Read an Excerpt
From David L. Sweet’s Introduction to The Turn of the Screw, The Aspern Papers, and Two Stories
The Turn of the Screw, The Aspern Papers and Two Stories brings together for the first time in a single volume four of Henry James’s most popular, most anthologized, and most artistically successful stories: the two mentioned by name plus “The Beast in the Jungle” and “The Jolly Corner.” At first glance the collection suggests a miscellany, with two long stories and two short ones, two ghost stories and two secular ones, and each, except for the last two, written at very different stages of the author’s career. Yet these generic incompatibilities soon yield before the pleasure of discovering a subtle consistency among them. If any one story establishes a framework for this unity, it is The Turn of the Screw, around which the others are formally and thematically involved. But they are involved, perhaps, “in a direction unusual”—as James’s narrator-governess describes her own efforts to confront the supernatural by redirecting her sense of the natural. It is this question of imaginatively adjusting the natural, of redeploying and reworking familiar ways of seeing in order to face down the apparently “unnatural,” that jointly concerns these four fictions.
James wrote what was to become his most famous tale in the wake of the popular failure of his play Guy Domville in January 1895, when the author was personally subjected to catcalls and boos from the audience on opening night in London, an experience that terminated his cherished desire to be a celebrated dramatist (Edel, Henry James: A Life). After retreating, a week later, to the home of his friend Edward White Benson, the archbishop of Canterbury, James recorded a curious anecdote told by his host about two children in a country house to whom the ghosts of former servants, “wicked and depraved” (Kaplan, Henry James: The Imagination of Genius: A Biography,), had appeared. It is our first trace of a tale that the author would eventually make his own, most importantly through the creation of the unnamed governess who narrates it. The work is a tour de force of narrative ambiguity in that the reader can never decide whether the governess is protecting her young pupils from real ghosts or hysterically projecting the ghosts in response to deeply repressed libidinal yearnings. Though the latter reading was first proposed almost seventy years ago by the American critic Edmund Wilson and has been subjected to critical reappraisals ever since, it continues to influence much of the discussion of the work today (DeKoven, “Gender, History and Modernism in The Turn of the Screw,”).
Even in its initial serialization for Collier’s Weekly in 1898, The Turn of the Screw was interpreted by some as an illustration of a psychological disorder rather than as an artfully written tale of the supernatural. James himself urbanely dismissed such interpretations during his lifetime, explaining to various doctors and psychologists that the parallels they detected between his governess and their patients were simply the effects of an overriding artistry: “My conscious intention strikes you as having been larger than I deserve it should be thought. It is the intention so primarily, with me, always, of the artist, the painter, that that, is what I most myself feel in it. . . . ” To Frederic Myers, a colleague of his brother William at the Society for Psychical Research, James’s response was more casual: He described the work as “a very mechanical matter, I honestly think—an inferior, a merely pictorial, subject and rather a shameless potboiler” (Kaplan, p. 413). Yet in resisting a psychiatric reading, James enlarges the story’s interpretive appeal as an effect of his more encompassing vision—one that, for him, necessarily suspended judgment about the spiritual and the demonic as a way of deflecting the relentless, modern disenchantment of the world and reinvesting it with poetic interest.
James’s own youth was not entirely sanitized of the supernatural. His father, a religious freethinker strongly influenced by the writings of Swedenborg, had once had a vision of a “damned shape” radiating from his “fetid personality influences fatal to life” (Kaplan, p. 13). And while the youthful Henry insulated himself from many of his father’s ideas through an almost defensive shyness, Henry James Senior succeeded in imparting to his son a vivid sense of good and evil. The communication of this sensibility was supplemented by frequent and sustained travels to Europe in restless pursuit of a suitably progressive education for the James children, a quest aided by a comfortable inheritance from Henry Senior’s own enterprising father. Thus The Turn of the Screw—dictated in Lamb House in Rye, England, which the mature author had purchased because it reminded him of his youth (Knowles, “‘The Hideous Obscure’: The Turn of the Screw and Oscar Wilde,”)—represents a retreat from the glare of public attention and a reexamination of youthful inquiries about the relationship between knowledge and evil.