An earlier version of this essay was published under the title of "The Legacy of Anne Brontë in Henry James's 'The Turn of the Screw'" in English Studies, Vol. 78, No. 6 (November 1997): 532-44. You may use the images added to it without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the sources and (2) link your document to the appropriate URL or cite it in a print document. Click on the thumbnails for larger pictures.

2. Confronting the challenge

ames himself had something to say about the youngest of the Brontës, even if only indirectly: by writing of "[t]he personal position of the three sisters, of the two in particular [Charlotte and Emily]," he seems partly to exempt her from the charge that critical judgement of their "united production" has been clouded by the appeal of their own sad story ("The House of Balzac," 64; emphasis added). It is true that Anne Brontë has always shared less of the limelight than Charlotte and Emily, something which may well enable us to see both the author and her work more objectively. James could also have been implying something more than this. Perhaps he recalled that Anne was the least "tragic" of the three, insofar as she was the most successful of them in establishing a life for herself outside Haworth. Recent biographers too comment on this: for all her eldest sister's worries about her frailty and nervousness, writes Rebecca Fraser, "Anne was to remain a governess for far the longest of the Brontës, in total about five and a half years"; in this context, Fraser also remarks on the youngest sister's "more evenly balanced character" (123). What this sensitive but sensible young woman wrote out of her first experiences as a governess, coping with the two eldest of the particularly unruly Ingham children at Blake Hall at Mirfield, has some significant parallels with "The Turn of the Screw," so much so that it is tempting to assume that James really did have the earlier work in mind when he started writing his tale.

Headpiece of the first installment of "The Turn of the Screw" in Collier's Weekly, by John La Farge. Source: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Both Anne Brontë's and James's governesses are in an excitable state at the beginning of their stories. James's is uneasy when she embarks on her duties at Bly, and the opening of her narrative — "I remember the whole beginning as a succession of flights and drops... (6) — has been variously used by commentators eager to start driving their own particular screw into James's tale. Even one who finds such fluctuations "normal" enough, also remarks on "her nervousness and excitability" (Hoffman 215). Someone in such a state may perhaps lose her hold on reality, and when she does so, not be held fully responsible for her actions. Agnes Grey, however, even without the daunting responsibility of sole charge placed on the later governess by her employer, exhibits very similar changes of mood as she approaches Wellwood (the name of the mansion itself, with its ironic hints of happiness, foreshadows that of Bly): "[M]y spirits revived again ... my heart failed me" (403). The fact is that both these "young, untried" girls, one of them (Agnes) the younger daughter, the other the youngest daughter, of an impecunious country clergyman, face their first "serious duties" in the outside world with the same mixture of hopes and misgivings ("The Turn of the Screw," 6).

The prospect of being "in supreme authority" over two young children is "slightly grim" for James's governess (5-6). Does the word "grim" mark the beginning of "the remarkable associational edifice" which Robert Bechtold Heilman long ago drew attention to (328), by which we are led to suspect a diabolic strain in the narrative? Yet the unexceptional Agnes, faced with taking care of all too human a brood, has exactly the same kind of fears. Despite her idealistic attitude towards her role as moral guide and educator, she approaches Wellwood with trepidation. Not only does she feel that "[f]or the first time in my life, I must stand alone: there was no retreating now." She adds, as if she is to cross some fearsomely alien threshold, "I must enter that house and introduce myself among its strange inhabitants" (493). Might one perhaps pick on the word "strange" as a hint of problems to come, just as critics like Heilman have picked on James's choice of the word "grim"? But its metaphysical resonance fades when we remember Agnes's very sheltered background. Indeed, she is more than normally gauche when she does enter the house. Desperately trying to compose herself, she is received by her future charges' mother, Mrs Bloomfield:

"Be calm, be calm, whatever happens," I said within myself; and truly I kept this resolution so well, and was so fully occupied in steadying my nerves and stilling the rebellious flutter of my heart, that when I was admitted into the hall, and ushered into the presence of Mrs Bloomfield, I almost forgot to answer her polite salutation; and it afterwards struck me that the little I did say was spoken in the tone of one half-dead or half-asleep. [403-04]

Agnes then flounders gracelessly through her first meal in the house, so nervous that she is quite unable to carry on a conversation, or even to handle the cutlery properly. This incident can easily be used to illuminate the initial feelings of the governess at Bly — "a little scared as well as a little proud," and doubtful about being "at the helm" (12). Such feelings do not seem at all remarkable in their (governessing fiction) context.

