The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

The Turn of the Screw
Henry James
US, 1898

Every year as summer rolls into autumn, I’m tempted to read something appropriately seasonal—something spooky or mysterious, a story shrouded in mist of the moors or night’s chill darkness. The Hound of the Baskervilles is perhaps my ur-example, but The Turn of the Screw very neatly fits the bill as well. It is—by all outer appearances, at least—a ghost story: an inexperienced governess tasked with overseeing the care of an orphaned brother and sister who are all but neglected by their uncaring uncle soon sees evil in every corner, in the form of ghostly apparitions, and makes it her mission to save her young charges. But there are more questions raised than answered, and readers and critics alike can’t seem to agree on if this is actually a ghost story or if is really the story of a mentally unstable governess: Jane Eyre with Bertha in the role of governess.

In some ways, I find this a curious question—the story works, no matter how it is read. There are hints that perhaps the governess is unhinged, and the ghosts are “all in her head,” but at the same time it is not implausible, based purely on the text at hand, to assume it is indeed a ghost story. Much is left vague in the text, with things left unsaid or half-said, and characters seeming to talk to each other, but by way of omissions perhaps actually talking past each other. In the end, either there are ghosts, of a most evil variety, or the governess has entirely lost her mind and brings the evil with her. Either the children are innocents, preyed upon by evil influences, or they are cunning, wily participants in their own destruction. Perhaps it is all the above. The interpretation may say as much about the reader and the reader’s expectations as about the novella itself.

James structures his story with a framing introduction, set decades after the main events, and which functions to introduce the governess’s written manuscript which follows.  The man who has this narrative in his possession, Douglas, raises his audience’s expectations greatly, doling out tiny pieces of information, claiming to never have shared it before, that nothing touches it—for “dreadfulness!” It is a bold claim to make, and a risky one to raise expectations so high. But revisiting the frame after finishing the novella, I find it met, regardless of the interpretation of the story, especially in looking at the children: They are corrupted or they are haunted or they are exposed to madness in one who should protect them—maybe all of the above. They may or may not be innocent, but they are certainly vulnerable. The idea of their corruption, in whatever manner, is indeed, “dreadful.” 

For all the uncertainty surrounding the plot and the reliability of the narrator (and in spite of James’s at time obtuse prose), I found it a suspenseful page-turner, one that doesn’t shy away from the concept of evil. Even if there are no literal ghosts, what remains behind is the presence of evil—the ghost, as it were, of past misdeeds. Even if neither child has ever seen a ghost, they have either previously, currently (to the narrative), or in both instances, been exposed to a darkness from outside themselves. This is the horror of the story.

Farewell Summer, Welcome Autumn

It’s hard to believe we’re already through the first week of September. I know that time has passed slowly for some, with all the various upheavals of 2020, but it seems to have flown by for me just as much as ever—and in spite of the extra 1.75 hours or so in my working days, thanks to work-from-home. I guess I’m just good at always finding ways to fill it.

Reading was one of those ways, and while I didn’t quite make my goal of 10 books for the 20 Books of Summer challenge, I’m mostly happy with the outcome: 9 1/2 books completed in the three month time-span, of which one was the very dense The Mysteries of Udolpho and two nonfiction books that, while informative, were slow.

My Completed Books:

  1. 67 Shots: Kent State and the End of American Innocence – Howard Means
  2. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer – Mark Twain
  3. So Good They Can’t Ignore You  – Cal Newport
  4. The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien
  5. The Color of Law – Richard Rothstein
  6. The Mysteries of Udolpho – Ann Radcliffe
  7. The New Jim Crow – Michelle Alexander
  8. The Secret of Chimneys – Agatha Christie
  9. The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame

Started but not yet finished:

  1. Wheeshet – Kate Davies
  2. The Fellowship of the Ring – J.R.R. Tolkien
  3. Shop Class as Soul Craft -Matthew B. Crawford

I’m a bit disappointed not to have made it further in The Lord of the Rings, but it has the disadvantage of being a set of owned books that aren’t subject to the whims of library renewals (and other’s hold patterns). Needless to say, I hope to finish it and the other incomplete books soon.

