serves me right).
      Thanks for dropping by, I’ll come over to your blog for a visit soon.

  3. I get a kick out of your use of “punished” here. I must be a masochist, because I never have any idea what’s going on in a mystery, so everything takes me by surprise. Even better, I never remember what happened afterwards, so the book is usually good for a re-read down the line. I’m not proud of all this, mind.

    • Delia says:

      Reading the classics is not always easy for me but I do my best. 🙂 Sometimes I scratch my head in wonder and sometimes I have to go back and re-read passages to make sure I get it right, but I enjoy it.
      If I can see what happens next it’s kind of a letdown, that is unless the book is really well written and is worth reading for that alone.
      Thanks for coming by, I’ll return the visit.

  4. Nishita says:

    For a classic, Turn of the Screw is extremely readable. In fact, I have read it multiple times simply because I keep trying to figure out my solution. I think that’s what I love about this book, that you could interpret it in so many different ways.

    • Delia says:

      Hi Nishita, nice to meet you.
      This is one of those books that need to be re-read. Hopefully next time I’ll be able to make more sense of the story. I really enjoyed the dialogue, very intriguing and cleverly constructed; I prefer to think that the governess wasn’t crazy after all.

  5. Deb Atwood says:

    I enjoyed your discussion of The Turn of the Screw. I think your mixed views work perfectly with the ambiguity of the book. I reviewed that one as well:

    It would be fun if someone at RIP chose this book, too!

    • Delia says:

      Hi Deb,
      I think this is one of those books that need to be re-read in order to be fully appreciated. I did like the whole atmosphere even if I was somewhat dissatisfied with the ending.
      I’ll come and read your review.

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