The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

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‘ “Raison de plus – at that age!”’ – ‘All the more reason’. The common attraction of young men for older women (and younger women for older men) has only been heavily stigmatised in recent years.

‘ “[…] But it’s rather nice, his long reticence.”’ – It adds a romantic piquancy to the whole tale that Douglas has kept his secret for forty years. For a mystery to be hidden for so long implies that it is quite a mystery – and an ‘outbreak’ is expected. It is difficult to know quite how much of this ‘sensation’ Douglas intended, but it is ironic perhaps that interest in his story has now taken on a life of its own, his audience providing their own ‘turns of the screw’ independently of his input. A very similar result – independent speculation – will be found in the experience of reading the governess’s tale which follows.

‘the last story […] had been told’ – A group of friends telling supernatural stories to one another is nothing unusual, but James may have in mind the famous three days of story-telling in Switzerland in the June of 1816 that involved Lord Byron, P. B. Shelley, Mary Shelley and Dr John Polidori and led to the eventual publication of Frankenstein and The Vampyre (written by the last two authors respectively).

‘ “candlestuck”’ – a portmanteau word invented by James, and – rather surprisingly – not in the Oxford English Dictionary (which includes several words from Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’). It presumably means to soften the wax on the bottom of a candle (in a flame) and then stick it into a candle-holder. The party will all need candles to see them up the stairs to their rooms.

‘I knew the next day that a letter containing the key had, by the first post, gone off to his London apartments’ – The reader’s first confirmation that the novella is set in England. The narrator seems strangely unconcerned by the fact that ‘the next day’ would be Christmas. There would, however, have been post on Christmas Day in James’s time: it only ceased to operate in 1960. Assuming the key arrives on Boxing Day, and the package sent by return, the earliest it can be expected to arrive is the 27th December: this is presumably the ‘Thursday’ referred to in the text.

‘we quite let him alone till after dinner’ – James’s first narrator is given a colloquial style – ‘quite’ and ‘till’ – to help establish the fiction that he is an ordinary fellow recording facts in an honest and straightforward way.

‘till such an hour of the evening, in fact, as might best accord with the kind of emotion on which our hopes were fixed.’ – emphasising how atmosphere and context are vital for the success of a ghost story. A kind of shared emotion and faith is implied – an experience, in fact, not entirely dissimilar to a séance.

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Henry James