The Turn of the Screw – Henry James

Probably Henry James’s best known novel, The Turn of the Screw, is a ghost story and although I’m not a particular fan of this genre I have to admit that the suspense builds superbly and that I thoroughly enjoyed this rare wander into the supernatural. Although born in New York in 1843 James moved to Europe in 1869 and finally settled in England in 1876 where he lived until his death in 1915 a year after gaining British citizenship. The book, written in 1898, reflects this and reads much more like a Victorian English novel rather than one from his homeland, indeed if I hadn’t known the author was an American I would never have guessed it from the style. The initial premise that it is a story read out to a group of friends from an old manuscript seems similar to so many British mystery and crime novels from the golden age of the 1920’s and 30’s although predating them by at least twenty years that the structure of the work felt so familiar. A group of friends are gathered at Christmas and are telling tales of supernatural events when Douglas stands up and referring to the previous tale starts to introduce his own story…

“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 been concerned with 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 two children give two turns! Also that we want to hear about them.”
I can see Douglas there before the fire, to which he had got up to present his back, looking down at this converser with his hands in his pockets. “Nobody but me, till now, has ever heard. It’s quite too horrible.” This was naturally declared by several voices to give the thing the utmost price, and our friend, with quiet art, prepared his triumph by turning his eyes over the rest of us and going on:
“It’s beyond everything. Nothing at all that I know touches it.”
“For sheer terror?” I remember asking.
He seemed to say it wasn’t so simple as that – to be really at a loss how to qualify it. He passed his hand over his eyes, made a little wincing grimace. “For dreadful— dreadfulness!”
“Oh, how delicious!” cried one of the women

As you can see this passage from the preface to the novel introduces the title which is then not referred to. The two children are brother and sister Miles, aged ten, and Flora, aged eight, who start off being simply strange but rapidly become more than a little creepy. The story is told by their governess who was appointed to this position at the beginning of the book and the gradual loss of her composure as she discovers that the country house where she is working is haunted by two ghosts, the masters late valet Peter Quint and the children’s previous governess Miss Jessel. Only other servants live at the country house as the children’s parents are both dead and the house belongs to their uncle who never comes there, but lives in London, and as part of the condition of employing the new governess required her not to communicate with him. Her only support in dealing with the increasingly odd behaviour of the children, as they clearly seem not only to be able to see the ghosts but actively pretend not to and also appear to encourage manifestations is Mrs Grose the housekeeper who slowly reveals the history of the two characters. To add to the mystery Miles attended just one term at school before being expelled with no reason given by the headmaster and refuses to talk about his time there. When he was alive Quint apparently spent far too much time with Miles according to Mrs Grose and had an undue influence over the boy whilst Flora appears to have been rather too close to Miss Jessel.

The story is engrossing and was originally serialised in an American weekly magazine over a period of twelve weeks, so two chapters at a time. This probably explains the regular cliffhanger revelations at the end of the chapters thereby ensuring that the next section would be looked forward to by a presumably growing band of avid readers. I’m certainly glad to have finally got round to reading what Stephen King in his 1983 book Danse Macabre described as one of only two great supernatural works of horror in a century, the other being The Haunting of Hill House and I heartily recommend giving it a go.

This copy is from the Alma Classics Evergreens series which at the time of writing has an excellent deal available of ten books for just £30 with free UK shipping.

Silas Marner – George Eliot

I’ve made a few attempts at reading Middlemarch and have failed miserably each time but do feel there must be something to George Eliot to explain her popularity so when on lithub.com I came across the following ‘recommendation’

George Eliot, Silas Marner (1861) : Like MiddlemarchSilas Marner is exquisitely written and ecstatically boring. Unlike Middlemarch, it is quite short.

I felt I had to make a go of it and I have a 1944 first Penguin Books edition on the shelves, so Silas Marner here we come…

Like several of her contemporaries Mary Anne Evans used a male pseudonym for her novels although unlike the Bronte sisters for example this was not how she was first published as she used her own name for her earlier translations, nevertheless it is as George Eliot that she is best known. She took the male name to avoid being pigeonholed as a romantic writer which would have undoubtedly have been the case in mid Victorian England and she wanted to write far more serious novels. Having finished, and enjoyed Silas Marner I have to say that the above quote that prompted me to pick up the book is extremely unfair. Yes there are some dull parts, especially when the ladies are getting ready for the new years party and seem to spend far too long discussing, and admiring each others dresses but even that had some interest in how they would prepare for a social gathering with outfits sent on in advance so they didn’t have to carry them in the carriage or on horseback.

Whilst the book is specifically split into two parts in reality it more properly falls into three each fifteen to sixteen years apart. The first short section deals with Marner as a young man brought up in a strict religious community in an un-named norther city, where he is falsely accused of stealing the church funds and expelled from chapel. He also loses the love of his life due to his apparent crime to the man that framed him and Marner duly leaves the city to start a new life on the edge of the fictional small village of Raveloe in Warwickshire. All this happens in a flashback during the first chapter of the book to provide some background to his character and why he is such a loner as the rest of Part One deals with his life fifteen years after he came to Raveloe. This is a part of the country well known to George Eliot as she was born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire and whilst the book is set in the early years of the nineteenth century and she was born in 1819 this would still be a familiar territory for her to set the novel in and one of the features of the book is the descriptions of the lives of the various social strata within the village. Marner earns his living as a weaver, in fact the full title of the book is Silas Marner: The Weaver of Raveloe and from this skill he is able to amass quite a substantial sum over the fifteen years he had lived there and was respected for his skill but took no part in village life other than that which was necessary for his trade working at his loom all available hours day in day out. This solitude coupled with his bulging eyes which were rather short sighted, his bent back from hours at the loom and his occasional cataleptic fits which left him motionless for up to an hour at a time when they struck him made him an object of fear amongst the village children and his non-appearance at church a concern for the adults.

