Tuesday, November 6, 2012
What one Good Turn Deserves
Henry James wrote The Turn of the Screw in 1898. In it, a wealthy man hires a governess to look after his orphaned niece and nephew. The children live in a remote country house with a handful of servants. The man asks that he never be bothered regarding the children, no matter what happens to them. The governess finds the children rather strange (though their isolation could account for this) but then she also starts seeing the ghosts of a former governess and a former servant killed under mysterious circumstances. She begins to suspect that the ghosts are haunting the children and threatening them to keep the haunting secret.
In The Turning, Francine Prose rewrites James' story in a contemporary setting. The governess is replaced with a "babysitter" -- and a male one at that -- hired just for the summer. The remote country home is made even more remote by placing it on an island, disconnected from phone, Internet and television and radio broadcasts. The babysitter, Jack, relates the haunting to his girlfriend in a series of increasingly paranoid letters.
The central question in the original story is whether the governess is crazy or the ghosts are real. The story never answers the question satisfactorily, or every time it comes down on one side or the other, it quickly reverses itself, messing, quite intentionally, with your mind. Prose does a great job of this in the rewrite as well. Every time you think the ghosts are real, Jack does something to convince you he's nuts. And as soon as you accept that Jack has lost it, the ghosts do something you feel could only happen if they're real. As in the original, the story ends with the question perfectly unresolved.
It's nice to read the story in a modern version. Prose is sensitive to the class issues at the center of the original. In James' story the social distance between the wealthy guardian and the governess as well as between the governess and the housekeeper creates a lot of tension -- the ghosts' relationship is even doomed because of class differences. In The Turning, class plays a role, but it is much subtler, and in some ways is flipped upside-down. The language of the original is also extremely dense and filled with 19th century euphemisms. In Prose's rewrite, the language is simple, clean and straightforward, though not with its poetic moments. Prose has a nice eye for the peculiar and specific which lends a lot of reality to her version.
What's most striking, however, is how much more tame, even prudish, the new version is. Without giving anything away in either book, The Turn of the Screw is more dreadful throughout and has by far the more shocking ending. To be fair to Prose though, as much as we think of our modern selves as so overexposed to shock and horror as to be immune, it's difficult to imagine her story going where James' goes. I think today we can handle ghosts the way we handle vampires and werewolves. But I'm not so sure we're as prepared to handle crazy babysitters.