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Essex - The Turn Of The Screw by Henry James

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ESSEX
 
The Turn Of The Screw by Arthur Ransome
 
Synopsis:
The Turn of the Screw tells the story of a young governess sent to a country house to take charge of two orphans. Unsettled by a sense of intense evil in the house she soon becomes obsessed with the idea that something malevolent is stalking the children in her care. Meanwhile The Aspern Papers explores obsession of a more worldly kind, with its tale of a literary historian determined to get his hands on some letters written by a great poet. Such is his drive, he is quite prepared to use trickery and deception to achieve his aims...
 
Other Essex books:
 
Mr Britling Sees It Through by H G Wells
Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens
The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson
Secret Water by Arthur Ransome

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It has to be said that, after a good start, me and this book didn't get along too well :blush2: but plenty of people love it so I think it's just a matter of seeing whether Henry James' writing style suits you or not .. I got lost a lot in it (but sadly .. not in a good way :blush2:) and that hampered my enjoyment.

 

Review: Oh Henry James!! :banghead:  :banghead:  :banghead: There were about four reasons to pick this book up. It's part of the counties challenge (Essex,) it's a ghost story and so perfect winter reading, it's a book I have on Kindle so, if I could just settle to reading it, the Kindle might not be deemed a most monumental waste of money (that could, to be frank, have been put towards a Kitchen Aid mixer :blush2:) and lastly it was recommended to me after my dismal last outing with Mr James (The Ambassadors which would be sure to make the shortlist of 'Books You Would Happily Barbecue!' :blush2:)

So I came to it with a sense of purpose but also a little trepidation. I had seen the drama a few years back and all I can remember is that Colin Firth was in it :wub: Strangely, though I'm sure I watched it all the way through, I have no recollection of any of it and I believe at the time I was completely bamboozled and hadn't the foggiest (disconcerting but not a rare occurence .. obviously :giggle:) Anyhow, the book started off well and Henry redeemed himself somewhat. It wasn't a trial to read (unlike The Ambassadors which was not only a trial but a full life sentence :D) .. that is it wasn't a trial to begin with.

It has all the right ingredients for a ghost story. It begins with tales around the fireside on Christmas Eve. The talk turns to visitations and visitations in particular which have 'fallen on a child'. One of the party is not particularly impressed with the tale being told .. he has a much more dreadful story to tell .. 'if the child gives the effect another turn of the screw, what do you say to TWO children?'. He has a manuscript locked in his safe, which was written by the very governess central to the story. This governess had been employed to take care of two orphaned children. Their guardian (Colin Firth) didn't live with them, they lived in a big rambling country house in Essex (of course they did :D) and he lived in London. When appointing this (nameless) lady he has but one stipulation .. 'that she should never trouble him - but never, never: neither appeal nor complain nor write about anything' .. she should take the whole thing over and 'let him alone'. Somehow .. just because of his gentlemanliness, handsomeness and no doubt pure Colin Firthiness :D .. she falls in love with him (after just two brief meetings :roll2:) and possibly this stops her from running for the hills as you normally would when given this sort of ultimatum .. though I'm not so sure now that it shouldn't have been him doing the running :D

So far, so good. Off she trots to this lonely rambling house (well she didn't trot actually .. she crunched up the gravel path in a commodious fly :D) and there she meets the housekeeper Mrs Grose and the younger of her two charges Flora. Flora's older brother Miles is away at boarding school. The first slightly unsettling note comes when, shortly after the governess's arrival, Miles returns home after being expelled .. the reasons for which are unclear.

This is around the time I started to lose a little patience with the story. In no time at all the governess becomes completely infatuated with the children. She doesn't just dote she becomes absolutely (and quite creepily) besotted with them and as Mrs Grose is already a fully paid up member of their fan club, the pair of them talk about the children in a most peculiar way. This of course would've been a good way to unsettle the reader if it hadn't come across as completely improbable. It seemed to me that, almost instantaneously, they fell into a most cryptic way of speaking to each other which I just found unbelievable. Also, once again I fell a victim to Henry's convoluted sentences. You can start the sentence in full understanding and end it completely foxed. He loses you somewhere in the middle. It's an absolute art form with him.