There is a parallel tale to that of Marner within the book and that is of the local squire, or more specifically his dissolute sons, the eldest of which had made an unwise secret marriage to an opium addicted poor woman and fathered a daughter whilst the other was of generally bad character thinking nothing of bullying his way around the local populace and wasting money of drink and gambling. Initially it seems that there is no link between the two tales but the two are destined to become entangled with both tragic and happy results. Part two is set sixteen years after part one but the various loose story strands have got no nearer to resolution but everything is about to change and oddly it is the improved draining of the fields that is going to be the catalyst. It is the clever interleaving of the two facets of social life in the village that make the book so enjoyable even whilst I sometimes struggled with the written out dialect when the poorer people are talking amongst themselves. The characters are all believable and the interplay between the gentry (such as they are in such a backwater), the poor and those who see themselves as in between such as the parson, the doctor, the innkeeper and the farrier is very well done.

I felt drawn in to this portrait of rustic middle English life from two centuries ago, maybe it’s time to have another go at Middlemarch…

An Old Man’s Love – Anthony Trollope

Twenty years or so ago I collected all forty seven novels plus the autobiography of Anthony Trollope in the lovely edition printed by the Folio Society which was the first ever complete edition to be illustrated. These are now long out of print but can still be obtained easily on the second hand market. I admit to having bought them far faster than I have ended up reading them in order to complete the set at the time. I have now read over half but have decided for the purpose of this blog to tackle his final work of fiction, completed before he died in 1882. He was still working on The Landleaguers which was published as an unfinished work in 1893 oddly before An Old Man’s Love which didn’t actually get published until 1894. Both of these are amongst his less well known works, indeed I cannot find an edition of An Old Man’s Love currently in print. Trollope suffered a decline in popularity towards the end of his life and it took sixty or seventy years before his reputation as a great Victorian novelist was restored but even so only about half of his novels are read to any extent today.

20190611 An Old Man's Love

The vast majority of An Old Man’s Love is written as as you would expect although there are passages where the author is talking directly to the reader and Trollope can get quite chatty as in the opening paragraph to the third chapter when we are properly introduced to The Old Man’s love interest.

There is nothing more difficult in the writing of a story than to describe adequately the person of a hero or a heroine, so as to place before the mind of the reader any clear picture of him or her who is described. A courtship is harder still—so hard that we may say generally that it is impossible. Southey’s Lodore is supposed to have been effective; but let any one with the words in his memory stand beside the waterfall and say whether it is such as the words have painted it. It rushes and it foams, as described by the poet, much more violently than does the real water; and so does everything described, unless in the hands of a wonderful master. But I have clear images on my brain of the characters of the persons introduced. I know with fair accuracy what was intended by the character as given of Amelia Booth, of Clarissa, of Di Vernon, and of Maggie Tulliver. But as their persons have not been drawn with the pencil for me by the artists who themselves created them, I have no conception how they looked. Of Thackeray’s Beatrix I have a vivid idea, because she was drawn for him by an artist under his own eye. I have now to describe Mary Lawrie, but have no artist who will take the trouble to learn my thoughts and to reproduce them. Consequently I fear that no true idea of the young lady can be conveyed to the reader; and that I must leave him to entertain such a notion of her carriage and demeanour as must come to him at the end from the reading of the whole book.

But the attempt must be made, if only for fashion sake, so that no adventitious help may be wanting to him, or more probably to her, who may care to form for herself a personification of Mary Lawrie.

And so he continues to give a basic description of the young lady who finds herself an orphan and is taken in to the home of Mr Whittlestaff, initially as an act of kindness because he was a friend of the family and she had nowhere else to go. At the start of the book Mr Whittlestaff is fifty and Miss Lawrie is twenty five although we quickly leap about a year and a half to two years so that she is well settled in the house and Mr Whittlestaff decides to ask her to marry him. Now this she is willing to do, although in truth she loves another, a certain John Gordon who vanished from her life three years earlier without actually declaring his love for her but promising to one day return. Then, on the very day that she agrees to her engagement to William Whittlestaff, John Gordon does come back and arrives at Croker’s Hall intending now that he has made money in South Africa to ask her to marry him.

All this has occurred in the first forty or so pages of the book and so the stage is set for the rivalry between the two men for the hand of Miss Mary Lawrie which is to be played out in the grounds of Victorian manners. Some of the characters favour her becoming Mrs Whittlestaff and yet more favour Mrs Gordon and none are shy about coming forward with their opinion even in front of the three main characters. There are numerous twists and turns before the final conclusion and there is also a sub-plot concerning the housekeeper at Croker’s Hall and her drunken husband which also needs to be resolved in the 172 pages so there is a lot going on considering the relative shortness of this book in the grand scheme of Victorian novels.

Romance is not normally a genre that I would choose to read but I definitely enjoyed this story and whilst Trollope is clearly not at the height of his powers as he was in The Chronicles of Barchester books or the Palliser series, both of which consist of six novels each, it is well written and draws you into the tale of the love triangle.