A Brief Summary of Henry James’ Long Problems

turn of the screw

Henry James, The Turn of the Screw, 1898

I’m ready. I’m going to blab about everything that is wrong with Henry James. Well, not everything, because I haven’t read all his “major” novels yet. There is nothing major, in the Clueless sense of the word, about any of his novels as far as I can perceive. Have you ever heard anyone say “Henry James is my favorite author!” I haven’t. He is remembered for being experimental and an influence for the Modernists, but his own work is, frankly, atrocious. I mean it. I worry about the Modern Era in literature that looms before me. If those goobers read Henry James and thought “Yes! This! The world needs more of this,” I worry about their judgment. The Turn of the Screw is perhaps a perfect microcosm of James’ flaws. Taking this novella as an exemplar, let’s get into the problem with Henry James. Have I typed those last five words before? I may have.

Anyway.

  1. Good concept, executed poorly. A young lady takes a job as a governess to two orphans living on their uncle’s remote country estate. The last governess died under mysterious circumstances. Yes! I am ready for these spooky, haunted children. Come to me, spectral governess. I am waiting. . . for nothing. James doesn’t really pull it off. Similarly, What Maisie Knew takes on the concept of divorce, a fascinating topic for the Late Victorian Era, but James does nothing good with it. In a Portrait of a Lady he tries to write about a modern, independent woman and fails spectacularly. It’s as if he thought of and about creative and interesting topics but failed to think up anything worthwhile when he contemplated them.
  2. Turn of the Screw starts out as a frame story. Visitors at a storm bespattered country estate gather around the fireside to share spooky stories. One claims to have the spookiest story of them all, but he must send away for the manuscript. He reads the manuscript. The novella ends. Right there with the last word of the manuscript. Henry James doesn’t close the frame. There is absolutely no value to the introductory portion. The listeners do not comment on the tale after they hear it. They are simply forgotten. He could have simply started with the governess’ narrative. In fact, BBC radio productions and similarly abridged versions do just that, recognizing that the James’ “frame” is unnecessary and pointless. Come at me. I will fight you on this. Oh wait, no one out there actually cares about Henry James enough to defend him, because he just isn’t good enough to deserve that level of devotion.
  3. He circles meaning like a turkey vulture, not daring to descend and eat until…I don’t know what he’s waiting for, really. Conversations drag on in a way that frustrates rather than builds tension. The governess sees ghosts and wants to know if her charges see them too. Rather than ask them, she talks around the topic page after page until you want to shake her and query the children on her behalf “hey, have you been hanging out with your dead governess?” Similarly, in P of and L Isabell won’t ask if Madame Merle happens to have been impregnated by her husband. Instead, James talks around that for a few hundred pages. In What Maisie Knew, James takes dragging-out-indelicate-conversations-with-children to the limit. The entire novel consists of interminable conversations between Maisie and adults who won’t come out and say “are you aware that your parents are having affairs with other people and that such behavior is wrong?” Speaking of repetitiveness. Hung fire. Hung fire. Hung fire. Hung fire. Hung fire. Hung fire. Hung fire. Hung fire. Hung fire. Hung fire. Hung fire. Hung fire. Hang fire, is apparently an expression that means “pause” and the preceding interlude represents what it feels like to read James’ dialogue, in which he uses that expression about as often as he changes speakers. Just sloppy and annoying. Weak writing by any acknowledged interpretation of the term.

I don’t have anything else to say about this story. I have two more novels “The Ambassador” and “Wings of the Dove” to drag myself through before I can put James behind me and dive into his hopefully more competent proteges. Gosh, I hope those books are better than what came before. Cuz, yikes.

You might like The Turn of the Screw if:

  • you like Uncle Silas. Yeah, you’d have to be into Victorian horror enough to have read Uncle Silas. You’d have to have a specific thing for Victorian horror, regardless of quality. Honestly, Uncle Silas is better.

You might not like The Turn of the Screw if:

  • You like stories that are well-told.

Final thoughts: Look, I get it. You’ve gotten this far, and you still want to know about the poor vulnerable governess and the spooky, haunted children. Me too. Watch the BBC production with Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary from Downton Abbey). It’s not bad.

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