And here I must come round to the confession that I have seriously exaggerated, or possibly distorted or overstated the case, such that an entire blog post is necessary for clarification.
In a prior post, I claimed that The Turn of the Screw didn't frighten me. While it's true that the story didn't scare me the way, say, The Shining did (does), it is not true that I didn't detect an oppressive, fearful tension in The Turn of the Screw. I did.
It just wasn't the ghosts. It was the silence.
Prohibitions on speaking, both implicit and explicit, abound in The Turn of the Screw. The story begins with a gag-order when the governess' employer forbids her to write to him for any reason: she must "only meet all questions herself, receive all moneys from his solicitor, take the whole thing over and let him alone." (p. 7.)
Then Miles, the elder of the governess' charges, is expelled from school under circumstances unexplained by the headmaster. In a bewildered state emerging from her inability to reconcile Miles' innocent appearance with this condemnation, the governess opts to remain silent on the topic - in response to the headmaster, to her employer, and with Miles himself - with the result that the subject of Miles' expulsion becomes a matter of "deep obscurity." (p. 24.)
Into these silences waft the ghosts. The governess sees the ghosts of her charges' former companions, Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, and she believe that Miles and his sister, Flora, also see the ghosts. But Miles and Flora never mention either their now-deceased companions or the ghosts, and the governess dares not be the first to speak:
I was confronted . . . with all the risk attached . . . to sounding my own horrid note. . . . [Miles] could do as he liked . . . so long as I should continue to defer to the old tradition of the criminality of those caretakers of the young who minister to superstitions and fears. . . . [W]ho would ever absolve me . . . if . . . I were the first to introduce into our intercourse an element so dire?
Time and again, the governess has opportunities to confront Miles and Flora about the ghosts, and repeatedly the governess declines them. She expresses her fear that, when confronted, the children will lie and deny seeing the ghosts (p. 42). She alludes to the possibility that her sanity is vulnerable to question (p. 64). And, of course, she is aware that she could be accused of polluting the children with foolish superstitions.
From this silence upon silence upon silence springs the horror of The Turn of the Screw: not the return of the dead, or the evil of the people who the ghosts had once been, but of the corruption to morality, conduct, sanity and even reality itself that arises from the unspeakable. If we cannot speak of our lives, we create the conditions for horror.
I imagine Henry James knew intimately the risks of the unspeakable. James may have been gay - celibate or otherwise, but definitely not "out" to his family (his letters to gay and bisexual men lend themselves to that interpretation). Whatever the truth, James chose silence on the topic of the connection - if any - between his sexuality and his bachelerhood.
Meanwhile, around him, those who spoke suffered. James' contemporary, Oscar Wilde, was imprisoned; James' close friend, Constance Fenimore Woolson, who may have gone too far in expressing her love for him, committed suicide. In his languid novel of Henry James' life, The Master, Colm Tóibín imagines Henry James remaining largely silent, and indignant, as well-intentioned people confront him about both these events.
Whatever liability or incapacity prevented this most verbose of men from a verbal defense must have been most horrible. However his silence warped his life was likely a defect he marked well . . . and possibly transmuted into The Turn of the Screw: a parable illustrating how the warping action of repressive silence costs one love, as well as life; a parable in which the ghosts that torment the governess are lovers who broke society's rules.
After gazing on such "dreadful - dreadfulness" (p. 2), the rest is silence.
(Image of Crispin Lord as Miles and Anna Devin as the governess in Benjamin Britten's opera adaptation of The Turn of the Screw from The Independent)