The Turn of the Screw
Henry James
Contributed by Cinderella Domino
Context

Author’s Biography

Henry James (1843-1916) was born on April 15, 1843 to Henry James, Sr., and his wife, Mary Walsh Robertson. His older brother William was born in 1842, and younger siblings Garth Wilkinson, Robertson, and Alice were born in 1845, 1846, and 1848, respectively.

Henry Sr., the son of an Irish immigrant, was one of thirteen children, born in Albany, New York. By the time his own children were born, he had inherited a great deal of wealth from his father, and the James family. At the time of Henry Jr.’s birth, the family lived in New York City, where Henry Sr. devoted his time to the study of theology, philosophy, and mysticism, rejecting his father’s Presbyterian Church to follow the teachings of Swedish Christian mystic Emanuel Swedenborg.

The James children were educated in a variety of unorthodox circumstances—sometimes at schools, sometimes with private tutors, always with access to books and new experiences. Margaret Fuller, Washington Irving, William Makepeace Thackeray, and George Ripley visited the James home during Henry Jr.’s boyhood. In 1855, the James family embarked on a three-year-long trip to Geneva, London, and Paris, an experience that influenced Henry Jr.’s decision, as an adult, to live and write in Europe rather than his native America.

Upon their return from Europe, Henry Sr. moved the family to Cambridge, Massachusetts, allowing for continued contact with prominent writers and thinkers, including nearby Concord’s Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Bronson Alcott. Henry Jr. was a voracious reader and spent his teenage years divided between Cambridge, Europe, and Newport, Rhode Island, where he studied for a time with painter William Morris Hunt. His brother William was found to be a more adept artist, and Henry soon discontinued his lessons, turning instead to writing.

In 1861, Henry suffered a back injury. The injury would cause lingering pain throughout his life, and it prevented him from enlisting and serving in the American Civil War. William did not serve either, although their two younger brothers did. Henry briefly enrolled at Harvard Law School in 1862, but quickly decided that studying law was not for him, and returned to literary pursuits. He began publishing reviews and short fiction in various journals in the early 1860s; he also produced travel writing based on his independent travels in Europe between 1869 and 1870. He published his first novel in 1870, and followed this with a series of early works, many of which focused on the experiences of Americans in Europe. After a few unsuccessful attempts at settling in Europe, he moved to Paris in 1875, quickly followed by a move to London. With the exception of a few brief trips, he would remain in Europe for the rest of his life.

Henry cultivated acquaintances with many of the major artistic and literary figures in both France and England in his lifetime. He remained a prolific novelist, and also displayed a strong interest in literary criticism. Henry was attracted to the idea of writing for the theater. After producing many unadapted scripts and one modest success in the 1890s, Henry wrote a long drama called "Guy Domville" which opened to negative reactions in London in 1895. Although public opinion subsequently shifted and the play ended up being moderately successful, Henry was deeply traumatized by the initial negative reaction. He did however recover enough to write other theatrical pieces, some of which he later rewrote as novels.

Henry remained active late into his life, both producing new works of fiction and editing the "New York Edition," a twenty-four-volume collection of his works. He finally became a British subject in 1915, and died in London in 1916.

Unlike William, who married and fathered five children, Henry remained a bachelor his entire life. Though lacking in definitive evidence, some critics theorize that he was gay, pointing to what they perceive as homoeroticism in relationships such as that of Pemberton and Morgan Moreen in his story "The Pupil" and Peter Quint and Miles in The Turn of the Screw, or to James’s facility with female voices in his writing (an ability that may reflect a capacity for empathy rather than evidence of his sexuality). Others suggest his cousin Mary "Minny" Temple as the object of his affection and posit her death from tuberculosis at age twenty-four in 1870 as the reason for James’s celibacy. James had spent time with her in Newport and based several of his heroines on her. Still others suggest that the injury that had prevented his service in the Civil War had rendered him impotent.

Among James’s most famous literary works are 1878’s The Europeans, 1878 commercial success Daisy Miller, 1880’s critically acclaimed Washington Square, 1886’s The Bostonians, and 1898’s The Turn of the Screw. James met and corresponded with a number of American and European literary figures of his day. Among them, Ivan Turgenev, Joseph Conrad, Oscar Wilde, Robert Lewis Stevenson, Edith Wharton, and Stephen Crane influenced his literary style and his beliefs.

Context

The Turn of the Screw was written in 1897, in a period when James’ other novels and plays had been selling poorly and were derided as too talky or too intellectual. After the mixed reaction by audience and critics to his most recent work, the play Guy Domville, James chose to "take up my own pen" rather than please others’ expectations, and wrote this short story-now probably the most widely read of all his works. 

The Turn of the Screw was transcribed by James’ secretary William McAlpine on the (newly invented) typewriter, instead of being written out in long-hand by James himself, because James had recently suffered what would now be diagnosed as Repeated Stress Syndrome in his hands. It was published serially in Collier’s weekly magazine between January and April 1898. A major reason for its continuing fame is the ambiguity in the text concerning whether the governess is actually seeing manifestations of ghosts, or whether she is an unreliable narrator describing her own hysteric delusions. At the time it was written, public attitudes considered ghosts as real, dangerous scientifically-observed phenomenon. In fact, James’ own father, Henry James Sr., had been praised for his observations of spiritual phenomena by Boston’s Society for Psychical Research and his brother William was a president of this society from 1894 to 1896. Of course, this doesn’t mean we can conclude that James himself believed in ghosts or was portraying them-it’s just an indicator of what was considered plausible at the time.

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