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.

4. Precepts and prospects: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, What Maisie Knew — and our own age

ooking for a moment beyond Agnes Grey and "The Turn of the Screw," we might notice that Anne Brontë's mellowing of attitude is confirmed in her next novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Here, the new-born infant Arthur Huntingdon may be a demanding little devil to his jealous father, but he seems to have come straight from God to his doting mother. As a result, gentle means of combating vice are proposed and very clearly promoted in this work.

Edmund Morison Wimperis's impression of Wildfell Hall. Source: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1873), facing p. 365.

The mainspring of the action is the child's removal from his rakish father, to prevent him from being contaminated by exposure to dissolute habits. His mother takes him to live in the house which gives the narrative its title, "a superannuated mansion of the Elizabethan era, built of dark grey stone" (12), a house that does not have a promising name, as Wellwood does in Agnes Grey, or Bly in "The Turn of the Screw," but that promises them safe haven. Some initial debate about Helen Huntingdon's protectiveness may suggest the author's own misgivings, but is surely intended to present society's (including the church's) continuing opposition to kid-glove treatment of the child: a member of the local community, Mrs Markham, accuses her of "petting [Arthur] up, and slaving to indulge his follies and caprices" (55), adding that the vicar will "tell you what you ought to do, and all about it" — then adding still more smugly, "I don't doubt, he'll be able to convince you in a minute" (56). Little Arthur, with his abundant curly hair, "tiny features and large, blue eyes" and "lap full of flowers" (70), does indeed seem to have the makings of a milksop; but in fact he is, right from the very start, a perfectly lively little boy. The experiment is therefore presented as far more successful than either of Agnes Grey's attempts to cope with children who had lacked the kind of parental guidance that she herself can offer.

Yet we do see in "The Turn of the Screw" that "watchfulness" can be taken to extremes, and that too much pressure can be put on boys. Such pressure is exerted in James's narrative with the stated aim of making certain experiences as inimical to the boy as the Victorians felt they should be to a girl. Helen had said, "I would have both [boys and girls] so to benefit by the experience of others, and the precepts of a higher authority, that they should know beforehand to refuse the evil and choose the good" (57). In other words, although force may be withdrawn in favour of protectiveness and good influence, the goal of "forming" the child is not abandoned at all: as Foucault says in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, "it is not that the beautiful totality of the individual is amputated, repressed, altered by our social order, it is rather that the individual is carefully fabricated in it" (217).

James may have been well aware of such a view himself. Nearly a year after first hearing the story which was to be the basis of "The Turn of the Screw," he was outlining What Maisie Knew, in which a girl emerges uncorrupted from a difficult childhood. Although, as Helen Huntingdon points out, girls were likely to be far more protected than boys, this one is not protected at all, nor is there any attempt to form or fabricate her character. The nearest thing to moral guidance which she is offered is the view through her frumpy governess's "straightening" spectacles; but after all, Maisie does not need these spectacles to see with. All she needs and chooses is this woman's unaffected truthfulness and love. The critical consensus, that What Maisie Knew deplores irresponsible adults' behaviour towards the ingenuous child, has very properly not been challenged, but there are various opinions about its results. At least one important benefit accrues from their neglect: Maisie is left to make her own judgements. This is not entirely by default, since her stepfather supports her freedom: "I only insist that she's free — she's free," Sir Claude tells her stepmother at the end (318). It can be argued that Maisie's innocence, far from being ruined by this freedom, is allowed to become established by it, since it enables her to make her final choice: "she knew what she wanted" (316). To this healthy and positive extent, by the end, as Carren O. Kaston says, "Maisie grows up" (28).

The financial imagery which James uses in his preface to the novel, when he talks of the "great profit" he derives from Maisie (vii), makes it very clear that he saw himself as having exploited his young heroine. But, quite characteristically) he has done so not just for aesthetic purposes but also to express his vision of life: while grown-ups' disgraceful ways are shown through "the play of her good faith" (xiii), this "good faith" is, itself, shown to be capable of withstanding almost anything but the officious drumming in of a "moral sense" (313).

These developments confirm what a comparison of "The Turn of the Screw" with Agnes Grey suggests: the real reason that James's shorter tale is so grisly is not that he reveals what a contemporary reviewer called the "terrible possibility ... of infant depravity" (Spilka 249); nor that he shows the narrator to be personally deluded or aberrant (whether or not one believes she is); but that her behaviour is not exceptional at all. It simply reflects the shared delusions and aberrance of people in positions of authority over children during a whole era, and the irreversible damage they were liable to inflict.


Side panel to Chapter XXI in "The Turn of the Screw" in Collier's Weekly (by kind permission of ).

The similarities between Wellwood and Bly, Fanny Bloomfield and Flora, and the situations and struggles of the two governesses, may be simply coincidental. What is harder to credit, considering the enormous amount of scholarship on James's short text, is that nearly half a century after the author's death, Mark Spilka could name only one other critic "Freudian or otherwise" who had "discuss[ed] the story's cultural implications" (249). It is true that James himself had casually dismissed it as "a potboiler," "jeu d'esprit" and so on (rpt. in Kimbrough 111); but on the other hand, of course, in "The Art of Fiction," James himself proclaimed that the moral quality of art is inextricably linked with its production. Then, in one important respect, James's particular bent and tool as a creative writer, especially at this point in his career, served him all too well in raising questions about the governess's behaviour: his ambiguity has caused readers to think for themselves, but has also made it hard or even impossible for them to reach satisfying conclusions. The teasing twists and turns of his presentation provide not only evidence but also what another recent critic has termed "clusters of counterevidence" for many contradictory readings (Hocks 78-79). Such readings may each be perfectly valid as far as they go, but no single reading seems to get to the heart of the tale as much as the long-neglected cultural reading.

