Name: The Turn Of The Screw / The Aspern Papers
Author: Henry James
Year: 1898 (The Turn Of The Screw) / 1888 (The Aspern Papers)
Genre: Psychological Fiction, Psychological Thriller, Thriller, Horrow
The Aspern Papers and The Turn Of The Screw are two short stories written by Henry James in 1888 and 1898 respectively. The Turn Of The Screw was one of the short classic books I wanted to read last year, though my edition came with The Aspern Papers which were first published together in New York as part of a series of his short stories in 1907-1909. In this review I am going to review each story in turn.
The Aspern Papers
This short story is written form the perspective of an unknown narrator, who travels to Venice to find Juliana Bordereau, a former lover of a famous writer named Jeffrey Aspern. She is rumoured to have a series of love letters from Aspern (the titular Aspern Papers) which the narrator wants to get hold of as they are very valuable.
He meets up with the old woman and offers to be her lodger and even to court her niece, Miss Tina who is a plain, somewhat naïve spinster. Over the course of a few months the narrator builds their trust and eventually tells Miss Tina his true intentions and she agrees to help him.
Juliana tries to sell the narrator a portrait miniature of Aspern for an extortionate price, she doesn’t mention Aspern but this convinces the narrator the letters are real. When Juliana falls ill however, the narrator goes looking for the letters.
Miss Tina calls him a “publishing scoundrel” and orders him to leave. He returns a few days later to find Juliana has died and Miss Tina agrees to give him the letters if he marries her. He refuses and flees but later changes his mind. When he returns however, Miss Tina announces she has burned the letters and he never sees them.
Overall I did enjoy this story, though I will admit it is a very slow burner. From the beginning we know the narrators true intentions so much of the story is a game of cat and mouse and a battle of wits as the narrator tries to get hold of the letters.
He starts the story quite confident that he will be able to hoodwink her easily, however Juliana is a very tough protagonist and is deeply mistrustful of him. I do think that there is a theme here of younger people’s perception of older people that they may be older and slower physically so they must be so mentally but in this story that is not the case.
The character of Miss Tina unfortunately isn’t really well rounded in my opinion as she just serves to be a possible love interest for the narrator but as she is naïve and sheltered she is unable to see the narrators true intentions.
The story as mentioned is also quite slow and for the most part not much happens until the climatic final chapters so I would think most people would struggle to get through this story.
The Turn Of The Screw
The second story begins at a dinner party on Christmas Eve where a narrator and their friends gather, one of them Douglas, says he met a governess and has a scary story to tell them. The remainder of the story is a retelling of her words.
The governess was hired by a man when she was younger to look after his niece and nephew, whose parents had passed away. Flora, his niece lived at Bly Manor in Essex whereas his nephew, Miles is currently at boarding school. At Bly Manor they are looked after by Mrs Grose, a housekeeper and the uncle divides his time between the manor and London. He asks the governess to raise the children and take full charge of them and asks her to agree not to involve him. She does and travels to the manor.
The governess meets Flora and a few days later Miles, who returns from boarding school with a letter from his mistress that he has been expelled. Charmed by the boy, the governess doesn’t ask him why and Miles doesn’t bring it up. However, the governess begins to see a man and a woman around the manor who she doesn’t recognise.
She learns from Mrs. Grose that her predecessors, Miss Jessel and Peter Quint, had had a close relationship before they died and the governess becomes convinced the ghosts can be seen by the children.
One day, Flora wanders off without permission to a lake. The governess and Mrs. Grose find her and believe she was talking to the ghost of Miss Jessel. Flora denies this and becomes ill, saying she doesn’t want to see the governess so she agrees to send her away with Mrs. Grose.
The governess is left with Miles who that night she asks him about the expulsion. The ghost of Quint appears and the governess tries to shield Miles from him, who attempts to see the ghost. The governess tells Quint he has no reason to possess Miles anymore so the ghost disappears, she tells Miles he is no longer controlled by the ghost, but finds he has died in her arms.
Again in a similar way to The Turn Of The Screw I did find much of this story also to be quite slow, however it does have a central mystery which as it unravels is fascinating.
The book at face value is a ghost story and the Miss Jessel and Peter Quint figures are very scary when they do appear in the story. It is also very shocking when the moment occurs where the governess begins to suspect the children know about the ghosts which is when she sees Miss Jessel but Flora looks and doesn’t appear at all alarmed at seeing her.
However there is a fascinating alternative reading which was mentioned in the foreword. Namely that the ghosts aren’t real and are a figment of the governess’ imagination as she becomes increasingly mad and that she is the one scaring the children. Though there is some evidence of this in the novel, at one stage it isn’t entirely clear if Mrs. Grose can see Miss Jessel or not, and also Flora says she is scared of the governess, not of Miss Jessel towards the end of the story. This open ended interpretation does make for some interesting thoughts whilst reading.
The character of Miles in particular is also disturbing, on the one hand he acts like an innocent schoolboy but there are moments where he is also very scary- for instance when he tells the governess to “Think me — for a change — bad!” as if he is challenging her to see him for who she is.
Though due to the horror elements I found this story probably more interesting than the previous one, it is still quite a slow burner and also due to the age of the book I found parts of the language hard to follow so I think some readers may get lost whilst reading them.
Overall both stories were enjoyable and I would recommend reading them at least once but probably won’t be ones I will re-read again.