The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware and The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

October 16, 2019 at 9:54 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

   

This is a novel that begins with a desperate plea,then goes back in time to delineate the beginning of an innocuous, even hopeful undertaking, only to move forward with inexorable speed and mounting dread,  to culminate in…well, Reader, you’ll see.

The evocatively named Rowan Caine has taken a position as nanny to three small children who live with their parents in the remote Highlands of Scotland. The post has much to recommend it: the setting is beautiful, and Sandra, the children’s mother, is warm and welcoming. Best of all, it will provide Rowan with an  escape from London. The city’s crowded confusion had come to weight on her unpleasantly. (And was there something else weighing on her as well?)

Rowan is to be a live-in child minder; her room, on the top floor of the spacious dwelling, is cozy and inviting. But she’s no sooner moved in than her expectations are confounded, in ways large and small. First of all, she finds out that the Elincourts, husband and wife who are partners in an architecture firm, are leaving almost at once to attend an important conference. Rowan will basically be left to cope on her own in a strange establishment.

It quickly becomes apparent that two of the young daughters, Maddie and Ellie, are less than thrilled by Rowan’s presence on the scene. (The third, Petra, is barely a toddler and a fourth, teen-aged Rhiannon, is away at boarding school.) Maddie in particular is downright hostile. The more Rowan tries to win her over, the more malevolent she becomes. When her behavior turns suddenly congenial, that’s the time to be especially wary.

The Elincourt domicile may have a venerable – if somewhat sinister – history, but Sandra’s husband Bill has tricked it up with all the latest in technological gadgetry. There are times when the house itself seems determined to thwart Rowan’s efforts to keep the family ship on an even keel.

By now, you have probably become aware of a certain classic ghost story hovering in the background of this novel. For one thing, the title pretty much gives the game away: The Turn of the Key versus The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. Despite this and other similarities, there are significant differences between these two novels.

James’s work features a housekeeper who is benign and sympathetic; the counterpart in Ware’s tale is contemptuous and spiteful. In The Turn of the Key, the parents are anxious and protective; in The Turn of the Screw, the young gentleman who hires the governess cares almost not at all for the niece and nephew whose custody he’s been saddled with. He desires the governess to take over their care and keep them out of harm’s way (and out of  his way as well). The Turn of the Key is narrated in the first person by Rowan herself, making the her situation feel all the more immediate and urgent to the reader. In contrast,  the governess in The Turn of the Screw is isolated by having her story told in the third person – and told by another, completely unrelated individual in what is referred to as ‘framing device.’

More could be said about this comparison but I’d rather not do so, at this juncture. Instead, I’d like to quote what I said about The Turn of the Screw in a post from 2013:

 I’ve listened to this recording (narrated by Flo Gibson) before, and I’ve read the book at least three times. I’ve seen “The Innocents,”  the terrific (in the literal sense of the word) 1961  film version starring Deborah Kerr. I’ve seen a film version (not sure which one)  of the opera by Benjamin Britten. All of this has taken place over the course of many years, decades actually.

So, as you can see, I’ve been trying for a long time to get to the bottom of it, to uncover the truth about what really happened at Bly – or at least, to decide once and for all what I believe happened.  From time to time, I feel the need to revisit The Turn of the Screw.You could say that this ghost story has haunted me for the better part of my life (and I know I’ve got plenty of company, in that regard).

Every time I revisit this maddening tale, I become aware of some new element. This time, the insistence on propriety and conventional appearance seems almost grating. When, for instance, it is learned that little Flora has gone out on her own, Mrs. Grose immediately exclaims, “Without a hat?” Flora, upon seeing the governess and Mrs Grose, is moved in her own turn to ask where their “things” are. The early emphasis on the sweetness and innocence of the children recalls Victorian sentimentality on the subject. Of course, this serves to heighten the contrast between the governess’s initial impression and her growing suspicions that the innocence of Miles and Flora has been fatally compromised by the forces of evil personified by the ghostly emanations of Miss Jessel and Peter Quint.

Whenever I am once again immersed in The Turn of the Screw, I begin looking for interesting commentary. In an essay called “Edmund Wilson and The Turn of the Screw,” M. Slaughter paraphrases the critic Edmund Wilson as follows: “James’s personal and authorial blind spot was sex, and his inability to confront, perhaps even to understand, sexual feelings, was transformed into the ambiguity of the governess.” That’s a subject for an entire book in and of itself…

Having come to Paris in 1875, Henry James was spending a considerable amount of time in the company of the greatest French writers of the day, Zola, Flaubert, and de Maupassant among them. Here’s what Michael Gorra says about the latter: “Guy de Maupassant wrote hundreds of short stories, many of them so frank in their account of sexual life that few young persons in England would have been allowed to read them.” So yes, there must have been a fairly wide gap between what James knew, and what he was able to acknowledge knowing. And as for what he could write about, that gap was much wider. He shared that reserve regarding sex with virtually all American and British writers of the late Victorian era. Even so, his reticence strikes the contemporary reader as extreme. Ironically, this need to approach the subject by the most oblique of routes often adds to the power of his writing rather than diminishing it (at least, it seems so to me).

(I think it’s worth noting here that from 1930 to 1968, American films were restricted by the Hays Code  as to how frankly they could deal with the subject of sex. Those limitations prompted screenwriters to approach the subject obliquely, producing dialog that was both provocative, suggestive, and at times downright terrific. See the famous “How fast was I going, Officer” scene written by Raymond Chandler for the 1944 film Double Indemnity.)

Basically, I enjoyed The Turn of the Key in the way you’re supposed to enjoy a thriller: It kept me turning the pages while generating a fair amount of dread. There were a couple of things I didn’t love, though. For one thing, there was a  very liberal amount of profanity, most of it coming from Rowan herself. At times it seemed as though every other word she uttered was either s–t or f–k. That got old fast. And as for Rowan herself – well, at times I was well in her corner, but at other times, she appeared rather clueless. I wanted to cry out, Get your head together, Woman! But I guess that makes her more or less normal.

As for The Turn of the Screw, it remains among my all time favorite novels – frightening, bewildering,  brilliant.

 

 

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