The Turn of the Screw is a novel by Henry James which was serialized in 1898. It consists of twenty-four chapters that follow an introductory section. Sitting around a fire on Christmas Eve, a group of friends are gathered and are listening to ghost stories. It is then that one of the members begins the narration of a ghost story that is told in first-person from his point of view.

The governess is the narrator and also the central character for much of the novel. Her name is never revealed, the only information given about her is that she left home, was twenty years old, and was the youngest daughter of a poor clergyman. Upon her arrival in London, a young man who she later fell in love with interviewed her for the position of a governess. He never loves him back and the result of her mental status due to said unrequited love is left up to the reader.

She basically begins to reveal herself as having an intense internal conflict. She may be mad, sexually repressed, and delusional. This makes her imagine ghosts and evil which are only the consequences of her internal conflict. Or, the governess could have an external conflict which would be herself vs. man; in this case, man would be Peter Quint and Miss Jessel - the ghosts she encounters. The appearances of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel are only seen by the governess. According to the governess, the children are maintaining communication with their previous caregivers even though they are dead.

Eventually, all of the characters are affected by the “imagination” of the governess. It is still questionable to the reader if the ghosts really do appear, but it is evident that the other characters do not see them. The governess interprets any behavior from the children as being evil, even though the behaviors are “normal” for children between these ages. Miles, the 10 year old boy, dies when his heart stops (as a result of seeing a ghost?) and Flora is taken away to her uncle's.

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) is considered the most important British composer since Henry Purcell. He was famous for his compositions in combination with or based on literature such as The rape of Lucretia, A midsummer night’s dream and The turn of the screw.

Britten’s opera The turn of the screw consists of a prologue and two acts. The libretto is by Myfanwy Piper, after Henry James’ famous novella. The opera was first staged at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice in 1954. Britten wrote the opera very quickly, starting work on the music less than six months before the premiere.

The plot evolves around a soprano governess who takes full responsibility over a boy and a girl, Miles (alto) and Flora (soprano). Their uncle insists to the governess that she should not try to contact him. Both children seem nice at first glance, but then Miles is expelled from school for causing an undisclosed injury to his friends.

In scene four and five of the first act the governess finds out that two ghosts might control the kids: the bad, former valet Peter Quint (tenor) and the former governess miss Jessel (soprano). When the governess tries to protect Miles and Flora against the evil spirits, they start to resist her. Quint (silent in the novella!) tells Miles to intercept the letter the governess has written to warn the uncle that something’s suspicious is going on, and Miles indeed steals the correspondence in scene five of act two. In the end the soprano housekeeper takes Flora to her uncle where she will be safe.

The governess stays with Miles and asks him what happened. She forces him to admit Quint ordered him to deceive her. Meanwhile Quint’s voice is playing with Miles’ mind. Miles admits it all, but the boy turns out to be torn apart mentally and dies in the governess’ arms.

From the excellent website of the Canadian Opera Company (see sources below), I offer you the synopsis’ of some of the key scenes here:

Prologue: Early 20th-century Britain. A man tells the backstory of the opera. A governess accepts a position with a family to look after a little girl and her older brother. The Governess's employer, who is the uncle of the two wards, stipulates that he must not ever be contacted.

Act 1, Scene 5: The children play at rhymes while the Governess watches. She sees the stranger, who once again disappears. The Governess asks Mrs. Grose about the man, and from the description she recognizes him immediately as the former valet, Peter Quint. He was a bad person, she explains, who may have done bad things to the former governess, Miss Jessel, and even to Miles. "He liked them pretty," Mrs. Grouse says. "And he had his will, morning and night." The Governess deduces that the ghost of Quint has come for Miles.

Act 2, Scene 4: The Governess approaches Miles as he gets ready for bed. She tells him she's written to his uncle. Quint's voice calls out; Miles stops listening to the Governess. The single candle lighting the room goes out, leaving the Governess, Miles, and Quint in darkness. Quint's voice continues, suggesting Miles intercept the letter before the Governess mails it.

Act 2, Scene 8: Mrs. Grose escorts Flora away from the estate to safety, but before she goes, she tells the Governess that Miles has stolen the letter. The Governess vows to stay with Miles. She asks him to tell her what's happened. Quint's voice demands that Miles resist, but Miles is feeling chatty. He tells her he stole the letter, and admits that Quint made him do it. The Governess embraces Miles as Quint bids his adieu. The Governess realizes Miles has died.

Britten rewrote James’ claustrophobic drama to be played by a small orchestra of thirteen. Every scene is started by a variation on the central theme of twelve notes, which is the introduction to the first scene. There are multiple variations on key motives, such as "Oh, why did I come?" by the governess, "The ceremony of innocence is drowned" by the ghosts and Miles’ profound "Malo, malo". A gong usually announces the appearance of the sad miss Jessel. The only deep male voice of Peter Quint is quite suitably accompanied by the celesta, his melismatic lyrics (several notes sung to one syllable of text) and his malicious fantasies of devastation.

