Haunted by the Ghosts of Henry James and Jean Rhys
Maud Casey on the Mysteries of Literature
I’m sometimes wary of the part of myself that is defiantly antifactual, jonesing for the next hit of mystery, willing to do anything to get it. This version of myself resembles the master miniaturist in Steven Millhauser’s story “In the Reign of Harad IV.” Millhauser’s master miniaturist begins to make replicas of his miniatures, but smaller, miniatures of miniatures, initiating a process of copying and shrinking and copying and shrinking until the actual thing disappears. He has spent his days tending to the upkeep of King Harad IV’s splendiferous toy palace with its 600 teeny rooms, dungeon, and gardens; itty-bitty copper keys for the locks on the toy palace’s itty-bitty dresser drawers; and a basket of apples, complete with a minute fly on the stem of one of the apples from the toy palace’s orchard. But now he has grown restless—“as if he had come to a forbidden door at the end of a private corridor and heard, as he slowly turned the key, a sound of distant music”—and so he challenges himself to make a palace the size of a thimble, so small it requires a special magnifying glass to see it. And, slowly but surely, the master miniaturist reaches for a world beyond what we can see. In willful defiance he “proposed to himself a plunge beneath the surface of the visible, the creation of a detailed world wholly inaccessible to the naked eye.” The master miniaturist’s apprentices think he’s gone around the bend and, in a way, he has. He has submitted himself to a solitude that requires a willingness to reside in bafflement, an insistence upon it. He no longer dwells in the world of agreed-upon facts. The bend around which he’s gone is the bend of the actual into something quite powerful. If realness were measured on a Richter scale of experienced feeling, then the master miniaturist’s imaginary realm might be the most real of all.
After all of my references to things spectral, a proper ghost story is in order. A ghost story contains both varieties of mystery—the answer-seeking of the genre and the question-seeking of the literary quality; it offers us a view onto another type of un, the uncanny. The translation of unheimlich, that wonderful German word that gives us the uncanny, captures that which is unfamiliar: literally the unhome. This unhominess is the state of affairs for the unnamed governess in Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw. She feels the presence of the uncanny as she tends her two young charges at the country estate of Bly, which is (possibly) haunted by recently dead servants who may have (possibly) done unseemly things to one another and to the children.
The question the story hinges on but never quite answers has been the subject of a debate since its publication in 1898: Is the governess who narrates this tale losing it or are the ghosts of the recently dead servants, Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, the real deal? The tightrope of psychological ambivalence James walks means he never tells us definitively, and that’s where the mystery resides, in that space between yes and no. Other basic plot points go unanswered: Why was Miles, the boy child, expelled from school? What is the governess’s story? We’re told she is the youngest daughter of a poor country parson, and things aren’t going so smoothly with the family she left behind (she is “in receipt in these days of disturbing letters from home”), but beyond that, we don’t know much about her except for what she tells us about the situation at Bly. The main instruction to the governess before the children’s bachelor uncle sends her off to Bly is not Make sure they eat their vegetables but rather Don’t bother me no matter what. What’s behind his negligence? We’re never told. The omission is convenient for the sake of the plot. These unanswered questions also mean we slide more easily into that space between yes and no, the intriguing chasm of maybe.
The Turn of the Screw begins with a familiar gothic trope. Before we get to the actual story, there’s a lot of hullabaloo around a found manuscript from which we are three times removed. James was interested in the tradition of ghost stories and supernatural tales, and the opening setup is a primer on the virtues of it was a dark and stormy night storytelling. The novella opens with a tale about the visitation of a ghost, a story that holds the guests at the country party “sufficiently breathless.” As it should, is the original, pregoverness first-person narrator’s—and James’s—point. But not so fast. If a story about the visitation of a ghost upon one child leaves guests breathless, why not a story about more ghosts and more children? “It’s beyond everything,” says the man in possession of the story. “For sheer terror?” asks the narrator. No, the man says, making a key distinction. It’s not that simple. “For dreadful—dreadfulness!” He goes on. “For general uncanny ugliness and horror and pain.” “Well then,” the narrator says, “just sit right down and begin.” In order to tell the dreadful tale, the man has to send home for a manuscript under lock and key, given to him by his former governess, now dead 20 years. The conceit of the story we eventually read is that it’s an exact copy made by the original first-person narrator after the man he met at the party who told it to him originally passed it on to him upon his death. Not so unusually contorted a premise for its time—still, this distance from the thing itself contributes to the more traditional elements of mystery. We travel all that way on dry land only then to be immersed in the underwater claustrophobia of the governess’s first-person account, never to surface again. We drown in the governess’s saga, which ends abruptly when Miles drops dead of fright. It’s never precisely clear why the governess wrote this all down, or what she makes of her tale, never mind what the narrator who presents it all to us makes of it himself.
