New York-born author Henry James is famous for his concise, enigmatic style. Darkly comic novels such as Portrait of a Lady and The Europeans drew on his experiences in Europe. The novellaThe Turn of the Screw was written at a troubled time of his life. James was fifty-three and his sister had recently died of breast cancer. He himself was having health and financial problems. In a letter from 1895 James wrote: “I see ghosts everywhere”.
The Turn of the Screw is a supernatural horror story set in the mid-19th century. It begins with an unnamed narrator who reads from the journal of a woman, his sister’s late governess, to a group of friends. The governess recounts how she accepts a job looking after the young nephew and niece of a man who has become responsible for them. They live in a country house in Bly, Essex in southeast England. Her employer, however, gives the governess definitive instructions:
“That she should never trouble him– but never, never: neither appeal nor complain nor write about anything; only meet all questions herself, receive all moneys from his solicitor, take the whole thing over and let him alone.”
“Que no tenía que molestarle nunca para nada; pero nunca, nunca: ni acudir a él ni quejarse, ni escribir por ningún motivo; tenía que resolverlo todo ella sola, recibir el dinero de su abogado, hacerse cargo de todo, y dejarle en paz.”
an old, ugly house
At Bly, the governess meets little Flora and the housekeeper Mrs. Grose. She is delighted by the child, but unnerved13 by the house:
“It was a big, ugly, antique, but convenient house, embodying a few features of a building still older, half-replaced and half-utilized, in which I had the fancy of our being almost as lost as a handful of passengers in a great drifting ship.”
“Era una casa grande, fea y vieja, pero cómoda, que encerraba partes de otro edificio más antiguo, restaurada y utilizada sólo a medias, en la que se me antojaba estábamos casi tan perdidos como un puñado de pasajeros en un barco a la deriva.”
A letter arrives: Flora’s ten-year-old brother Miles is on his way as he has been expelled from school for an unknown reason. The governess is relieved to find him charming. Then, one evening, as the governess strolls around the grounds, she sees a strange man in a tower of the house:
“He was in one of the angles, the one away from the house very erect, as it struck me, and with both hands on the ledge […] he slowly changed his place […] He stopped at the other corner, but less long, and even as he turned away markedly fixed me.”
“Estaba en uno de los ángulos, el más alejado de la casa, muy derecho, según me pareció a mí, y con las manos apoyadas en el reborde [...] luego cambió de sitio, pasó, despacio, y sin dejar de mirarme ni un segundo, al otro extremo de la torre.”
The governess is even more disturbed when the man appears again later, looking into the window. Mrs. Grose recognises her description: the man is Peter Quint, a former valet who is now dead. The governess believes that the ghost is looking for Miles.
Another day, when the governess is at the lake with Flora, she sees a woman dressed in black and senses that she is Miss Jessel, her predecessor who had gone on holiday and died while away:
“Another person this time, but a figure of quite as unmistakable horror and evil: a woman in black, pale and dreadful – with such an air also, and such a face!”
“Otra persona esta vez; pero una figura de una maldad y un horror tan inconfundibles como la otra: una mujer vestida de negro, pálida y aterradora, ¡y con un aire y una cara!”
The governess jumps to the conclusion that Miss Jessel is looking for Flora. More sightings follow: on the stairs, in the schoolroom... Meanwhile, the children behave strangely. At night, Flora stares out of the window while Miles wanders alone outside. The governess writes to her employer. There is no response.
The governess decides to confront Miles, who becomes agitated. Then there is another incident at the lake when Miss Jessel appears, but Flora denies seeing her. The child becomes angry.
“I don’t know what you mean. I see nobody. I see nothing. I never have. I think you’re cruel. I don’t like you!” […] she produced an almost furious wail. “Take me away, take me away – oh, take me away from her!”
“—No sé qué es lo que quieres decir. Yo no veo a nadie. No veonada. Nunca lo he visto. Creo queeres mala. ¡No te quiero! [...] — ¡Sácame de aquí, sácame de aquí, llévame lejos de ella!”
The next day, Mrs. Grose takes Flora to the children’s uncle while the governess stays at Bly with Miles. But Peter Quint appears one last time, with terrible consequences.
The novella has been adapted numerous times: there is a play (1950), an opera (1954), two films (1961 and 2020), and a recent Netflix miniseries (2020). The author Stephen King called The Turn of the Screw —the title of which describes the experience that horror stories elicit in the reader— one of the genre’s great works, as it contains “secrets best left untold and things left best unsaid.”