Part 1 ; The Art of Phrasing
Part 2 ; The Art of Making Sense
Part 3 ; The Art of Song Writing
Part 4 ; The Art of Reading Attentively
- the turn of the screw
- the closest literature studies ever got
- the blindness that followed
- the hounting of bly
- a fluttered, anxious girl out of a hampshire vicarage
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Poetry and how to survive it
or : the art of reading attentively
If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me,
I know that is poetry.
f I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off,
I know that is poetry.
These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?
the turn of the screw
The novella by Henry James (1843 – 1916) is for sheer size not really suited to try wordsubstitution on, but it will do the trick all the same. Time consuming it may be, but that does not prevent the actors from the RSC to perform this very exercise on every Shakespeare play that nowadays runs in Stratford : this helps them to understand what is going on on stage.
But is it obligate? for a few key scenes perhaps. But reading attentively will by now be sufficient to recognize familiar patterns if and when they occur. Which is a good thing too, because you are on your own this time. I would love to reveal the story’s brilliant simplicity, but Henry James won’t have it :
“So long as the events are veiled the imagination will run riot and depict all sorts of horrors, but as soon as the veil is lifted, all mystery disappears, and with it the sense of terror.”
To explain a mystery without unveiling it, is like squaring the circle ; it is allowed, but one better don’t even try. Which leaves only one approach open, and that is to make you read the narrative just for the pleasure of unveiling the events yourself :
The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as, on Christmas eve in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to say that it was the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child. The case, I may mention, was that of an apparition in just such an old house as had gathered us for the occasion – an appearance, of a dreadful kind, to a little boy sleeping in the room with his mother and waking her up in the terror of it; waking her not to dissipate his dread and soothe him to sleep again, but to encounter also, herself, before she had succeeded in doing so, the same sight that had shaken him. It was this observation that drew from Douglas – not immediately, but later in the evening – a reply that had the interesting consequence to which I call attention. Someone else told a story not particularly effective, which I saw he was not following. This I took for a sign that he had himself something to produce and that we should only have to wait. We waited in fact till two nights later; but that same evening, before we scattered, he brought out what was in his mind. – – – — — – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – — – – – – “I quite agree – in regard to Griffin’s ghost, or whatever it was – that its appearing first to the little boy, at so tender an age, adds a particular touch. But it’s not the first occurrence of its charming kind that I know to have involved a child. If the child gives the effect another turn of the screw, what do you say to two children—?” – – – — — – – – – – – – – – – – – — – “We say, of course,” somebody exclaimed, “that they give two turns! Also that we want to hear about them.”
If you want to hear about them too, time has come to purchase a copy of the novella. Or to open the free available Ladder-edition by Adrian Dover. And to be aware that Henry James once described The Turn of the Screw as
“a piece of ingenuity pure and simple, of cold artistic calculation, an amusette to catch those not easily caught (the ‘fun’ of the capture of the merely witless being ever but small), the jaded, the disillusioned, the fastidious.”
Another author then, who likes to fool the best part of his audience. And, judged by his aim, Henry James has thrown the glove at Sherlock Holmes himself. He was, after all, a contemporary. But, for the sake of his own pleasure, he has to play things fair, because there is no fun in fooling Sherlock with a problem that has no solution. And the problem itself is ‘pure and simple’. A description that rules out obscurity for obscurity’s sake, and rather points at the efficient use of words in a poem. As a matter of fact, the beauty of the problem that Henry James composed is in its solvability. And in the amusette’s very design to be elementary. Which, of course, is no help to poor witless Watson. If he, for instance, notices the anomaly in the novella’s opening paragraph, he can be trusted to explain it away as not necessarily an anomaly within the world of the story itself. Sherlock Holmes, on the other hand, takes for granted that Henry James expects his more attentive readers to appreciate the clue.
Henry James’s masterpiece deserves all the protection a well maintained omerta can provide. Just your luck then, that Sherlock Holmes always has a theory at the ready after hearing a mystery’s first lines of introduction. One that covers all angles, and is always comfirmed by what he hears next. By the time he sets out to investigate, it is merely to pick up the evidence to close a case that has already been solved. A pattern that Henry James makes good use of. And heaving read the introductory section, Holmes is after a certain manuscript. It is written in a woman’s hand, and Holmes expects to find it in the possession of the introductory section’s anonymous narrator ; the third in a succession of narrators, and our direct source of the story. No big deal, perhaps, but part of a theory that enables him to picture the Christmas party in as close a detail as any of the people sitting around the fire.