As for the children in the two stories, the first impressions made by both sets, on readers and governesses alike, are literally glowing. Not only the name of the house which Agnes Grey enters, but also the family name of its residents — Bloomfield — anticipates "The Turn of the Screw," where the little girl's name is Flora. And indeed, in Brontë's novel, Fanny Bloomfield is introduced as a "very pretty" and reputedly "remarkably gentle" girl, not unlike the angelic and golden-haired little Flora. As for Master Tom Bloomfield, with his "flaxen hair, blue eyes, small turned-up nose, and fair complexion" (405), he is as charming, at first glance, as James's Miles will be. The Romantic image of childhood, harking back to the innocent child of Pelagian heresy, holds brief sway in both narratives.

But in both, these appearances, along with the "heresy" which they substantiate, are very soon called into question. Agnes, like the governess at Bly who in so many ways succeeds her, soon finds grounds to suspect that innocent beauty can be deceptive. When asked to show "Miss Grey" — a suggestive name, for there will be a moral ambiguity here, too — his schoolroom, Tom uses his whip and spurs mercilessly on his rocking-horse; worse, he insists that he would inflict the same measures on a real pony. Like her successor in "The Turn of the Screw," Agnes is taken aback by this first glimpse of a snake in the childhood Eden, and resolves "in time to work a reformation" (406). This is very much how James's unnamed and still more morally ambiguous governess reacts to hints of what she sees as her charges' collusion with the demonic: "The children ... I should absolutely ... save" (26). Far from being unusual, the two young women's common responses to a dawning disillusion are entirely of their century. They reflect the way the Romantic doctrine of childhood innocence had weakened under the onslaught of Victorian Evangelicalism, and the stern determination which ensued: from being "like those cherubs of the anecdote who had — morally, at any rate — nothing to whack," children were now to be the objects of a "rigid control" ("The Turn of the Screw," 19, 27); their spiritual status was to be restored at all costs.

How was this to be achieved, though? Agnes had been in no doubt that her own experiences in childhood, so recent to her mind, would stand her in good stead when dealing with her little charges. But the Bloomfield children turn out to be so far from anything she remembers from her own past that she is completely bewildered, much as James's governess will be. Agnes is perplexed both by her ambiguous position in the household, where she is expected to exert control without having the parents' respect, and by the nature of the children themselves: "Other children might be guided by the fear of anger, and the desire of approbation; but neither the one nor the other had any effect upon these" (412). Yet there is not the slightest hint that Brontë's vexed heroine might be insane, a conclusion apparently first reached about James's heroine by Harold C. Goddard (see Kimbrough 182).

Related Material


Brontë, Anne. Agnes Grey, in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Agnes Grey. London: Dent, 1922. [References to the novel are all to this edition.]

Fraser, Rebecca. The Brontës: Charlotte Brontë and Her Family. New York: Random House, 1988.

Heilman, Robert. "Trouble in Eden: James's 'The Turn of the Screw.'" The Workings of Fiction: Essays. Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 1991. 317-329.

Hoffman, Charles G. "Innocence and Evil in James's 'The Turn of the Screw." Casebook on Henry James's 'The Turn of the Screw." Ed. Gerald Willen. 2nd ed. New York: Crowell, 1960. 212-22.

James, Henry. "The Lesson of Balzac" (1905). The House of Fiction: Essays on the Novel. Ed. Leon Edel, London: Hart Davis, 1957. 60-85.

_____. "The Turn of the Screw": An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Sources. Essays in Criticism. New York: Norton, 1966. [References to the story are all to this edition.]

_____. "The Turn of the Screw." [Illustration source only.] Collier's Weekly. Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Kimbrough, ed. "The Turn of the Screw": An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Sources. Essays in Criticism. By Henry James. New York: Norton, 1966.

Created 13 May 2018