Finally, there could be cultural reasons for readers' failure to recognize the social realities with which James was dealing. At first, perhaps, they were too close to these realities themselves; but, with the progress in girls' educational opportunities, the governess system was waning even in James's time, and for many she was in every sense a figure from the past. This is how James himself presents her: it was long ago that the first narrator's friend met her, "and this episode was long before" (5). Still, the governess's behaviour should not have been difficult to understand on that count alone, because childrearing practices in general had been so slow to change. Cassell's Household Guide, a widely respected domestic handbook, was still pronouncing in the 1870s that "second only to the power of love in the management of children is the rule of fear" (II: 40). At any rate, it seems clear enough now both that "the governess destroys the children in saving them," and that this is "understandable" only in light of the fact that "her contemporaries were doing so all around her" (Spilka 252).

One further objection to such a reading remains, and it is a striking one: a few years later, after spending ten months in America and registering the changes which had occurred during his long absence, James declared himself in favour of the old-fashioned type of governess, as a vehicle of "cultural authority" (see Habegger 235). Now, in a narrow sense, the governess in this tale has no "authority" to transmit: the children's absent uncle has abdicated the patriarchal role and left the governess (perhaps literally) to her own devices. From a broader perspective, however, the governess's sense of duty does drive her to fill the vacant role as best she can: interrogating, shaking and even springing on the sick boy at the end of the narrative, she explains: "My sternness was all for his judge, his executioner" (87). This claim is every bit as cryptic as Miles's more frequently discussed final exclamation ("Peter Quint — you devil!"), but taken in its entirety it seems to refer to no one but the uncle himself. In that case, the word "for" must be taken to mean "on behalf of," and there is therefore every reason to point a finger past the governess, not only to the anomalies inherent in her position, but also to the distant guardian — as one critic has indeed done (see Cannon 150-53). Yet the governess's choice of words, especially of the word "executioner," shows two things: on her part, a degree of awareness that is more than enough to implicate both adults in Miles's death; and on James's part, a profoundly negative attitude towards these characters' "authority" and the way they exercise it. What the novelist said later, about the American educational scene, and under the impetus of culture shock, need not be cited in support of this particular fictional governess, or indeed of the kind of values she may be said to represent.

Granted the governess's place in history, does James's presentation of her have any wider relevance? Surely it does. How to help children develop their own potential instead of "forming," "reforming" or "deforming" them is arguably the most important cultural problem there is. James showed his own interest in it in his very first novel, Watch and Ward, in which Roger Lawrence becomes the "gentle pedagogue" of twelve-year-old destitute Nora, anxiously veering between "the fear of coddling and spoiling the child" and "the fear of letting her run wild and grow vulgar" (30) — all with the view of making her "a lovely woman" and "a perfect wife" (40). The plan comes dangerously close to failing (much as the eighteenth-century educationist Thomas Day's similar plan had failed in real life), and its eventual success is unconvincing. The effort to create "docile bodies" (the heading of Part II, section I, of Foucault's Discipline and Punish) continues to evolve, diversify and (all too often) end in disaster. The meddlesome governess, full of a sense of her own importance and of the high seriousness of her role, and doing incalculable harm, is still a warning to us now. In the end, what should trouble us is not the possibility or otherwise of ghosts in the narrative, or the other hermeneutical puzzles which are even now provoking reams of critical analysis; but the presence of (in Virginia Woolf's words) "something unnamed.... something, perhaps, in ourselves" (180); something which vitiates our relationships with the next generation and makes those relationships extraordinarily problematic.

Related Material


Brontë, Anne. Agnes Grey, in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Agnes Grey. London: Dent, 1922. [All page references to these novels are to this edition.]

_____. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. [Illustration source only.] London: Scribner, Welford and Armstrong, 1873. Internet Archive. Contributed by New York Public Library. Web. 15 May 2018.

Cannon, Kelly. Henry James and Masculinity: The Man at the Margins. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1994.

Cassell's Household Guide, Being a Complete Encyclopaedia of Domestic and Social Economy, and Forming a Guide to Every Department of Practical Life.London: Cassell, 1873-74.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991.

Kaston, Carren Osna. "Houses of Fiction in 'What Maisie Knew.'" Criticism 18 / 1 (1976): 27-42.

Habeggar, Alfred. Henry James and the "Woman Business." Pbk ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Hocks, Richard A. Henry James: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, l990.

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

_____. "The Turn of the Screw": An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Sources. Essays in Criticism. Ed. Robert Kimbrough. New York: Norton, 1966. [All page references to the story are to this edition.]

_____. Watch and Ward. Boston: Houghton, Osgood, & Co., 1878. Internet Archive. Contributed by Harvard University Library. Web. 15 May 2018.

_____. What Maisie Knew; In the Cage; The Pupil. London: Macmillan, 1922. Internet Archive. Contributed by the Digital Library of India. Web. 15 May 2018. [All page references to the story are to this edition.]

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

Spilka, Mark. "Turning the Freudian Screw." Kimbrough. 245-53.

Woolf, Virginia. ["Henry James's Ghosts".] Kimbrough 179-80.

Created 13 May 2018