“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 deliberatedly 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 in due time be placed underneath a link in this line. But do not touch it untill 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.