Sheer terror forces our eyes wide open. It’s the full monty. Dreadfulness and general uncanny ugliness is more of a negligée—sheer, lace, anticipatory desire. The second type of story engages our imagination in the way that only things we almost see can. Is it there or isn’t it? In a grouchy review of The Innocents, the 1961 film version of The Turn of the Screw starring Deborah Kerr, Bosley Crowther takes it to task for its “liminal obscurity” and takes Kerr to task because she “neither acts nor looks a repressed or inhibited woman. She seems excessively normal and alive when she takes the governess job.” Ahem. It was 1961 and Crowther hadn’t seen what Truman Capote, who contributed to the screenplay, saw in James’s intentions—that liminal obscurity was the point. Part of what makes James’s governess mysterious is precisely her normalness and her aliveness when she takes that job. In the scene in which Kerr, future governess, meets Michael Redgrave, ironic, handsome bachelor uncle, Capote punches up a crucial aspect of James’s novel by having Redgrave ask Kerr, “Do you have an imagination?”
Imagination—its capacity for wonder—is at the heart of this tale. It’s what allows the governess to do her job well. Of the beginning of her time with the children, she writes, “I walked in a world of their invention—they had no occasion whatever to draw upon mine; so that my time was taken only with being, for them, some remarkable person or thing that the game of the moment required.” As her sense of isolation increases, as the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, gradually divulges all she knows of the sordid history of the valet Peter Quint and the previous governess Miss Jessel, the greatness of the governess’s imagination is what causes her to do the job poorly, reading the precocious, peculiar things the kids say as evidence of their being in cahoots with the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel. That imagination is born, in part, from the depths of loneliness. That James was himself no stranger to loneliness makes the depths of the governess’s loneliness, and the children’s for that matter, even more heartbreaking.
Imagination and loneliness are powerful, dynamic forces, owing one into the other and back again. The loneliness of the governess, instructed by the uncle to handle the strange land of the Bly estate on her own, is matched by the loneliness of these children, whose unspoken instruction from their uncle is: Raise yourselves. Is it any wonder Miles runs out into the dark of night as a way of flirting with his governess, and that Flora contents herself by playing with her creepy doll all by herself down by the scary lake? But we’re trapped in the mind of an increasingly uneasy—to put it mildly—first-person narrator. Flame from the match of her loneliness to the wick of her imagination sets the story on fire. Just before the ghost of Peter Quint first appears to her from the top of one of the grand towers that flank the Bly house, she tells us, “One of the thoughts that, as I don’t in the least shrink now from noting, used to be with me in these wanderings was that it would be as charming as a charming story suddenly to meet someone. Someone would appear there at the turn of a path and would stand before me and smile and approve.”
The familiar tropes of the ghost story combine with the governess’s yearning; together they create the perfect conditions. It’s the perfect weather for ghosts. “Henry James’s ghosts,” Virginia Woolf wrote, “have nothing in common with the violent old ghosts—the blood-stained sea captains, the white horses, the headless ladies of dark lanes and windy commons. They have their origin within us. They are present whenever the significant overflows our powers of expressing it; whenever the ordinary appears ringed by the strange.” I’d say James has it both ways with his ghosts in The Turn of the Screw. Appearing at first in the twilight haze of dawn and dusk, all gloomy scowls and witchyness, they scare the bejesus out of you and they register as a wish fulfillment, the governess’s longing made manifest. By the time the specter of Miss Jessel appears at the governess’s schoolroom table, it’s “clear noonday light” and she’s using the governess’s “pens, ink, and paper.” She’s a gratifying, shimmery double if ever there was one. Still, even as she is there, she is slipping away. No one else but the governess ever sees the ghosts, but for the story to achieve its effect, James makes sure readers feel as though they have too.
In the penultimate scene, a distressed Mrs. Grose shields an even more distressed Flora, carrying her off, away from the governess, who has just insisted the little girl confirm that Miss Jessel’s spirit self is floating right there, across the lake from them. “No evening I had passed at Bly,” the governess tells us, “had the portentous quality of this one; in spite of which—and in spite also of the deeper depths of consternation that had opened beneath my feet—there was literally, in the ebbing actual, an extraordinarily sweet sadness.” I love that. The ebbing actual. An actual that isn’t actual at all but porous and dissolving. There is no grabbing hold of it. We, along with James’s lonely, imaginative narrator, are engaged in a combination of seeing and unseeing. The loneliness of imagination and the imagination of loneliness palpable—they are ghosts here too, part of the ebbing actual.
