Washington Square by Henry James

When I read  The Turn of the Screw by Henry James I was completely engrossed in the book, even with its long convoluted sentences. It’s a dark and melodramatic story, about good and evil and with hints of sexual relations, reflecting the Victorian society of the time.

So I was expecting to be just as engrossed  with Washington Square – especially as I soon realised that the sentence structure is much simpler. It’s much easier to read, but sadly it just didn’t catch my imagination. I found it rather tedious as Catherine Sloper grew older and older, in conflict with her father over whether she should marry Morris Townsend.

It’s all about will /won’t Catherine and Morris get married. Catherine is an adult, living at home in Washington Square with her father the wealthy Dr Sloper. She has money of her own left to her by her mother. It is her father’s money that she will lose if she marries Morris. At first she is completely obedient to her domineering father and is taken in by the handsome Morris who is clearly after her for her money. I think this description of her sums her up so well and her father’s attitude towards her –

‘She is about as intelligent as the bundle of shawls,’ the Doctor said.’

Spoiler alert – if you don’t want to know how the book ends, don’t read on!

But then she does begin to see through Morris, acknowledges her father’s overbearing manipulation and her aunt’s meddling interference and I began to think this is similar to Jane Austen’s Persuasion, but no, this romance just fizzles out as Morris eventually marries someone else, gets bald and fat and widowed. He returns to see Catherine and she finally rejects his advances. She had forgiven him, but she couldn’t forget the past:

‘I can’t forget – I don’t forget,’ said Catherine. ‘You treated me too badly. I felt it very much; I felt it for years.’ And then she went on, with her wish to show him that he must not come to her in this way, ‘I can’t begin again – I can’t take it up. Everything is dead and buried. It was too serious; it made a great change in my life. I never expected to see you here.’ (page 153)

This was number 10 on my Classics Club Spin list, the number picked as the November/December book – not a success for me.

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James: a Book Review

I first started to read The Turn of the Screw by Henry James a few years ago soon after I bought it. I stopped reading, mainly, I think, because it seemed so slow to get going with long, convoluted sentences that seem to drag the story down. So, it was with low expectations that I began once more to read it. I was surprised. This time the story didn’t drag, the sentence structure didn’t bother me and I became engrossed in the tale. It’s an ideal book for the RIP Challenge.

The Turn of the Screw

But is it a ghost story or a psychological study? Either way there are creepy, disturbing things going on. It’s a story within a story, told as a ghost story to a group of people as they sit gathered round a fire in an old house. It tells of two children and their governess. She has been employed by their uncle who wants nothing to do with them. Their previous governess had died under mysterious circumstances (was it in childbirth?).  The older child, Miles, was away at school and soon after the new governess arrives Miles returns home, expelled from school for some terrible unexplained offence.

The children seem to the governess to be beautiful, little angels, but are they as innocent as they seem? And can they see the ghosts or not? Is the governess imagining them, peering in menacingly through the windows, standing silently and staring from the top of a tower, or gazing intently across a lake. Are they the ghosts of Miss Jessel, the previous governess and Peter Quint, also a previous employer? What relationship did they have with the children? Do they still have a hold over the children? These questions ever never fully answered and the governess, aided (or not?) by the housekeeper, Mrs Grose, becomes increasingly unhinged by all the events. I think it’s all the better for the ambiguity.

The story is dark and melodramatic, about good and evil and with hints of sexual relations, reflecting the Victorian society of the time. The Turn of the Screw is based on a ghost story told to James by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Edward White Benson. It was first published in 12 instalments in Collier’s Weekly, a popular,  illustrated New York magazine in 1898.  By that time his wrist was too painful to actually write the story and he dictated  it to his secretary, William MacAlpine, who typed as James spoke.

My copy of the book  is in the Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism series, edited by Peter G Beidler. It contains not just the text, but critical essays from four contemporary critical perspectives, plus explanations of the biographical, historical and cultural contexts. I haven’t yet read much of the additional material as I wanted to see what I made of it myself. Just scanning the essays I think they show the widely different interpretations and controversies this book has aroused and should prove very interesting reading.

Favourite Places – Rye & Winchelsea

Rye in Sussex is one of my favourite places. We’ve been there a few times and explored its streets and coastline.

It’s got lots of history and some literary connections too. By the end of the 12th century it was described as an ‘Antient Town, worthy of veneration’  and it became one of the Cinque Ports in the 14th century. This meant that it had to supply ships and seamen for the defence of the Realm. Parts of the town still have a medieval look, with cobbled streets and narrow passages.

Here are some of our photos (click on them for a bigger picture) from our last visit in 2006. First the Parish Church of St Mary’s which is almost 900 years old, damaged by fire in 1377 by French invaders. It has the oldest working church turret clock in the country dating from 1561-2.

St Mary’s Church, Rye

We climbed the tower – the view is spectacular (but I can’t find our photos!)

One of the highlights of our visit was Lamb House, a brick-fronted Georgian house in West Street once the home of Henry James, later E F Benson, and then Rumer Godden, now owned by the National Trust.

West Street – Lamb House at the far end

Lamb House as it is today dates from 1722 or 1723 with some minor alterations made by Henry James and the addition of bathrooms by the National Trust. James lived there from 1898 until the autumn of 1914. There is a beautiful walled garden – I’m particularly fond of walled gardens – where in the summer James used to dictate his novels in the little Georgian pavilion that was later bombed in 1940. There is not a lot to see in the house with just three rooms open to the public but some of his furniture and books are on display.

E F Benson lived there until his death in 1940 and wrote many of his Mapp and Lucia novels there. Rumer Godden also lived there from 1968 to 1973. But nothing of their time here remains, as far as I could see.

We also walked round the harbour

Rye Harbour

 and then along the shore line, which is a Nature Reserve with bird-watching hides.

Rye Harbour Nature Reserve

The Nature Reserve extends as far as Winchelsea Beach, a huge shingle bank, 2 miles down the coast.


For more Favourite Places visit Margot’s blog Joyfully Retired where she  regularly features her favourite places.