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Henry James's Europe

Dennis Tredy
Annick Duperray
Adrian Harding

III. Appropriating European Thematics

13 ‘Déjà Vu’ in ‘The Turn of the Screw’

Max Duperray

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1Considering hypothetical sources for ’The Turn of the Screw’ in terms of generic intertext might show James apparently toying with the great tradition of the English novel and with its undercurrents of society and sex, as exemplified in fantasy (the gothic) or in manners (the realistic novel). Edel’s contention is that James’s attempt was to enshrine that tradition in his story: ”The Brontë’s rather than the modern psychological movement nascent in Vienna” (Edel Stories of the Supernatural 433, quoted by Perry 62). James would then rank among the practitioners of the tropes familiar among his forerunners in the novel of sentiment and its stereotypes: ”the perceiving female subject, the Gothic structures […] and the explained supernatural” (Milbank 159).

2One persistent reference is of course to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, insofar as the text of the novella relates to the ”governess novel” and to the question of a ”mystery” at Bly and its imprisoned inmate. A systematic study (by Alice Hall Petry) has gone a long way in demonstrating the overlap of the two texts, highlighting the concept of the role-playing governess: she would act out the character of Jane, ’The Turn of the Screw’ becoming a parody of Charlotte’s romantic novel. Millicent Bell, however, maintains that ”Jane Eyre is an intertextuality which denies its model,” meaning its sentimental model (225). T.J. Lustig takes a more radical view: The Mysteries of Udolpho and Jane Eyre are but ”quicksilver glints of what the narrative fails to do” (’The Turn of the Screw’ xviii).

3The echo of the romantic novel, principally, has become enmeshed with the reader’s reception of ’The Turn of the Screw.’ James induces the reader to look backwards by pushing the time of his story back to the 1840s when Jane Eyre was published. Moreover, he relies on a well-known formula— namely, the isolated heroine confronted by a secret from which she is excluded—and this updates the reader’s sense of recognition and sets in motion a search for a definable intention, which is never acknowledged as James keeps aloof from any concrete feedback. Therefore recognition is defamiliarised, as any ’déjà vu’ can be, and becomes paradigmatic in the text, in a hypnotic sort of way. One might say that James’s dogged evasiveness tends to place him decidedly ”in the reader-response camp,” as Edward Parkinson puts it in the ”Preface” to his dissertation on the history of the criticism of ’The Turn of the Screw.”

4Recognition might thus work as a wrong expectation turning sour. James does rely on the assumption of a romantic pretext, in the manner of fables of the supernatural: the listening ladies, in the introduction, precisely ask what the governess’s ”reward” was—a term reminiscent of Pamela. But the answer is: ”She never saw him again.” Douglas has no title either. He is not entitled to satisfy the public’s expectation of yet another romance. From the start the mysticism of a Romantic past is being hollowed out for a modern subject to assert itself within a mysterious halo.

5The preface also ushers in reading as an embedded theme. And the heroine follows suit. She refers to the pent-up inmate of Jane Eyre and defines mysteries as pertaining to Udolpho. More surprisingly, she keeps Fielding’s Amelia at her bedside. Fielding wrote Amelia in the 12-book structure of Virgil’s Aeneid, which he designated as ”the noble model,” with a view to writing a modern epic for his time. He notably lifted a line which reads ”Furens quid Foemina possit” (145) [”what a woman can do in frenzy”]. Mimicry of Virgil’s narrative is a parody—but also a reminder—of the epic form. Amelia then can be a signpost—not only in the heroine pitted against a background of a corrupt society of deceit, but in the parodic reenactment of older materials—possibly feminine romance revamped in the guise of a near psychic case.

6The inserted books also repeat young Jane’s mania for reading, notably Pamela and Gulliver’s Travels, i.e. feminine diary vs. epic and masculine expedition. Now if Brontë stages domesticity versus escape into the world by conflating two contradictory connotations, James focuses on the thematisation of reading as visualisation… and reading in the dark to boot. Immersed in old novels, the governess reads characters into being—hence the appeal to archetypal narratives as enduring templates for all fictions.