The story was already fairly ambiguous and so I resented having to work so hard to plot my way through it. I did keep a thread of understanding going which I was able to cling onto from time to time but I couldn't really tell what he would be at and was not one whit clearer after the story ended. I have no idea now what on earth happened .. and in a year or two (or possibly a month :blush2:) I'll  be viewing it just as I did the drama. I don't mind ambiguous stories .. but when it's a bit of a struggle it would be nice to get a pay off at the end or even to have one or two theories flying around in your head, but if your general impression is 'what was that all about?' it's not very satisfying.

I did enjoy the lead up and the story gave me chills and for that Henry James gets a rather generous 3/5 I'm not going to do battle with him again though .. he's muffed it :blush2: 

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I've copied this review from over in my own reading blog, but thought I'd add it here too.
 
I know not everyone gets on with Henry James writing style, but this is the second of his books I've read, and I haven't had a problem, I've just had to make sure I concentrate, as there are plenty of long sentences to contend with.  It started really well, and I loved the little set up so that the actual ghost story would be a reading from a real story written by someone who had experienced it first hand.  
 
I don't know if this makes sense, but I enjoyed the reading of the book, more than the story itself!  The problem was, I'm not sure I really understood the plot.  That might actually be my fault, as I often struggle with ghost stories, and this was one I found didn't quite work.  It all seemed very rushed, with the narrator falling in love with the gentleman who hires her to be a governess for his charges, then she seems to fall in love with the children almost immediately too, and forms a strong friendship with the housekeeping in no time at all.  I didn't know what the intent of the ghosts was, and I couldn't work out if they were controlling the children, or what the children hoped to gain from the ghosts?  Who were they threatening?  A fairly confused reader here.
 
As far as the choice of this book in the English Counties challenge, I didn't really feel that there was any sense of place in the story.  I don't know if I missed that part in the narrative, but it could have been set anywhere in the country as far as I could tell.
 
All this sounds very negative, but like I said earlier, I have enjoyed reading both books I've read by Henry James, but for this one, I just didn't think it worked for me.  Maybe I don't read enough ghost stories to appreciate them, or maybe I wasn't concentrating as much as I thought, but not a book I could recommend, although I would still like to read more James, but I think I need to tackle another full novel next, and I think The Wings of the Dove would be my next attempt at his work.

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I've just read your review after posting mine, Kay, but there's some interesting parallels!
 

It has to be said that, after a good start, me and this book didn't get along too well :blush2: but plenty of people love it so I think it's just a matter of seeing whether Henry James' writing style suits you or not .. I got lost a lot in it (but sadly .. not in a good way :blush2:) and that hampered my enjoyment.


One of the things I've highlighted it how I do like his writing style, but for me, in this case, it was the plot and characterisation that let it down.
 

So I came to it with a sense of purpose but also a little trepidation. I had seen the drama a few years back and all I can remember is that Colin Firth was in it :wub: Strangely, though I'm sure I watched it all the way through, I have no recollection of any of it and I believe at the time I was completely bamboozled and hadn't the foggiest (disconcerting but not a rare occurence .. obviously :giggle:) Anyhow, the book started off well and Henry redeemed himself somewhat. It wasn't a trial to read (unlike The Ambassadors which was not only a trial but a full life sentence :D) .. that is it wasn't a trial to begin with.


Either they changed the story a lot, or I'm amazed you remembered that Colin was in it, as his character is barely in the book! :D
 

... she falls in love with him (after just two brief meetings :roll2:)


In no time at all the governess becomes completely infatuated with the children. She doesn't just dote she becomes absolutely (and quite creepily) besotted with them and as Mrs Grose is already a fully paid up member of their fan club, the pair of them talk about the children in a most peculiar way.


Everything seemed to happen really quickly, didn't it? That just felt unreal to me.

 

I did enjoy the lead up and the story gave me chills and for that Henry James gets a rather generous 3/5 I'm not going to do battle with him again though .. he's muffed it :blush2:


This is where we'll disagree - I didn't find it chilling at all, as I didn't feel any sense of malevolence from the ghosts, they were merely there. :dunno:

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Either they changed the story a lot, or I'm amazed you remembered that Colin was in it, as his character is barely in the book! :D

I never forget a glimpse of Colin :D He wasn't in it NEARLY enough :D

Everything seemed to happen really quickly, didn't it? That just felt unreal to me.

