The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

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‘a bachelor in the prime of life, such a figure as had never risen, save in a dream or an old novel, before a fluttered, anxious girl out of a Hampshire vicarage.’ – Just as Mrs Griffin suggests that the young Douglas, just out of school, had fallen for the older governess, so Douglas himself suggests here that the young governess (also just out of school) will very likely fall for the rich bachelor, who is also described as ‘handsome and bold and pleasant, offhand and gay and kind.’ The word ‘gay’ obviously does not mean homosexual, but it doesn’t exactly mean ‘happy’ either: perhaps ‘sociable’ or ‘affable’ is closest to James’s meaning, though the phrase ‘bachelor gay’ can also imply a relaxed attitude to sexuality – someone more likely to have a string of mistresses than eager to settle down monogamously with a wife. It is also important to remember that the story of a young governess becoming infatuated with a much older man is behind the plot of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, and this is very likely the reason for James’s reference to ‘an old novel’.

‘as a kind of favour, an obligation he should gratefully incur.’ – Rochester shows the same sort of gallantry towards Jane at times in Brontë’s novel. This sort of courtly behaviour is pleasantly flirtatious, but flirtatious nonetheless.

‘These children were, by the strangest of chances for a man in his position – a lone man without the right sort of experience or a grain of patience – very heavily on his hands.’ – In these aspects, too, James’s character resembles Rochester, who, in Jane Eyre, has taken in Adele Varens, daughter of his former mistress.

‘Bly’ – not, apparently, a British place-name, though there is a Bly in California and also one in Oregon.

‘Mrs Grose’ – who as housekeeper to the absent owner of the property plays a comparable role to Mrs Fairfax in Jane Eyre. Although it will not be obvious until later in James’s narrative, her name is probably meant to be suggestive of a certain grossness of sensibility (certainly not moral grossness) in comparison to the overly sensitive governess herself.

‘her death, the great awkwardness of which had, precisely, left no alternative but the school for little Miles.’ – This ‘great awkwardness’ is deliberately left unexplained to pique the reader’s curiosity. While ‘Flora’, as a girl, can be left in the care of Mrs Grose to learn ‘manners and things’, as a boy, Miles must be properly educated. Such inequality would still have been taken for granted by most in James’s time.

‘a dairywoman, an old pony, an old groom, and an old gardener, all likewise thoroughly respectable.’ – The equation of the ‘old groom’ and ‘old gardener’ with ‘an old pony’, while possibly humorous, suggests that the gentleman in question does not regard his inferiors with much respect. All of these people are ‘thoroughly respectable’, which is perhaps why the gentleman himself prefers to live in town. Someone makes a joke, in fact, out of all this ‘respectability’ in the next paragraph.

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Henry James