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Posts Tagged ‘Jodhi May’


The governess realizes Miles is dead becomes frantic with grief (Turn of the Screw by Sandy Welch, 2009)

Dear friends and readers,

I feel I’ve had a full Henry James double season. First this summer, Roderick Hudson, then the biography of James by Fred Kaplan, and now as part of the course “exploring the gothic” I’m teaching and my study of the gothic for a paper on Northanger Abbey, I’ve slowly read James’s “The Turn of the Screw” and would to suggest an uncommon but recently endorsed view: the governess is neither simply a victim, utterly passive, nor pathological liar.

It’s convenient to begin with the older view of Oscar Cargill: he opens with rejecting documentary evidence of three different kinds. As a scholar of earlier periods, this is prima facie suspicious. I do not question documentary evidence unless I have evidence to show it’s made up. So for example, the argument that James made up the archbishop, lied in his story in the notebooks is unacceptable unless Cargill has evidence to show this. His rejection of James’s preface is wrong on the same grounds. He is calling James a liar in effect. I found four places in the story where Mrs Grose acknowledges the governess has seen the ghosts because the governess knows details about their appearance she couldn’t any other way and several where she says she believes the governess is seeing ghosts.

The argument the governess is a pathological liar won’t do also for the reasons Wayne Booth outlined in his classic The Rhetoric of Fiction in the 1950s. We can only go so far with unreliability; we can have an unreliable narrator whose judgment is misguided but if we begin to say the very narrator is a liar from the get-go we can believe nothing we read. We would have to reject the basis of most stories written since the popularity of unreliable narrators began (later 19th century). The opening gambit on Xmas eve has the narrator, Douglas, go out of his way to say the governess was the most aimable well-educated governess he ever met, that he liked her very much (almost loved her).

The arguments that dismiss the external documentary evidence provided by James remind me of the arguments which call Mary Shelley a liar and say she made her notebook entries up so Frankenstein is written by Percy Bysshe.

Also that what allows these readings of the tale castigating the young woman is that the other three chief character do not unambiguously admit to seeing the ghosts. As a reader of ghost stories, I know this is commonplace. Often the ghost only shows him or herself or themselves to one person, the one the ghost is harassing. This is true of Susan Hill’s Woman in Black which we recently read in my classes (a classic novella ghost story). It’s part of driving the central character mad and isolating him or her.


Quint and Miss Jessel (2009 TOTS)

That the governess misjudged and overreacts is true — she is another in the long line of unreliable narrators: Like Winterbourne in Daisy Miller, like Rowland Mallett, she is overreacts with conventional morality and, meaning to do some good, she makes things much worse. In her case though her situation against these sinister ghosts with no help from her employer is very bad.

My argument is that James is showing us how hard it is for us to deal with what we term unspeakable (Eve Sedgwick’s term) and unconventional sex. We deal with it very badly and make things worse — as we deal with mean teasing, money problems and class. On one level, everyone in the story, all the adults, cause Miles’s death. The uncle first of all. He wants to know nothing, will not even read the headmaster’s letter, left his valet, Quint, in charge of the house.


The plausible too busy man, who wants to know nothing, be told nothing, not be bothered (2009 TOTS)

He doesn’t care what happens to Miles. We have hints from Mrs Grose that Quint and the master were in the house together and shared clothes so probably the master has sex with Quint. Quint had sex with Miss Jessel and probably got her pregnant. He was “free” with everyone says Mrs Grose — so the other servants. That he was found dead on the road coming back from the pub shows he had enemies in the pub too. A roughhouse type, nasty, a Stanley Kowalski so-to-speak (the nightmare of the sensitive homosexual male).

Mrs Grose sometimes admits that she thinks Quint molested Miles but in front of the children she always draws back. She also does not want to get involved.


Sue Johnson as frightened Mrs Grose; sometimes she is sinister and complicit in this movie too (2009 TOTS)

Again and again she won’t admit she sees anything in order to turn away (this is the way the role is played in the 2009 film). So she is like her employer. No wonder he keeps her on.

Mrs Grose tells the story of Miles going off with Quint to the governess when the letter comes. We are to understand the school was a place of bullying, fag system, and Miles was part of this. The governess’s first response to say and do and ask nothing is not a good one, but she was told by her employer not to bother him and she has no rank to write the headmaster.

Miss Jessel was also to blame as when confronted by Mrs Grose on how Quint was with the boy, Miss Jessel said “mind your business.

The governess kills the boy too because she over-rreacts and hates homosexual sex and also child-abuse but because the children tease her and seem complicit, she sees them as allowing it and so regards them as evil too.


Flora

This is what happens by the way in the stories about priests’s molesting boys: it does not come out because parents fear their boys will be blamed.