7Now Jane Eyre was itself a story told retrospectively, given as autobiography: a romantic story already displacing gothic tropes and deflating them. James makes his novella an alleged manuscript, lost and retrieved—according to the romantic archetype. Ironically, Brontë’s feminine fantasy given as a man’s piece of work (Currer Bell’s) would echo inversely in Henry James’s story, given as a woman’s narrative. This paradoxical inversion implies that James intentionally framed this amusette of his in the terms of a belated pseudo-feminine fiction—tapping into the popular fantasies of the governess to be married off as reward, and of the latent psychic disorders inherent in ’woman as writer’—a tale of possession/dispossession, as if the writer was labouring under a duty of exorcism, of interrogating the past as both familiar and alien.

8Writing here harks back to the epistolary mode of Richardson’s novel of sentiment and beyond that to the predicaments of the gothic heroine probing the ’secret’ of patriarchy. The first-person woman narrator stages her self-interrogation as a desiring subject negotiating the move from ”a symbolics of blood to an analysis of sexuality,” to take up Hoeveler’s words in her study of feminine Gothicism; and she does that notably ”through the power of language to dissemble” (Gothic Feminism 21-22).

9James indeed kept in mind the old sentimental theme of ”virtue in distress.” Robert Brissenden, a specialist of the genre, asserts that ”if Richardson can be called a sentimental novelist so can Henry James” (Brissenden 117). The social and theological tradition of Puritan conduct books, which was vital for Richardson to create a passion of tragic dimension, was thus imported as an undercurrent of the modern story, echoing the old appeal to divine power or Providence in order to foreground the repeated ”analysis of mortally intricate and perplexing situations” (Brissenden 119).

10Strong ambivalence in the concept of sensibility (more to be feared than desired, as Emily of Udolpho would say) fosters the ambiguity of sentimental discourse—secular experience moulded by religious exaltation. This is updated in Pamela by the ambiguities of espistolary intercourse being both contact and distance—or by the dubious evangelism of Jane Eyre teaching submission to God in order to withstand Rochester’s advances, or opposing Rivers’s Calvinistic appeal to the same submission. The governess as both Inquisitor and Saviour of the lost follows the path of her forerunners: Emily St. Aubert overwhelmed by the reenactment of the restless life of Signora Laurentini/ Sister Agnes; Jane facing Bertha, the mad woman, as in a distorting mirror; the conformist versus the carnivalesque. James has conflated the two opposites into one, also relying on the guardian figure of the housekeeper either conniving in misdeeds, like Mrs. Jervis and her evil double Mrs. Jewkes in Pamela, or supportive, like Mrs. Fairfax, though she does warn Jane against a wrong alliance.

11Epistolary discourse becomes thematised in ’The Turn of the Screw’, together with its vacuity: the letters do not reach their intended readers and the ghost (of the other—Miss Jessel) assumes the responsibility for writing—not to mention the issue of the alleged theft of the letter by Miles. It thus repeats frustration in writing moulded by the mystery of the interdict: woman called upon to take responsibility, but excluded from knowledge. In Jane Eyre the daughters of the gentry designate governesses as nonexistent ’incubi’—hence the concept of usurpation, woman turning masculine as ”oedipal detective, rational seeker of the family’s buried secret” (Hoeveler Gothic Feminism 32)—while vindicating her position as ”orphan,” orphans desiring the father’s approval as the governess claims the master’s agreement.

12Emily was similarly summoned to investigate the mysteries of parentage and uphold the demands of patriarchy to protect the domain from dilapidation against the interdict of reading; the problematic instruction of her father reads ”save the castle and burn the papers” without looking at them. Both Emily and the governess labour under that interdict which calls for a transgression: Emily does read an excerpt from the fateful papers—”a sentence of dreadful import”—and the governess does write despite the ban on writing; and they both suffer from visitations. Destiny is writ in hieroglyphic terms in Jane Eyre.