Restricted to being honest in a veiled way, Henry James is not making a fool of good old Sherlock! And what about you? If Holmes’s head start discouraged you, or his unexpected line of inquiry, just be assured that this is no account by John Watson of his greatest successes. This time Holmes can bark at the wrong tree (that would be the day) as well as any James expert. Or suffer an unexpected drawback. Read the entire novella. Then take your time to develop a theory of your own, and return to the Christmas party.
Which I did after two decades. By the time it occurred to me that I knew the story’s outlines from earlier sources.
Make sure that your theory covers all the facts you’ll derive from the introductory section, and then use Henry James’s veiled honesty to your advantage at your second go :
If you notice details in either introductory section or main story that prove it consistent with your theory, it can’t be much wrong. And the more little details to that effect will catch your eye, the more reason you’ll have to see them as proof that your theory is consistent with the story. It is a method that Sherlock Holmes himself applies in the process of his search for that one piece of evidence (manuscript ; woman’s hand) that still eludes him. And he is by now convinced to find it exactly where he predicted it to be at his first assessment.
Two details in particular justify the determined continuation of his thorough search of the premises : one is the strand of poetry that Sherlock found interwoven with the bone-chilling final turn of the screw, the other is his observation that at the story’s extreme ends the always accurate situation descriptions do not match a stated fact. And you have a stroke of luck here, because the Ladder-edition gives one of these anomalies away :
“In the first, magazine, text Flora’s age is given (in chapter 7) as six years, changed in this text to eight; James, however, forgot to change various features of the text, such as Flora’s high chair and bib and her simple writing lesson, to suit a more advanced child, leading surely to slight confusion in an attentive reader!”
The Ladder-edition more than once points such an error out. But this time it goes Lestrade on a hot scent. As you need to derive from the presented facts, if you don’t want to hang on Holmes’s tail, and suffer the self-inflicted ordeal of his “elementary, my dear Watson!’ An ‘elementary’ this time, that concerns the heroine’s reliability. Well, let me say here distinctly, it can be taken for granted. If you are not prepared to take the word of Henry James, when he says so in the preface to a later edition,
“in The turn of the screw, please believe, the general proposition of our young woman’s keeping crystalline her record of so many intense anomalies and obscurities – by which I don’t of course mean her explanation of them, a different matter; and I saw no way, I feebly grant (fighting, at the best too, periodically, for every grudged inch of my space) to exhibit her in relations other than those; one of which, precisely, would have been her relation to her own nature. We have surely as much of her own nature as we can swallow in watching it reflect her anxieties and inductions. It constitutes no little of a character indeed, in such conditions, for a young person, as she says, ‘privately bred’, that she is able to make her particular credible statement of such strange matters. She has ‘authority’, which is a good deal to have given her, and I couldn’t have arrived at so much had I clumsily tried for more.” (New York ed. ; 1908)
take mine : she holds nothing back, and tells no lies either. She can’t. Firstly because feeding false information is no fair play, secondly because the heroine writes her account of events down in order to come to terms with the memory. Other motives, that is, can’t be established, because it takes the manuscript decades after her death to go public. Holmes therefore trusts her enough to stake his reputation on it. And her story’s tampering with the evidence fits perfectly in his initial theory anyway.
A beautifully simple one. And it leaves no stone unturned. But even without, Holmes would have reached the same conclusion by one of these two opposing lines of reason :
The heroine did not tamper with the facts, because a later narrator did. And whatever the reason, it is one that proves the heroine true to her story
The heroine did tamper with the facts. This proves her true to her story, because she made no attempt to compose a truth that matches the lie.
In case you don’t buy such foolhardiness, be aware that Henry James once described The Turn of the Screw as an amusette to catch those not easily caught. Sherlock Holmes, however, is the most fastidious of investigators, and can be expected to take into account what escapes the attention of any other observer.