Totally ... it was ridiculously unreal.

This is where we'll disagree - I didn't find it chilling at all, as I didn't feel any sense of malevolence from the ghosts, they were merely there. :dunno:

I felt the set up to the story was quite chilling .. the threat of menace around the corner and I was still chilled later but not by the ghosts .. it was the children and the governess that were creeping me out. The governess especially. I thought she would definitely turn out to be unreliable as a narrator (and I still think she was) and that the children were at risk from her .. or maybe she was from them .. but though that did .. more or less .. come to pass it wasn't satisfactorily told in the least .. or believably told. Plus it was all too ambiguous. I think I read the last few lines and just went 'what?' :D  

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I read this over the Christmas holidays. Here's my review, copied from my Reading Blog thread:

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James ****

This is one of the classic ghost stories that I've intended to read for some time, but never quite got around to. A relaxed weekend of Christmas reading seemed to be the ideal moment, and I read this in a couple of sittings.

Henry James is notoriously difficult to read, but this is definitely one of his easier books. Sentences are complex, but little more so than many other Victorian writers. They do require 'tuning' in and concentration; the reason I took two sittings is that I found my mind all too often drifing off and failing to keep track during an evening session, at a time when I'd have comfortably ploughed on with many other lighter works. However, that style well suited the material, the slightly archaic, precise, sentence structures adding to the atmosphere in a way that a more modern, casual way of writing would have struggled to engage in such a situation, at least for me.

The plot itself follows what is now a well grooved pattern, but I suspect it was fresher in James's day. Even so, the story was no less suffused with an air of chilly uncertainty, the suspense building inexorably and ominously. James handles setting, character and the unfolding of the plot with masterly skill. I can't describe it as scary though, I'm not even convinced it's meant to be in the conventional sense of the word, but then scariness, like humour, is to me a rather overrated element in novels. What I did find intriguing though was the ambiguity: was this all a figment of the governess's imagination, even hysteria (indeed, she does appear to suffer a fit of hysterics at one point)? I know what I think, but any discussion would spoil a new reader's enjoyment. And this is, above all else was an enjoyable, reasonably easy read, ideal for a rather gloomy mid-December afternoon, complete with storm brewing!

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Everything seemed to happen really quickly, didn't it? That just felt unreal to me.

Which all added to the ambiguity, and questionability surrounding the reliability, of the governess's evidence. It all went to underline to me that things may not all be quite right.

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Copied from my book log: 

 

I picked this up with some trepidation as the choice for Essex in the English Counties Challenge. James' reputation left me intimidated, and the thoughts of both Janet and Willoyd didn't fill me with confidence that it was misplaced dread. 

 

However, onwards and upwards!

 

This is supposed to be a scary read, filled with spirits and ghosts and the like. But it isn't. The children don't really do anything that can be regarded as creepy, or even weird most of the time. They do not acknowledge the ghosts/spirits, but the governess just 'knows' what they are doing, plotting and feeling. 

 

That isn't scary, it's just poor plotting. It is only short, but that shouldn't prevent good plotting or well-rounded characters - neither of which are achieved here. The children are 'adorable', apparently, but given that is repeated every second page, couldn't the author have added a couple more qualities to their characters? Ultimately, I didn't care for any of the characters here and by page 40 I was begging for someone, anyone, to get killed. 

 

The writing style is ok, feels very much of its time, with overly long sentences, why, use, a, full, stop, when, a, comma, will, do. 

 

Even with the page count standing at under 100, I only persevered with this due to the ECC nature. I initially gave this 2 stars, but I might end up revisiting that mark!

 

2/5 (It was ok, I guess)

 

ETA: Having reread your review, Willoyd, I think you're right - this story would have been fresher in James' day. I got on ok with the style despite my criticism of the comma - it just requires concentration. My issue was with the story itself rather than the writing. 

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I agree with both of you, it's very unscary, but maybe as Will says it had more of an effect when it was first written, and I think the whole point of it is that you don't know if it's all, or at least partly, in the governess's mind.  I found it pretty unsatisfactory too.

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