Henry James (1843–1916), whose mastery of the psychological novel markedly influenced twentieth-century literature, was born in New York City. His father, Henry James, Sr., was an unconventional thinker who had inherited considerable wealth. James, Sr., became a follower of Swedenborgian mysticism, a belief system devoted to the study of philosophy, theology, and spiritualism, and socialized with such eminent writers as Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Washington Irving, and William Makepeace Thackeray. James’s older brother, William James, profoundly influenced the emerging science of psychology through his Principles of Psychology (1890) and The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). He also distinguished himself as an exponent of a brand of philosophical pragmatism he named “radical empiricism,” the idea that beliefs do not work because they are true but are true because they work.
The James children were educated in a variety of schools and with private tutors, in what James later called “small vague spasms” of schooling augmented by his father’s extensive library. In 1855 the James family began a three-year tour of Geneva, London, and Paris, an experience that probably influenced James’s later preference for Europe over his native land. After a year at Harvard Law School, he began writing short stories and book reviews. He continued to travel widely from a base in England, where he chose to settle. He became a British subject in 1915, a year before his death at the age of seventy-three. By the time James died, he had written more than a hundred short stories and novellas, as well as literary and dramatic criticism, plays, travel essays, book reviews, and twenty novels, including The Portrait of a Lady (1881), The Bostonians (1886), The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903), and The Golden Bowl (1904).
Although James had many friends and acquaintances, he maintained a certain reserve toward most people. An “obscure hurt,” as James later described a mysterious early injury he suffered in connection with a stable fire, haunted him throughout his life. He never married, and the absence of any known romantic attachments has led some critics to speculate that he was a repressed or closeted homosexual. Others attribute the reason for James’s lifelong celibacy to the early death of his beloved cousin Mary “Minny” Temple, the model for several of his heroines.
James wrote The Turn of the Screw in 1897, at a low point in his life. In 1895 he had suffered a tremendous personal and professional blow when his play Guy Domville was booed off the London stage. Deeply wounded, James retreated from London and took refuge in Sussex, eventually taking a long-term lease on a rambling mansion called Lamb House. Shortly thereafter, he began writing The Turn of the Screw, one of several works from this period that revolve around large, rambling houses.
Like many writers and intellectuals of the time, James was fascinated by “spiritual phenomena,” a field that was taken very seriously and was the subject of much “scientific” inquiry. The field remained popular even after the unmasking of the Fox sisters, whose claims of being able to communicate with the spirit world had started the craze for spiritualism in the 1840s. Henry James, Sr., and William James were both members of the Society for Psychical Research, and William served as its president from 1894 to 1896.
James had written ghost stories before The Turn of the Screw. It was a popular form, especially in England, where, as the prologue to The Turn of the Screw suggests, gathering for the purpose of telling ghost stories was something of a Christmastide tradition. According to James’s notebooks and his preface to the 1908 edition of The Turn of the Screw, the germ of the story had been a half-remembered anecdote told to him by Edward White Benson, the archbishop of Canterbury: a story of small children haunted by the ghosts of a pair of servants who wish them ill.
In Benson’s story, the evil spirits repeatedly tried to lure the children to their deaths. The spin James put on the story was to make everything—the presence of the ghosts, their moral depravity, their designs on the children—purely a function of hearsay. As careful readers have noted, the ghosts are visible only to one person in the tale—the governess who serves as both narrator and protagonist.
The Turn of the Screw first appeared in Collier’s Weekly in twelve installments between January and April 1898. Not until after World War I did anyone question the reliability of the governess as a narrator. With the publication of a 1934 essay by the influential critic Edmund Wilson, a revised view of the story began to gain currency. Wilson’s Freudian interpretation, that the governess is a sexually repressed hysteric and the ghosts mere figments of her overly excitable imagination, echoed what other critics like Henry Beers, Harold Goddard, and Edna Kenton had previously suggested in the 1920s. Throughout the course of his life, Wilson continued to revise and rethink his interpretation of The Turn of the Screw, but all criticism since has had to confront the central ambiguity in the narrative. Is the governess a hopeless neurotic who hallucinates the figures of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, or is she a plucky young woman battling to save her charges from damnation? Adherents of both views abound, though the former take on the story is rarer. Other critics maintain that the beauty and terror of the tale reside in its utter ambiguity, arguing that both interpretations are possible and indeed necessary to make The Turn of the Screw the tour de force that it is.