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. To the result that, because of the information he provided in the appetizer above, 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 headstart 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. When 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 :