Jean Rhys’s Voyage in the Dark shares with James a deep, abiding interest in hauntings and a belief in ghosts. Voyage in the Dark isn’t a traditional ghost story, but like many of Rhys’s novels, it is a novel of displacement and alienation at the heart of which is an anguished homesickness, which becomes a specter. The sensibility is that of Anna Morgan, the 19-year-old narrator from a small unnamed island in the West Indies (Rhys herself was from the island of Dominica) who finds herself in England working as a chorus girl. She lives, bewildered, in this strange in-between zone, betwixt and between.
Listen to Anna:
It was as if a curtain had fallen, hiding everything I had ever known. It was almost like being born again. The colours were different, the smells different, the feeling things gave you right down inside yourself was different. Not just the difference between heat, cold; light, darkness; purple, grey. But a difference in the way I was frightened and the way I was happy. I didn’t like England at first. I couldn’t get used to the cold. Sometimes I would shut my eyes and pretend that the heat of the fire, or the bed-clothes drawn up round me, was sun-heat . . . It was funny, but that was what I thought about more than anything else—the smell of the streets and the smells of frangipanni and lime juice and cinnamon and cloves, and sweets made of ginger and syrup, and incense after funerals or Corpus Christi processions, and the patients standing outside the surgery next door, and the smell of the sea-breeze and the different smell of the land-breeze.
Sometimes it was as if I were back there and as if England were a dream. At other times England was the real thing and out there was the dream, but I could never fit them together.
The sensibility here is akin to an exposed nerve ending. This is where the novel begins—in this exposed nerve, right there in that wound. The ghost of Anna’s home is here with her in England, and so, even as she’s in England, she is somewhere else too. She is there on the page, but she is tugged by these ghostly memories, hovering around the edges of the pages as well. Voyage in the Dark takes place between the wars, and Anna, living in England after the death of her parents, is a chorus girl at the end of a tour of provincial English towns. Her life is haphazard, a succession of identical boarding houses; of nasty landladies who raise disapproving eyebrows; of roommates who, like Anna, are looking for husbands to rescue them from their haphazard lives. They find plenty of men, but these men are looking to be rescued in the other direction, from the marriages they’re already in. While all of the chorus girls live on the fringe, Anna is doubly removed, alienated from this alienated world because she is not English; her fellow chorus girls, the closest thing she has to friends, call her “the Hottentot.”
“I’m nineteen,” says Anna at one point, “and I’ve got to go on living and living and living.” As with an exposed nerve, the pain radiates outward from the central point, engulfing you until you can’t pinpoint its origin. The sensibility is skinless, stripped bare; even so, Rhys immerses herself in a mind that is not extinguished under the weight of this life. Rather, it flickers on, illuminating her current circumstances (which include heartbreak by one man; an accidental pregnancy by another; and an abortion that nearly kills her), giving us intermittent glimpses of that past, those ghosts that suggest an entire history.
Often Rhys’s characters are described as beyond wretched and autobiographical. Here’s a quote from a Michiko Kakutani review of Carole Angier’s biography of Rhys, describing these characters (and Rhys)—as “victims, frail, unhappy women, with similar stories: not enough love, not enough money, not enough hope or will. Expectations of romance and happiness inevitably give way to loss and humiliation; and life devolves into a succession of shabby hotel rooms and alcohol-fueled bouts of depression.” To which I say: my kind of book. Still, it’s important to understand that Rhys was a consummate craftswoman. So much so, by the way, that she held a grudge against her editor for years, accusing her of publishing her most famous novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, before it was finished. Why wasn’t it finished? There were, Rhys believed, two unnecessary words still in the manuscript: then and quite.
My point is that the voice Rhys has built out of words for Anna is muscular, not frail. Here, for example, in the midst of receiving a lecture from her most recent roommate for staying out too late with another random guy, is Anna: “The long shadows of the trees, like skeletons, and others like spiders, and others like octopuses. ‘I’m quite all right; I’m quite all right. Of course, everything will be all right. I’ve only got to pull myself together and make a plan.’ . . . It was one of those days when you can see the ghosts of all the other lovely days. You drink a bit and watch the ghosts of all the lovely days that have ever been from behind a glass.” And here she is, a few drinks in, having excused herself to go to the bathroom while on a date with Walter, the heartbreaker, seeing one of those ghosts from a lovely day:
I looked out of the bedroom window and there was a thin mist coming up from the ground. It was very still.
Before I came to England I used to try to imagine a night that was quite still. I used to try to imagine it with the crac-cracs going. The verandah long and ghostly—the hammock and three chairs and a table with the telescope on it—and the crac-cracs going all the time. The moon and the darkness and the sound of the trees, and not far away the forest where nobody had ever been—virgin forest. We used to sit on the verandah with the night coming in, huge.