On which conclusion I now leave you on your own ; in the reassuring knowledge that you will respect the omerta. If not because you are going to admire Henry James enough for composing such a masterpiece to pay him the respect, then at least because other attentive readers deserve to enjoy the mystery as much as you did. And, as its humble contribution to this joy, Literature Studies now provides for this mystery’s context :
the closest literature studies ever got
“A deliberate, powerful, and horribly successful study of the magic of evil, of the subtle influence over human hearts and minds of the sin with which this world is accursed.” (The New York Times Saturday Review of Books and Art)
The first to enjoy this study, were the readers of Collier’s Weekly, which published The Turn of the Screw between 27 January and 16 April 1898. The quoted review, however, refers to the novella’s first appearance as a book in October 1898. A review that declared it worthy of being compared to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Henry James would have loved to read this flattery, especially because it gives nothing away, while it all the same plants the flag of its anonymous author spot on : the first to have cracked the case. But not the only one, and a similar review appeared nine days later independently in a Detroit magazine.
Just in case : this is the example to follow whenever you face the same problem of suppressing the desire to show off, that caused me to lift the veil a little higher than Henry James would have appreciated. But those things happen when generations of experts fail to explain that a properly told story is, within its context, all one needs to find out what exactly it is telling. Who should blame me then, for assuming that nobody can find his way out The Turn of the Screw without a guide?
the blindness that followed
All of these possible conjectures demonstrate that “the whole story is to be doubted, and we can be certain of nothing.” This is why “we have had theory after theory proposed as the answer … and there is still no single explanation which satisfies everyone … The whole point about the puzzle is its ultimate insolubility”
This is the way to turn failure into success. And its author is Louis D. Rubin in One More Turn of the Screw (1964), as quoted by Edward J. Parkinson’s 1991 dissertation The Turn of the Screw ; a history of its critical interpretation 1898 – 1979. A book that, in its turn, is presented as
A valuable study for Jamesian scholars, as well as for students of literary theory – it can be seen as a study of the development of literary theory in the twentieth century with this particular literary work as a touchstone study.
The study would have been even more valuable, if its author had taken the trouble of judging developments, rather than merely presenting them in chronological order. True, he had no Holmes at his side to expose the puzzle’s ultimate insolubility as inadequate research, but he should at least have exposed the basic flaw at the root of all research in this field :
“Again and again, of course, the same incidents from the plot have been cited by different critics to support conflicting – often diametrically opposite – interpretations.”
This focus on supportive evidence is fatal – true science is in the attempt to prove one’s convincion (i.e. interpretation) wrong – and, because the resulting stalemate between contradicting interpretations prevents any future progress, it has effectively neutralized literary criticism as a branche of science.
How difficult it is to pick the right choice, is demonstrated by Dr. Parkinson in his very next lines (chapter VI), in which he refutes a correct observation. A matter of arguments that do not apply. And of poetic justice : even a correct observation is not entitled to have its basic facts wrong
The haunting of Bly
“Good ghosts, speaking by book, make poor subjects, and it was clear that from the first my hovering prowling blighting presences, my pair of abnormal agents, would have to depart altogether from the rules. They would be agents in fact; there would be laid on them the dire duty of causing the situation to reek with the air of Evil. Their desire and their ability to do so, visibly measuring meanwhile their effect, together with their observed and described success – this was exactly my central idea; so that, briefly, I cast my lot with pure romance, the appearances conforming to the true type being so little romantic. This is to say, I recognise again, that Peter Quint and Miss Jessel are not ‘ghosts’ at all, as we now know the ghost, but goblins, elves, imps, demons as loosely constructed as those of the old trials for witchcraft; if not, more pleasingly, fairies of the legendary order, wooing their victims forth to see them dance under the moon.”
Note the absence of the word ‘hallucination’. And a little earlier in this preface to the 1908 New York edition, Henry James reports to have been one of the guests around the fire when the host told the outlines of his story as a hearsay account of a real appearance. At the time a fashionable topic, and Henry James kept himself well informed on the latest developments in the field of scientific measurement of ghosts. And describing the ghosts that haunt Bly, he is in fact defending his choice to ignore their scientific specifications. From which follows that his ghosts originally answered to these specifications. As to be expected from real appearances.
a fluttered, anxious girl out of a Hampshire vicarage
“One wonders whether James intends to put us in mind of Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters by using this formulation?” (Adrian Dover)
The Brontë sisters had no connection to Hampshire whatsoever, and this note seems to suggest the editor’s identification of the governess as Agnes Grey ; alter ego of Anne Brontë (1820 – 1849), whose recollections may have provided the narrator with her initial misgivings to accept the vacant job. Agnes Grey indeed is a likely mold for the heroine as the private tutor who handles her little charges with professional ease. This governess, however, is clearly composed from a number of Austen creations :
Being the youngest of several daughters, she could be Lydia Bennet from Pride & Prejudice. Her age of twenty, however, and her eye-catching power of observation are second Bennet daughter Elizabeth’s. A protagonist who prides herself for her accuracy in judging other people’s character and intentions at the instant. In the James version she had had brothers too, which adds another novel to the heroine’s recipe, in which she has a brother, without causing any inconsistency with her apparent ‘sisters only’ background.