13Topsy-turvidom in gender roles also relates to givens in gender formulae: on the side of a woman’s vision are visual theatricals harking back to the masquerades of 18th century novels, Quint parading as a spurious master or whispered mysteries of hauntings, or implicit phrases and a pseudo-maternal legacy (Mrs. Grose), as pitted against the maleoriented letter writing from which the governess is excluded. Disguise and horse play occupy the episode of the ball room in Jane Eyre displaying the lesson of the charades: marriage as ’pantomime,’ with Rochester as a gypsy and a woman to boot. The carnivalesque blurs vice and virtue. Innuendoes of libidinal pursuits bring the memory of Amelia and its masquerade back into the governess’s experience. They notably relate to the culture of travesty and implicit sexual disorder. Parentage intricacies and confusing interrelations in The Mysteries of Udolpho, elaborate family criss-crossings—in Jane Eyre—of disappeared parents or uncles, re-emerge in the status of the nephews and the parental servants as commanding figures. The governess wonders at the children’s capacity for ”telling her stories, acting her charades, pouncing out at her, in disguises […]” (The Turn of the Screw [1992] 167). She construes them as ”Shakespearians, astronomers and navigators” and concludes: ”we lived in a cloud of music and affection and success and private theatricals” (168). Midsummer is also the period of emotional crisis in Jane Eyre, blurring summer and stormy weather—late summer turning into autumn in ”The Turn of the Screw.”

14The enduring guideline is predicated on the gender-oriented game of power. Studying ”repetition and subversion” in the novella, John Pearson writes about ” [Kierkegaard’s concept of] repetition that maintains patriarchy in the voice and guise of a woman […]” (Pearson 277). Sexual confusion or role playing thus updates textual anxiety. Jane, orally designated by Rochester as ”la petite mère anglaise” [”the little English mother”], is imperfect as a maternal surrogate, because she is meant to assume a more important role in the patriarchy.

15Remarkably, the master of Thornfield has been the victim of the law of primogeniture, exactly as women were in Victorian society. Masculinity is a dubious model. Jane is confronted with this in her own family, being roughed up at the hands of John Reed and also forced into wedlock by yet another cousin and another John, St. John Rivers. James’s governess is similarly confronted with sinister resumptions of masculine legacies, Quint and Miles. Usurpation hovers above the empowerment of the evil servants or of the gradually more libidinous governess and her usage of metaphoric, pseudo heroic language, incongruous in a now realistic and secular context.

16The underlying contradiction between self-effacement and egoistic heroism also informs the novel of sentiment. In both Jane Eyre and ’The Turn of the Screw’ the school-room is a tantalising refuge for self-reflexivity. That is where Jane draws in chalk a self-portrait to materialise her introspective guilt and James’s governess faces the feminine ghost as a writing double. Self-sufficiency had already made of Jane Eyre the solitary and withdrawn ”eccentric,” as Virginia Woolf has it (155-61), connecting to her fancied mother as the moon, when she calls upon her to flee temptation. She courts the shade and puzzles good Mrs. Fairfax, unable as she finds herself ”to draw her out” (Brontë 100). The recipe for James’s governess lies there. More profoundly Jane links to death from the Red Room episode onwards, by identifying with death from Lowood to Moor House. She contaminates St. John, who will long for his own death in chapter 38. In the same way, James’s governess utters her doomsday-like discourse of exorcism, sitting on ”a low table-like tomb” (The Turn of the Screw [1992] 152) to ponder her situation, before she ultimately becomes the actual agent of death—that being mediated through fin de siècle sensibility.


17Now the concept of the lost form expands within that of the phasing out of the plot of intricate and piled up family narratives. Criticism has noted this disappearance: ”The governess’s frustration is a frustration of plot” (Bell 228); ”The governess is in pursuit of the story itself” (Bersani ”The Jamesian Lie” 65, quoted by Bell 227). Hence the alluring hidden plot which corresponds to James’s avowed purpose: to make the reader imagine and connect him to the un-nameable. Whereas Currer Bell (Brontë xx) claimed responsibility in unveiling sham and underlining cant, James disclaims responsibility in downgrading the seriousness of his enterprise. The story as plot fades back into a ghostly concept of metonymic anxiety, and this calls up the ’fading’ of the subject as a self in the making.

18The very spectrality of the tale is obtained through the receding perspective of loss, the governess herself being affected by that fading impression—as when she depicts the evenings at Bly ”in the ebbing actual, an extraordinarily sweet sadness” (The Turn of the Screw [1992] 215). Romantic closure is replaced by a poetics of uncertainty, but also by nearly explicit murder, whatever its nature is.

