a turn of the screw – an action that makes a bad situation worse, especially one that forces someone to do something.
– so says the Cambridge Dictionary
One that I had failed to read until now.
Henry James wrote this novella back in 1898, and to my mind, one of the reasons it has resonated with so many fans comes down to one factor: its flexibility of interpretation. Readers get to navigate this novel as they so choose, and at the end? Only the dead know what the reality may have been. May still be.
I find this delightful and frustrating in equal measure. It is rather as a bow to this flexibility that I only quote a bit of the beginning, to tease a bit of the novel’s contemporary appeal, while leaving its whole to be discovered on its own. On the other hand, The Aspern Paper have thrice exposed timeless wisdom, and once amused me greatly, all without compromising its plot. Really, this is less typical book review and more a think piece inspired by the source material. (So business as usual, I suppose.)
Let us begin!
The Turn Of The Screw
‘…that it would from that moment distress me much more to lose my power than to keep it. I had then expressed what was vividly in my mind: the truth that, whether the children really saw or not – since, that is, it was not yet definitely proved – I greatly preferred, as a safeguard, the fullness if my own exposure. I was ready to know the very worst that was to be known.’
– The Governess, pg 77
Nowadays, we have a whole host of female protagonists to choose from when searching for a Heroine in literature. This has obviously not always been so. It’s nice to take a pause and relish in the novelty of one, born of this time period, who so fully commits herself to delving into the darkest depths, in her pursuit of knowledge, and in her desire to protect her young charges. I dig it. All too often, women were once written with a ‘damsel’ mentality, assuming they were gifted with a presence of mind mighty enough to question their situation in such a way at all. (I’m looking at you, Heinlein.)
In the days of gender equality and political correctness, it strikes me as important to note that these characters are heroes not despite their femininity, but hand in hand with it. Buffy likes to dress up in pretty, pretty clothes, get advice from Giles, and then patrol Sunnydale for vicious vampires. Hermione displays much greater empathy than her male counterparts, seeing beyond herself and even the danger of the present war against He Who Must Not Be Named, to champion for the rights of house elves. Kim Possible, if memory serves, loved her childhood (mutant) stuffed animal; she was sentimental and attached to the plushy, but that in no way impacted her ability to save the world.
Great writers pursue balance in their characterizations. A believable female lead doesn’t have to be interchangeable with a male one to embody all the traits that come with the word ‘Hero’. Men and women are different in reactions, motivations, mannerisms, etc. This does not make either side less or more than, simply dissimilar, simply unalike even in their equality.
Perhaps a better way of stating it is thus: they hold the same value, but in differing configurations.
And much like this ghost story, a lot is left to the individual to figure out on their own.
The Aspern Papers
‘I must work the garden – I must work the garden…
I hadn’t meanwhile meant by my private exclamation that I must myself cultivate the soil of the tangled enclosure…’
-unnamed narrator, pg. 140 – 141
Perhaps it is only in having recently read Voltaire’s Candide that this passage strikes such a meaning with me. For Candide as well vowed to cultivate his garden as a personal appeal to self to stay motivated and focused on the works and labors directly in front of us, instead of dividing attention between the smaller and larger pictures of potential responsibilities. This unnamed narrator obviously has ulterior motives, but it’s still a great method of concentration and prioritization.
‘My door’s shut, but you may sometimes knock.’
– Miss Bordereau, pg. 185
This makes my introvert heart very, very happy. I may steal this in future interactions. A small opening without giving ground, as it were.
‘Writing books, unless one be a great genius – and even then! – is the last road to fortune. I think there’s no more money to be made by good letters.’
-unnamed narrator, pg. 195
Over a hundred years later, I’m little surprised by how true this still rings. Deafeningly so. No matter the year, truth will always sound clear to those willing and open to the listening.
As a rookie writer, I fear this. I fear there is no money to be made, because there are no more readers to care; that reading is a dying skill, fallen to the gutter for the ease of watching other more easily accessible media. I have no lust for great fortune, writing may be the last road for it indeed… but, somewhere, I do wish for readers, for minds to see and feel my own as it flourishes, as it flounders. I long for the commune of peers, the family of shared interest, of seeking more without moving beyond the scant inches a chest makes with each new breath.
Of course, I am also, more so really, terrified of that exact same reality.
Being a human sure is complex, yeah?
‘”Do you think it’s right to rake up the past?”
“I don’t feel that I know what you mean by raking it up. How can we get at it unless we dig a little? The present has such a rough way of treading it down.”‘
– Miss Bordereau & The unnamed narrator, pg. 196
More timeless truth. Brilliance shining in from the past! Effort is what makes any revelation worth it, be it the truth, be it the past, be it a clear question, so as to reach the first two.
Fact matters more than feeling, even those whose feelings may be hurt or offended.
It brings to mind this quote:
It is not when truth is dirty, but when it is shallow, that the lover of knowledge is reluctant to step into its waters
– Friedrich Nietzsche
And you know, I think that quote says more than I ever could.
James’ novel is worth a read, if for no other reason than so that you may see how many works it has influenced. More than that though, it’s worth a read because in it nothing is as it seems and it asks you to step into waters so dark, you cannot tell how deep they may run.
In hindsight, I figure there may be people a little peeved at what I classify at the top as traditionally more feminine characteristics. See here: https://www.forbes.com/sites/work-in-progress/2014/05/02/4-feminine-traits-that-you-should-maximize-at-work/#5534d96025d0 for what I drew from.
Buffy – 2. with Giles, although also 4. with the Scooby Gang
Hermione – 1. with S.P.E.W.
KP – …. personal experience? I have a large stuffed Dalmatian named Lucky. He’s been with me since I was five, and does not diminish my personal badassery one iota.