Anna may well be a victim of circumstance—without enough money or enough love or enough hope or enough will—but her narration is driven by diction and syntax that reflect the singular lyricism of her mind. Even when that mind is trapped in a shabby hotel room, even in the throes of an alcohol-fueled bout of depression, even when, in the midst of company, her only companions are ghosts, it is lyrical. The sensibility at work—part raw nerve and part medium—is so fine-tuned that it picks up the high frequency of ghosts only this nineteen-year-old chorus girl far from home can hear.
And those ghosts are everywhere in this novel, suggesting other ghosts, other lives. My favorite ghost reference—my favorite line in the novel—comes when, in the midst of pleading with Walter, Anna looks around a posh Marylebone hotel and thinks, “The people there were like upholstered ghosts.” I’m not even sure what it means, but I say, right on. Anna is haunted by so many things—the people living lives beyond her reach, sipping champagne all around her as her own life goes off the rails—but Rhys makes clear, by weaving it deftly throughout the narrative, that Anna is haunted most by the life she left behind, so present it is as if it is still happening. Part of the mystery Rhys is preoccupied by is the mystery of memory itself, the miracle of the mind as it retrieves, conjures, and otherwise merges past and present.
These ghost memories are delivered in fragments, which give us Anna’s faraway life in the West Indies. The large, beautiful vase of the past has been broken and the million tiny shards have lodged in Anna’s mind—the texture of the “black ribbed-wool stockings” and “brown kid gloves straight from England, one size too small” she wore every Sunday to church; the mango trees; a sky “hard, blue and close to the earth”; the creaking hammock ropes and the outer shutters “banging, like guns.” The colors of home—“red, purple, blue, gold, all shades of green”—fill her senses as she lives amidst the less vibrant colors of England. People from her past parade without context through her thoughts, including a random woman with yaws who she tells us spoke to her, though we never learn what was said. “I thought I had forgotten about her,” says Anna. “And now—there she is.” There she is, and the past is here, alive, suggesting a life long gone, suggesting Anna before the novel begins, before the reader ever met her.
Often, there is no transition at all between the past and the present. Many of the memories begin with ellipses; it’s in these that Anna resides. Chapter eight begins with an ellipsis—“. . . I was walking along the passage to the long upper verandah which ran the length of the house in town”—and ends with the discovery of Uncle Bo with “long yellow tusks like fangs [that] came out of his mouth and protruded down to his chin—you don’t scream when you are frightened because you can’t and you don’t move either because you can’t . . . I had never seen false teeth before.” Immediately following this memory, she tells us, “I read it again.” Read what again? We don’t know what she’s read in the first place; we’re still reeling, she’s still reeling, from the memory of the false teeth. The it turns out to be a letter from a creepy friend of Walter’s, asking her to return all of the letters she and Walter exchanged. Anna wonders at the association her mind has made between this letter and her uncle’s false teeth, and then Rhys allows Anna to linger, no, to wallow, in the strange. The false teeth lead to a random jumble of associations from her past: “But I went on thinking about false teeth, and then about piano-keys and about that time the blind man from Martinique came to tune the piano and then he played and we listened to him sitting in the dark with the jalousies shut because it was pouring with rain and my father said, ‘You are a real musician.’” The jumble ends with a man named Mr. Crowe, whom we’ve not met before, saying, “‘You don’t mean to say you’re backing up that damned French monkey?’ meaning the Governor, ‘I’ve met some Englishmen,’ he said, ‘who were monkeys too.’” And there’s the connection: Walter is a monkey, too. But every bit of that rambling series of images contributes to our larger sense of Anna. The soul may vanish when you look at it directly, but look at it sideways and it grows immense. The ghostly, fragmented memories of the past aren’t past at all; they exist still within Anna.
As with Alice from Comyns’s The Vet’s Daughter, Anna has her own moment of levitation. It’s not incidental that Comyns and Rhys were women writers during the interwar period and just after, when a lot was permitted and a lot was denied for women. No way forward? No way back? Levitate. After the nearly botched abortion, Anna is in and out of consciousness—once again, somewhere betwixt and between. Here’s Anna: “I drank the gin and listened to them whispering for a long while. Then I shut my eyes and the bed mounted into the air with me. It mounted very high and stayed there suspended.” She floats up and up. Away from the chatter in the room—her friend has finally called a doctor, who, upon learning she’s taken quinine, laughs and says, “You girls are too naïve to live, aren’t you?” Anna is still floating up and away, away from this body, this life, into the in-between place. She has become a spirit girl, and she will haunt you. You feel the movement of that spirit across the body of the novel. It is a force, that movement, big and mysterious and infinite.