19James more emphatically designated, in his preface to the New York Edition, those ”simple” narratives—children’s tales—of gruesome tricksters and ogres. Thus the primeval narratives and the sophisticated fiction of the great tradition merge into one and the same thing, reenacting mental categories, not so much for a discriminate emphasis on one definite type of narrative but for an all-inclusive reference to the essence of narration as repetition of things past—”the shadow of a shadow” (148). His heroine bears testimony to that paradigm: ”such a place as would […] take all colour out of story-books and fairy-tales.” The castle, a ”big ugly antique but convenient house,” characteristically becomes ”half-displaced, half utilised” (127).

20James frames his story in the ellipical way of a repeated fairy-tale with its gingerbread castle and its little grandees, princes of the blood, with the air of knowing nothing but love (134 and 136). Yet children’s books like Grimm’s tales highlight the relevance of children as willful participants of bloody victimisation.

21This very much updates the principles of ’déjà vu. Terry Castle, in The Female Thermometer, argues that ”The principle of dejà vu dominates both the structure of human relations and the phenomenology of reading” (Castle 127). Lisa Chinitz, studying the shift from fairy tale into ghost story, maintains that ”The governess’s narrative is punctuated by a series of repetitions that reminds us of the primitive compulsion to repeat and that induces an anxiety by which we rehearse our efforts to master the fear of death it awakens” (270). Rehearsing the episode of the ghost behind the glass, the governess exclaims: ”I had the full image of the repetition of what had already occurred” (143, emphasis mine).

22Abandoned children in Jane Eyre—Jane dreaming she lets a child fall from her lap—and motherly uncanniness in the ’The Turn of the Screw’ rehearse that fear: the image of the sequestered woman as ”the vampire life in death” underlines a conflation of old stories with modern neurosis. The object of fear has faded away like the beliefs in supernatural occurrences, but the problem of language as dissemblance has remained— the old overlapping the new.

23Repetition is intertext—for example, in the way it recalls Amelia in the dramatising of homilies and of aphorisms notably about Fear, Love, and Truth (Amelia Book VI iv); repetition is neurosis, ’déjà vu’ as hysteria in confronting otherness. The text invites recognition but foregrounds itself as spectral heroines seen ”through a glass darkly.”

24As a result, fear does not spring so much, as in the poetics of Todorov, from assessing the competition between the believable and the unbelievable, as from the enduring repetition of the age-old anxiety of dispossession and usurped empowerment. Though no so romantic as older romances of elaborate plots, it has a dialectic that haunts its romantic antecedents as a necessary but displaced backdrop.

  • 1 This being predicated on intertextuality, which Jean Perrot sees as imparting a special tonality t (...)

25So ’The Turn of the Screw’ is neither a parody nor sheer denial (”Jane Eyre glissades into ’The Turn of the Screw’ only to signal the later text’s derivations”), but a transcript of romantic sinister overtones as archetypal. Stripping them of their anecdotal substance, elliptically repeated, leaves the uncanny as the upshot of hollowing out both social messages and mystical beliefs in the redemption of literary textuality.1 The assumption is that repetition becomes the very substance of the heroine writing about the transmission of ”ur-texts” and substantiating thereby her hysterical ’déjà vu’ embedded in the templates of primitive ’child-like’ stories.


1 This being predicated on intertextuality, which Jean Perrot sees as imparting a special tonality to narration: “[L’intertextualité donne] à la narration l’ambigüité d’un tapis complexe dans lequel l’écrivain semble avoir inscrit son secret” (Perrot 235).


Max Duperray, professor of English studies at the University of Provence, is a specialist in Gothic fiction. In the last ten years, his main publications have been Lecture de Frankenstein (1997); Le roman anglais dit gothique (2000); La Folie et la méthode: essai sur la déréalisation en littérature (2001); Confessions by Thomas de Quincey (2003); Londres: promenade sous un ciel couvert (2005); “In a Glass Darkly: Reflexions of a Gothic Past,” in The Remains of the Gothic (Caliban 15/ 2004), and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (2005). He has recently edited Éclats du noir: généricité et hybridation dans la littérature et le cinéma anglophone (2008) and Gothic News: Exploring the Gothic in Relation to New Critical Perspectives and Geographic Polarities (2009).