I know it’s nearly mid-November, but it’s felt like mid-September these past few days, and it will feel this way for a few more days yet. Strange that last Monday I wore my winter coat and boots to work, and yesterday I wore sandals and no jacket. It’s definitely unusual, but I may as well enjoy it while it’s happening. It’s not too warm to enjoy a steaming cup of chai and a delicious Date Bar, though, and that’s what I’m doing right now as I write this post.
My Volunteer book club met yesterday, first time back in the Community Centre since March, to discuss the classic Henry James novella, The Turn of the Screw, an eerie read for this spooky time of year… or is it? Most people are familiar with the basic premise of this story. Even if you haven’t read it, you’ve probably seen one of the movie or Netflix adaptations, but for anyone not familiar with it, here’s a quick summary: An unnamed young woman is hired by a man in London to work as a governess in a large house in the remote English countryside, caring for and teaching his young niece and nephew. While there, she begins to suspect that the children are at risk of becoming “corrupted” or possessed by two malevolent spirits, those of the former governess and the uncle's valet/manservent. Unfortunately, no one else in the house sees these ghosts, but she is convinced that Flora and Miles are in imminent danger, and that it is her job to protect them at any cost. The situation spirals out of control until the story reaches a tragic end. This novella is supposed to be a classic study in evil, a ghost story to set the bar for all other ghost stories, but the first time I read it, I didn’t get that part. I’ve seen the original 1961 film version, “The Innocents” with Deborah Kerr, and found it to be quite haunting, and so I’ve always thought that it was just me, that I was not intelligent enough to understand this novella. I’m happy to say that it’s not just me! My whole group found this to be a terrible slog - we all agreed with the comment one of the members made about it: “So many words!” Another woman said that she’s never read so many words and learned so little. My long-held belief that the works of Henry James are just too difficult to read has now been confirmed. The main point of our discussion was whether the ghosts really existed or whether they were all in the governess’s imagination. Was this less a ghost story than a study in hysteria and psychological deterioration? My text had many critical pieces in the second half of the book, and I found those to be at least as interesting as the work itself, shedding light on the dense prose as studied by those much more learned than I. And several of the book club members also read the introductions or critical reviews and shared what they discovered. We all thought that the ghosts were not real, and that the poor children being left at the hands of such an unstable and ultimately destructive woman was a crime. We discussed the role of the absent uncle, who did not want to be bothered about the children at all. We discussed social class and the way it affected the relationship between the governess and the housekeeper, Mrs Grose. We discussed the underlying tone of sexuality in the narrative, a narrative that was supposedly written directly by the governess and sent to her friend many years later. Was the governess in love with the uncle, and also with the children to some extent, and suffering sexual repression? We all thought it would be interesting to find out what happened after the story ends, “Another Turn of the Screw” perhaps? We also discussed what the title might mean. In the end, it was a great discussion, and everyone agreed that there was so much more to talk about than they originally expected. I am now interested in going back and skimming to find sections where something actually happens and piecing the story together that way, much as you would a set of plastic dinosaur bones, all the better to review this plot and decide what I think about it without all the filler words that made it feel much like plodding through deep mud. Thank goodness it was short! (but it felt so long!!) I’m hoping people like our next book selection a bit better.
That’s all for today. Get outside and enjoy the mild, sunny day!Bye for now…