This second novel sufficiently defines the father of these young ladies as the ‘poor country parson’ from Douglas’s introduction. And Jane Austen describes the daughter of that shepherd of souls in a way that suggests her to have lied to her employer about her qualifications as a governess. Because the problems she has to face at Bly are somewhat out of her depths, her hubris is connected to these qualifications anyway. And the resulting tragedy has certainly learned her the lesson of being honest to herself : the heroine never lies.
The employer, a handsome bachelor “in the prime of life” (a standard eufemism), won’t be fooled that easily when it comes to assessing applicants for a job, and he certainly knows a girl’s real age (in the Austen novel seventeen rather than twenty) when he charms one. But after eighteen frustrating months he is also desparate to find somebody who is prepared to guard his private little secret in as remote a place as possible.
This remotest of places is his ancestral estate, and, as far as Northanger Abbey’s imaginative heroine is concerned, such a place must surely be haunted : she is the star in a parody on the gothic story. If one knows how to catch an expert, the resulting opportunity is too good to miss, and already in her first sentence, Jane Austen sums up virtually every argument that Literature Studies has at one time or another held against a governess who is seeing ghosts :
“No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against her.
“It is a street in Marylebone, London, running north from Cavendish Square to the Marylebone Road beside Regent’s Park; its current association with the medical profession, through the opening there of many eminent practitioners’ consulting rooms dates only from the late nineteenth century: at the time of the main narrative of the tale this street was merely one of the many fashionable residential streets in the area north of Mayfair. Later in the tale the street becomes, by metonymy, a reference to its occupant, the governess’s employer” (Adrian Dover).
Don’t let this editor put you off the scent : the dead only return when there is some terrible score to settle. Reason why they usually haunt their location of (violent) departure.
Moaning Myrtle from the second Harry Potter novel, for instance, finds her way back to the first floor girls’ toilets, because she hates the other girls for compelling her to seek refuge there. The precise circumstances of her death, by the way, make a striking parallel with the narrow escape by Hermione Granger in the first novel. And these two girls are very much of the same feather indeed.
And, beginning with a joke about dying of an excess of respectability, Henry James is absolutely consistent in his step by step unveiling why Miss Jessel returned to Bly instead. And her motive also suits Peter Quint ; her sad true lover, who brooded on impractical revenge, and who drowned his grief in liquor. Untill he joined her in the life here-after.
The place where they met, is, for us mortals, a little more difficult to find. Being derived from Northanger Abbey it should be somewhere near Cirencester, but Henry James preferred to locate Bly in Essex. A much wider area to search, which makes us to depend on the occasional clue about where to pin its exact location down on the survey map with a little marking flag :
It takes the coach from London “long hours of bumping” to reach the house’s nearest stopping-place in the late June evening. This places Bly at roughly the same distance from London as Catherine Morland’s home in Fullerton (Wilts), but in the opposite direction. A detail that invites to draw a straight line from one place to the other ; a line that has Harley Street halfway. This attempt locates the scene in the middle of nowhere. Which, of course, is the very place to locate a fictitious building. The nowhere in question, by the way, is Hamfort Water National Nature Reserve, and what would an English country-house be without such a copy of the Thames in its private grounds? At Bly this copy takes about twenty minutes to circumnavigate. Which seems impressive enough, but is in fact rather small for the location, and a wetland is no proper building site anyway. We therefore need to reconsider :
The Morlands live in Fullerton. Which in reality is a couple of houses and farms along Fullerton Road. And the nearest parish church is in Chilbolton (Hamps). No vicarage in Fullerton then. But by happy chance the Austen vicarage at nearby Steventon is just a little to the north of the line Fullerton – Hamfort Water. Correct for the distance to Harley Street, and we find ourselves at Great Bentley, correct for the deviation as well, and we arrive on Flag Hill, just to the west of Riddles Wood. Where else should Bly be?