The natural background sounds change with the appearance of the ghosts. The lake transforms into the Dead Sea that Flora is tempted by to cross to get to miss Jessel. Much of the music is focused on the children: Flora’s lullaby, children’s songs, choir songs and Miles’ playful piano music by Mozart. It soon gets a dark meaning ‘though.

When the governess gets stronger, her position is less clear since Quint and she start to share musical parts. Near the end she sings - unconsciously simultaneous with Quint – her high-pitched words "Together we have destroyed him" to Miles, which turn into cold irony when she realizes the boy is dead. The music poses the question for the audience: would Miles have been better off with Quint?

Because of the orchestra parts in between the scenes and the thematic symbolism, The turn of the screw is one of Britten’s most complex opera structures, but just like Alban Berg’s Wozzeck and Lulu, the viewer’s appreciation is not dependable upon knowing the arrangement. All together the monstrous relationship between Miles and Quint seems to reflect Britten’s fear that loving innocent, pure beauty leads to decay. Other reviewers associated this affiliation with Britten’s alleged homosexuality.

The turn of the screw brought Britten international exposure. Critics as well as audiences were very excited about the opera in Venice, which was immediately taken to Britain and the Netherlands. Since 1954, the opera has become a stronghold in the international inventory of opera, with several productions around the world every year.

Spectrum’s Opera (ISBN 90-274-6581-9)
Canadian Opera Company (

I started reading Henry James' 1898 novel The Turn of the Screw with some awareness of the book’s reputation of having an ambiguous narrative: the young governess’s story could be read as a straightforward documentation of a tragic haunting … or it could be read as a madwoman’s diary, the ghosts she describes all just a figment of her mind.

Upon reading the book — and upon having read two other books published at about the same time, namely Robert Chambers’ The King in Yellow and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness — my take is that James intended it to be a straightforward gothic haunting tale.

The Turn of the Screw has a story-within-a-story narrative frame similar to that of Heart of Darkness: an unnamed narrator tells of a gentleman named Douglas who is telling a ghost story to impress his peers at a country retreat. Douglas’ tale, in turn, is the first-person narration of a young governess put in charge of two orphaned children at a remote country manor. As in Heart of Darkness, the unnamed narrator doesn’t editorialize on the believability of the story being told, but Douglas, the secondary narrator, actively vouches for the governess’ character:

“She was a most charming person, but she was ten years older than I. She was my sister’s governess,” he quietly said. “She was the most agreeable woman I’ve ever known in her position; she would have been worthy of any whatever. … we had, in her off-hours, some strolls and talks in the garden— talks in which she struck me as awfully clever and nice ….” (James, Prologue)

The governess was just twenty years old when the events of The Turn of the Screw took place; if she were suffering from delusional mental illness severe enough to drive her to murder at that age, her mental condition was unlikely to improve in the subsequent years, this being long before the invention of anti-psychotic medication (remission of untreated mental illness is possible, but doesn’t happen in most cases). Likewise, if she were a sociopathic murderess who preyed on children, one would think either the master of Bly would have found her at fault for Miles’ death (and subsequently destroyed her career if he didn’t have her arrested) or that Douglas might have sensed her unpleasant nature, or gotten reports from his sister, and either way not found her quite so nice. So, Douglas’ introduction lends the governess’ narrative an air of believability.

However, even with Douglas’ confidence in her story, it’s possible that the governess could act as an unreliable narrator in her own story. But when I compare her narrative with that of Hildred Castaigne in The King in Yellow, I don’t see the hallmarks of an unreliable narration. While the characters who interacted with Castaigne consistently behaved as though they thought he might be crazy, the characters who interact with the governess largely treat her as though she’s sane. Her interactions with Mrs. Grose are particularly important there:

It was not till late next day that I spoke to Mrs. Grose; the rigor with which I kept my pupils in sight making it often difficult to meet her privately, and the more as we each felt the importance of not provoking— on the part of the servants quite as much as on that of the children— any suspicion of a secret flurry or that of a discussion of mysteries. I drew a great security in this particular from her mere smooth aspect. There was nothing in her fresh face to pass on to others my horrible confidences. She believed me, I was sure, absolutely: if she hadn’t I don’t know what would have become of me, for I couldn’t have borne the business alone. (James, Chapter XI)

Using Douglas to introduce the governess as a reliable source and the governess’ own portrayals of her working with Mrs. Grose all lead me to believe that James intended this as an old-fashioned ghost story. If not, I think he’d have used some of the techniques that Chambers used to cue the reader in to Castaigne’s madness. I think that critics who seek an alternative explanation are running into their own problems suspending their disbelief in the supernatural. Maintaining at least the illusion of believability is important to me as a writer, because I rarely compose fictional narratives that don’t contain some supernatural elements.

On the other hand, there are always readers who can’t be reached no matter how well-constructed a given story is; I’ll never forget my graduate school roommate who shunned fiction of any kind because she didn’t want to spend her time on things that “weren’t real.”

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