However, now as the weather starts to turn cooler, the birds start their migrations south, and the colors begin to turn autumnal, I start to think of more seasonal reading. I’d love to participate in the fifteenth edition of R.I.P., and I do have a mystery on hold at the library (fingers crossed it arrives in time), but now I’m wishing I’d had the foresight to wait until September to read The Secret of Chimneys! If I have time, I have a Poe collection I’d love to finally read, or maybe some other Christie or one of the many Victorian thrillers I have on my to-be-read. Maybe…

Because first, in addition to some non-renewable library books (currently reading The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins, though of course that reads quickly), there’s the current Classics Club spin, for which I’m supposed to read An Oresteia (Agamemnon by Aiskhylos; Elektra by Sophokles; Orestes by Euripides ) by the end of the month. And which I haven’t started yet. (Ahem.)

I’ve also signed up for the Appointment in Samarra readalong hosted by Meredith at Dolce Bellezza and Tom at Wuthering Expectations are hosting a An Appointment in Samara readalong. I’m actually nearly a 1/3 of the way through and it’s going well, so that’s the book I’m most optimistic on finishing ‘on time.’

And finally, Cleo at Classical Corousel is hosting an informal Decameron readalong from now until the end of the year. That will have to wait on the other books, though! (I’ve read selections in the past and if memory serves me well, they read quickly, so fingers crossed.)

What are your autumnal reading plans?

Completed: Death at La Fenice

Death at La Fenice
Donna Leon

Venezia. Serenissima. City of Masks. Queen of the Adriatic. City of Water. So many names for such a small place, the splendor of its heyday now faded, battered by l’acqua alta, inundated by tourists—of which I once formed a guilty part—but its beauty still alive.

During my semester in Italy a friend and I spent two days in this tiny town, exploring the nooks and crannies—and as every “good tourist” must, visiting every museum and Piazza San Marco, of course.  However, unlike many good tourists, much of our time was spent without a map, the best way (short of living there) to discover any city and to stumble upon the unexpected. It is a city without motorized transport, save that which is in the water, where children may play in the streets without fear of a speeding driver, a city with many bridges, many canals, a city with a certain faded grandeur, its glory long past. In short, it seems the perfect setting for all sort of fantasy or intrigue.

As if in the grip of a demon, or a deity, Wellauer’s body had swept back and forth above the podium, left hand clenched half open, as if he wanted to rip the sound from the violins. In his right hand, the baton was a weapon, flashing now here, now there, a thunderbolt that summoned up waves of sound. But now, in death, all sign of the deity had fled, and there remained only the leering demon’s mask.

In a city known for its musical heritage—home of such composers as Antonio Vivaldi and Claudio Monteverdi and of the Teatro La Fenice opera house—it seems appropriate to set the mystery inside the musical world. In Donna Leon’s first Commissario Guido Brunetti mystery, Death at La Fenice, the victim is a world-famous conductor; the setting for the crime is within the backrooms of the famous opera house. As a mystery, Death at La Fenice  is solid, enjoyable, full of intriguing characters. I found the solution satisfying without being overly convoluted or predictable, and Brunetti is a detective I can root for, without any dark secrets or bad habits that almost seem requisite for literary crime solvers.

But I did not read Death at La Fenice because it is a mystery (although I was seeking a mystery), I read it because it is Venetian. Leon, although American, has lived in Venice for many years, and the feel of the novel is one I recognize from my time spent in Italy. It is the little details that I recognize: the locales, the daily activities, the worries over choosing tu or lei when addressing a new acquaintance. My only complaint is that perhaps she carries this too far, “telling” too much rather than letting us experience. For example, referring to a wall of books: “He easily recognized the Italian ones by the way their titles ran from bottom to top, the English by their titles running top to bottom.” I don’t know if I’m bothered because I already knew that Italian titles are different than English titles and so it feels redundant or if this is indeed an example of over-describing. On the other hand, I loved all the passing references to little details that set the scene, the casual use of words or phrases that don’t have an easy English translation (antipatico the prime example). This is a series I shall return to, for the nostalgia for my time spent in Italy, if nothing else.

As my first selection for R.I.P, Death at La Fenice does falter, not for any inherent fault in the story itself, but for a lack of a suitably spooky, melancholy, or dark atmosphere appropriate to the season. However, as a story evoking the flavor of Italy, of Venetian life, it is exactly what I had hoped for.