A little to the northwest of Flag Hill we find Thorrington Hall. In itself a fine old place which dates back to the early Tudor age. But as an estate not quite in the same class as Northanger Abbey. Reason also to dismiss the other listed buildings in the area. In fact the only country-house to the northeast of London with grounds that match the Bly estate, lake included, is just south of Sheringham. As it happens, its position at the Norfolk coast places it roughly opposite Bly at the coast near St. Osyth. The house itself is not fully compatible, because far from ugly. And it would be seriously understaffed if it were to serve as James’s private orphanage, but, at its double scale, it matches Bly’s general impression. It is also famous enough to take for granted that Henry James knew the place. And he certainly would have known that the place is haunted. By two ghosts actually, and because chance stops at nothing to make the connection, the male appearance is a servant, the female a Lady. Both are dreadful to see, despite agreeable looks, while the Lady was in her time as infamous as Miss Jessel. And she definitely died of too much respectability.
In The Turn of the Screw, Henry James pays tribute to many an author. Having based the governess on a choice of Austen characters, he develops her narrative along the lines of some classics from the previous century. The fact that the ghosts are human, for instance, while the governess perceives them as supernatural, reflects Anne Radcliffe’s The mysteries of Udolpho (1794). A novel that the governess mentions in chapter four. In the same sentence she recalls the mystery from Thornfield Hall in Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë ; 1847), from which novel James copied the autobiographical structure, the bad news from home, and the heroine’s apparent “tendency for deceit”. While the sentence itself effectively states that a plot along the lines of these novels would not have fooled her for long.
The screw’s final turn is a strand of poetry that I can’t discuss without violating the omerta. But it is definitely not written by Edgar Allan Poe ; the century’s undisputed maestro of gothic suspense, who Henry James seems to ignore altogether. The strand of choice, meanwhile, is cunningly woven into the story’s prose. A method of word substitution, so to speak, that leaves it virtually invisible to people who suffer from blindness for vital clues on a silver plate. But that also leaves the original poem virtually unchanged, because by this method even the slightest alteration of the original poem’s order of words is out of the question.
The introductory section is clearly inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales (1837). If only by its title. And its recollections of a an evening with friends place James in the position of the third narrator :
“Saturday, January 12th, 1895
Note here the ghost-story told me at Addington (evening of Thursday 10th), by the Archbishop of Canterbury: a mere vague, undetailed faint sketch of it – being all he had been told (very badly and imperfectly) by a lady who had no art of relation, and no clearness: the story of the young children (indefinite number and age) left to the care of servants in an old country-house, through the death, presumably, of parents. The servants, wicked and depraved, corrupt and deprave the children; the children are bad, full of evil, to a sinister degree. The servants die (the story vague about the way of it) and their apparitions, figures, return to haunt the house and children, to whom they seem to beckon, whom they invite and solicit, from across dangerous places, the deep ditch of a sunk fence, etc. – so that the children may destroy themselves, lose themselves by responding, by getting into their power. So long as the children are kept from them, they are not lost: but they try and try and try, these evil presences, to get hold of them. It is a question of the children ‘coming over to where they are’. It is all obscure and imperfect, the picture, the story, but there is a suggestion of strangely gruesome effect to it. The story to be told – tolerably obviously – by an outside spectator, observer.”
An author’s notebook is a sketchbook, and its notes are not penned down with the intention to share them with others. To question the honesty of Henry James in this entry is therefore in itself questionable. To be at the safe side, one better takes this entry as evidence of the source’s influence on the result, rather than the other way round. But that reversion looks rather temptatious :
location Addington Palace (1774) great old country-house
source ‘a lady’ a governess
told by Edward Benson (*1829) Douglas
date Thursday 10 Jan. 1895) Thursday 26 December
retold by Henry James (*1843) third narrator
Judged by the original story’s outlines, it is a good thing that Henry James left us a transcript of his own. The lack of quality, however, is worth noticing, because traditional folk tales are usually specific on details like names and places. As a result the original story looks very much like a hearsay account of a real incident. And that is exactly how Henry James presents it. Both in the 1908 preface, and in the introductory section to his transcript. And its narrator is an outsider. Yet, Henry James makes the heroine specific enough on names and places to suggest a traditional tale, which it can’t be without being specific on the exact nature of the danger that the apparitions represent. Yet, it is on that matter that the narrative goes evasive, while the story’s surviving version needs a very sharp observer indeed to recognize the children as bad. As a result, the original story’s specific-against-vague effect has been reversed, and a traditional folk tale is once again ruled out.
