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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
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Turn of the Screw!