A Fin de Siècle novella. By Henry James. One of my favourite authors. And favoured book length (viva la novella!) The story starts round the fire with people exchanging various ghost stories.
Douglas sends for a manuscript to be unlocked from a drawer for the first time in years. The manuscript, we are told, is written by the woman who used to be Douglas’ sister’s governess, and she sent Douglas the pages before she died. It’s a tale ‘Quite too horrible’ to tell.
But an absolute marvel to read. The narrator shifts to the governess as we read her manuscript. She explains that she is persuaded by a charming man to care for his niece and nephew, Flora and Miles, and moves into a large country house. She meets Flora first, as Miles is still away at school, and she is completely enchanted by her sweet disposition. Then the governess is told that Miles is expected to arrive back from school, but he is not to return as he has been expelled, for reasons unknown.
The governess initially enjoys life at the house. But then it takes a turn for the ghostly. She sees the figure of a man who then disappears. She describes the man to a servant, Mrs Grose, who becomes confidant. Mrs Grose identifies the man as Peter Quint who used to be a valet, but passed away years ago. The governess is horrified and becomes convinced that the ghost of Quint is after Miles. And from hereon in the governess experiences a gradual progression into insanity… Or is she sane?
She emphatically denies hysteria although she is unreliable as a narrator (the good friend of any English Literature student!) as she describes her difficulty in telling the story accurately. Henry James cleverly includes references to other literature as the governess compares life at Bly to ‘A mystery of Udolpho’. Yet James distinguishes this novella from the Gothic genre with which the governess immediately relates her situation. I think it acts as a reminder that this story is endeavoring to be more of a reality than the fantasy worlds created by Ann Radcliffe and Charlotte Bronte.
I’m not going to say any more about the plot. You have to read this book! Revel in the exquisite words and genius of Henry James.