One level of the story is this shows how “I am not my brother’s keeper” leads to evil

But another is, what can we do? Once Miles is molested, what can we do? to transgress on his psyche and insist he tell, confess, be abject is wrong the story tells us. It’s wrong to bully the boy this way and it doesn’t help. Here that James was himself a young boy with homosexual orientation suggests he identifies with Miles — and indicts society for the way it treats such a boy — and encourages him too (as a rich boy).


Miles

James also engages or identifies with the governess. It’s not until about half-way through the story that the governess seems to change from simply protecting the children. It’s an old motif of ghost stories the ghost wants to take the child away. About p 79 or Chapter 10-11 in my book she begins to want power. She begins to gloat over knowing more; she seems to want to penetrate (that’s the word) not just Mrs Grose but both children and she herself wants to possess Miles. She becomes an instrument of the evil infecting the house. She knows she would be called “mad.”

It’s around this time the letter business happens. Miles does want to contact his uncle. That shows the boy has a healthy instinct there. He wants another school. So the governess lets both children write but she hides their letters. She does not want their account to reach the Powerful Man. Then she writes a little later and Miles steals her letter because he does not want her account to reach the uncle.

A power struggle between Miles and the governess ensues. The children smell a weak woman who is sensitive and can’t cope with teasing so they play games with her by waking her, going into the garden and so on. At one point I think the text does show that Flora sees Miss Jessel and went off with her but won’t admit it — as she enjoys teasing the governess. It’s the incident where Mrs Grose is dragged out to the scene and, harried, the governess asks Flora if she saw Miss Jessel. Not in front of the children. Mrs Grose then shouts that Flora is an angel and pulls her away.

Flora is a survivor, not an angel.

Other themes of the story which relate to our world: Miss Jessel as governess. Since the master seems to know how she died and know about her going away, it might have been the master who impregnated her. It’s hard to tell. The governess sees Miss Jessel crying at one point and her immediate reaction is mean: she calls Miss Jessel “wretched terrible woman’ instead of empathizing .After all the governess is herself a governess: poor, played upon by the uncle-master. But in the next scene the governess does seem to have listened to a story told by Miss Jessel which made her see they are alike in situation. The Dear movie had Miss Jessel sitting at the desk in a way then precisely imitated by the governess to make the point they are a doppelganger. What saves the governess (ironically) is her overstrict morality and her loneliness.

So it’s about women’s positions too.

Class: the governess at first sneers at Miss Jessel for gong with Quint as “dreadfully low” and Mrs Grose too. This is the dialogue where I felt James laughing at them as a pair of clowns.

And sex. At times the story anticipates Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. The simplest statement about something else can be read as about sex because of the use of innuendo. For example,

To do it in any way was an act of violence, for what did it consist of but the obtrusion of the idea of grossness and guilt on a small helpless creature who had been for me a revelation of the possibilities of a beautiful intercourse (Chapter 23).

The governess is literally saying she would like to know what happened to the letter she had written Miles’s uncle, her employer.

But at the end it’s a tragedy too: the house is haunted. Evil things have been happening there for quite some time and ends in disaster. How did Miles die? In that final scene he turns and admit he sees Quint and calls him “you devil.” Maybe Miles has a heart attack because finally he is terrified of this ghost and doesn’t want to go with him. The Governess’s hysteria may given him a heart attacK. It might be she asphyxiated the boy by holding him so tight so as to keep Quint from grabbing him.

Now all this occurred 70 years ago. The governess told no one the true story and no one cared enough to investigate. It was in the uncle’s interest to cover it up. She went on being a governess and first told a young man she like who liked her 40 years later. 20 years ago just before she died she wrote what happened down, and now on Xmas eve Douglas brings this story forth.

But it’s not about the past. It’s about today.

I was bothered by something that did occur in my second class. It’s 21 males against 3 females. The first reaction some of the guys had what the governess killed the boy and their first impulse was to blame her because she was sexually uptight. In talking though other of the boys saw the larger picture and Russell Baker’s introduction about it’s being a story of child-abuse by the ghosts also helped. So did the film So I conclude the so-called Freudian Cargill reading is partly a strong symptom of the misogyny of our culture which hates single women especially those who seek to control male sexuality (there’s a hatred of Austen in Twain, Lawrence that comes from this). We despise those who can’t cope with teasing as the governess could not. out of this comes the feeling the children are just playing. Right: that’s Mrs Grose. (gross is the allegory behind that one).

I think also the unwillingness to confront that Miles talked dirty sex with other boys (that’s what he says he did) and maybe allowed Quints to indulge in sex with him comes out of the unwillingness even to discuss pederasty or homosexuality.

So moral panic kills but not doing something moral is wrong too. At the time when Quint was left in charge the evil began. Something should have been done then and again by Mrs Grose when Quint took over the boy. The boy was puzzled, confused, led to boast and try for power as an upper class male against the governess, but he was too young and weak physically if nothing else so died.

Ellen

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