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.

1. Realism and Its Subversion

rom the beginning, critics were puzzled by Henry James's "The Turn of the Screw" (1898). The novella seemed to flirt with Victorian realism: "correctly speaking, the artistic method of Mr James is realism as opposed to idealism," wrote the New York Times reviewer. But, said the same reviewer, the work is "not horrible in any ...'realistic' sense" (qtd. in Kimbrough 170). More recent critics have suggested various possible sources for this subversion of the realistic tradition — written records of supernatural phenomena which James is known to have possessed and consulted (see Beidler 96-97); sensational serial fiction which he had read as a boy (see Edel and Tintner 2-4); folklore (two West of England Romances, proposed by Mary Y. Hallab, 104-15); and fairy tale ("Hansel and Gretel," according to Lisa G. Chinitz, 264-85). Critical theorists have been equally intrigued, to the extent that, as Richard A. Hocks suggests, they threaten the primacy of the narrative with debates about the questions that it raises (78).

Yet James read a great deal of women writers' domestic fiction, all the way from Maria Edgeworth to Mrs Ward. He mentioned the former in his essay on Zola in 1903, and wrote critically about the latter's Eleanor in 1900 (see Sutherland 236). How much he took away from this body of literature is now being documented, sometimes perhaps in retaliation for his condescending remarks on what he called "semi-developed novels" (Notes and Reviews, 78). The truth is that James's Victorianness "declared itself" even after the realist novels of the 1880s, where critics like Kenneth Graham mainly situate it (57). "[S]ystematic Victorian echoes" have been found, for example, in another work of the late 1890s, What Maisie Knew (Habeggar 234). "The Turn of the Screw" is not at all exempt from James's tendency to borrow from such sources. Millicent Bell's study of the governess in "The Turn of the Screw" strongly supports this, seeing her as a reflection of the anomalous ways in which governesses had been seen in the period — partly as "defender[s] of innocence and conserver[s] of morality" (114); partly as threats to established class and gender divisions of the time.

Eric Pape's illustration of the governess's first sight of Peter Quint in "The Turn of the Screw": "He did stand there — but high up, beyond the lawn and at the very top of the tower." Source: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Bell suggests that the fictional governess who took the main hold on James's attention was Jane Eyre (99), and indeed there is no doubt that James recalls Charlotte Brontë's most famous novel when, for example, he shows his heroine fluttering under the spell of the children's guardian, or when, after her first sighting of former valet Peter Quint, the author allows her to wonder whether there is "an insane, an unmentionable relative kept in unsuspected confinement" at his country estate (20). However, the specific and obvious references to Jane Eyre in "The Turn of the Screw" are not as telling as parallels with another mid-Victorian governessing fiction, Anne Brontë's Agnes Grey (1847). The references to Jane Eyre are characteristically mocking ones, much as Jane Austen's references to Gothic novels in Northanger Abbey are mocking — "[g]eneric expectations" are raised, only to be denied (Bell 102). This could indeed be put down to a subversive intent. The parallels with Agnes Grey, on the other hand, seem to indicate a debt which is at once more straightforward, and more fundamental.

The proposal of yet another possible source for this much-discussed tale might seem unwelcome. But a comparison of the two texts is deeply illuminating. It warns us against seeing James's governess as either extraordinarily challenged or mentally disturbed, or her behaviour as incredibly bizarre. In doing so, it deflects some of the interest away from the governess as an individual character (after all, it has long been noted that James says curiously little about her) and turns it instead on her role and the way she handles it. It is not simply a matter of how she is viewed — that is, of "society's splintered vision" of the governess figure (Bell 113), but of what she does. What we are then left to consider is what James himself actually agreed in one of his letters was the fundamental "truth at the back of [his] head" when writing the tale, "the exposure indeed, the helpless plasticity of childhood.... That was my little tragedy" (rpt. in Kimbrough 110).

If this "truth" appears to be less fascinating (because less debatable) than other issues raised by the tale, it might be kept in mind that Victorian child-rearing practices, as many others besides James have described them, involved the power tactics documented and denounced in Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish: close observation, systematic control and unrelenting pressure to "reform." Because of their lasting influence on our whole culture, both the practices themselves, and how these two writers treated them, are still deeply relevant to modern readers. It is therefore well worth looking again at both narratives in light of their similarities — and differences.

Related Material


Beidler, Peter G. "The Governess and the Ghosts." PMLA. 100 (January l985): 96-97.

Bell, Millicent. "Class, Sex, and the Victorian Governess: James's 'The Turn of the Screw.'" New Essays on Daisy Miller and "The Turn of the Screw.". Ed. Vivian R. Pollack. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993. 91-119.

Chinitz, Lisa G. "Fairy Tale Turned Ghost Story: James's 'The Turn of the Screw.'" The Henry James Review. XV (Fall 1994): 264-85.

Edel, Leon, and Adeline R. Tintner. "The Private Life of Peter Quin[t]: Origins of "The Turn of the Screw." The Henry James Review. VII (Fall l985): 2-4.

Fulton, Valerie. "Rewriting the Necessary Woman: Marriage and Professionalism in James, Jewett and Phelps. The Henry James Review. XV (Fall 1994): 242-56 (see p. 244 on how James "cribbed" from earlier domestic fiction).

Graham, Kenneth. Henry James: A Literary Life. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1995)

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

Hallab, Mary Y. "The Governess and the Demon Lover: The Return of a Fairy Tale." The Henry James Review. Vlll (Winter 1987): 104-15.

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

James, Henry. "Elizabeth Rundle Charles." Literary Criticism, Vol. I: Essays an Literature, American Writers, English Writers. New York: Library of America, 1984. 826-34.

_____. "Emile Zola" (1903). The House of Fiction: Essays on the Novel. Ed. Leon Edel, London: Hart Davis, 1957. 220-49.

_____. Notes and Reviews. Cambridge, Mass.: Dunster House, 1921. Internet Archive. Contributed by an unknown library. Web. 12 May 2018.

_____. "The Turn of the Screw": An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Sources. Essays in Criticism. Ed. Robert Kimbrough. New York: Norton, 1966.

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

Sutherland, John. Mrs Humphrey Ward: Eminent Victorian, Pre-Eminent Edwardian. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Created 13 May 2018