The status of the children is the key to all interpretation. And because our transcript version needs an Elizabeth Bennet to recognize them as bad, it left literary criticism sharply divided on the part played by the heroine. Is she responding on a genuine threat, or on a delusion? The answer is in James’s dealings with two pieces of evidence. One is the boy’s confession that he is ‘bad’. The other is the girl’s bad language. This evidence is in itself genuine enough, but it is placed in a context that raises questions about its reliability as proof of a supernatural presence. Not even the independent witness of the girl’s bad behaviour can chance that. A problem that in real life never fails to hamper attempts to verify the reported sighting of a ghost. As a result the sceptical ghosthunter still thinks himself fully entitled to doubt. Just as to be expected in cases when the reported ghost is actually there. What about that for deceitful ambiguity?
The last detail to notice, is that the first draft was made ‘much later’ in the sense that an author usually sleeps in the same room as his notebook. This is the only way to ensure that an interesting idea gets penned down before it fades from memory. This one didn’t fade at all, because the final transcript is exact on every point that can be checked : Edward Benson was old Trinity, and so is Douglas. The archbishop died within two years after telling the story. And, according to the upcoming dating attempt, so did Douglas. And he maintains the parallel by describing the governess as a true lady. If not by class, then at least by personality.
“Working backwards, one places the governess’s experiences in the second quarter of the nineteenth century.” (Adrian Dover ; introduction)
And rather late in that quarter, apparently, because Adrian Dover identifies in chapter four a conscious reference to Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë ; 1847). In consequence the governess would have taken the train to Colchester, which had entered service in March 1843. This dating attempt therefore disagrees with the story’s consistent unawareness of modern times. The simplest way to deal with the anomaly, is to question the location of Bly within a day’s walk distance of the nearest train station. The more convenient way is to ignore the clue as an anachronism. The way to avoid the company of Sherlock Holmes is to do both at the same time :
Some forty years at least separate the events at Bly (1847 or later) from the Christmas party, and probably a lot more. This ‘probably’ dates the Christmas party in 1895 : two years before the story is published after what looks like a much longer period of time. This because Douglas has passed away, with a strong suggestion that many years have passed between events. But ‘poor Douglas’ as a rule refers to someone who died just weeks ago. In January of this same year 1895, Henry James learned the story himself. On a Thursday again. This is too much of a coincidence, and one has to consider the possibility of careful planning. At the same time, the ‘looks like’ dates the Christmas party back to 1889, and Douglas’s summer romance within two years of Miles’s death. The calendar therefore brings both options at exactly the same distance of its limit of probability. A distance that can be accepted as possible, but also one that is far too close for comfort.
Chance is very well capable of creating such a regularity, but is more likely to destroy it, and it stands to reason that symmetry results from intelligent design.
The title page of Jane Eyre is dated 1847. It is unlikely that Henry James knew that the novel’s first volume was published as late as 16 October. This while the heroine refers to the second volume, which definitely dates her arrival at Bly in the summer of a later year.
In which case Henry James has deliberately created the ambiguity of two equally questionable datings where pinpoint precision was the easier option. Once again, there is no compelling reason why chance should be ruled out as the source of this anomaly. But when ruled out notwithstanding, the question is : why would Henry James take the trouble? To create a certain effect, obviously. And the obvious effect of this dating ambiguity is a structural unreliability of narrators : if we believe Douglas when he dates the tragedy at Bly ‘long before’ he met its heroine in 1855, we can’t trust the third narrator’s account of the Christmas party, which deviously suggests to have been written many years afterward. If we, with equal authority, take these many years for granted, Douglas met the heroine in 1849, and his ‘long before’ is to be counted in months rather than in years.
Structural unreliability implies that we can’t trust either narrator, but they can’t be both wrong at the same time, which leaves us with a pinpoint accurate dating that is six years off its mark.
A challenge to the reader :
The method to break this deadlock will in due time be placed underneath a link in this line. But do not touch it until you have finished the novella. Or you are going to regret to have lifted this veil before reading the main narrative. And you do not really need to lift it anyway. Now you have read the introductory section of The Turn of the Screw, and all about its context, you have learned enough to figure the dating out for yourself. It won’t be easy, though, to unravel the trickery in the story’s time line, that, underneath the link, can make a fool of even a most fastidious investigator. But in the end you will see through the double dealings of Henry James, and establish the exact year that the heroine arrived at Bly. This year can’t be earlier than 1837, or later than 1849. And its reliability is based on an evidently consistent pattern in the time line.