Monday, June 22, 2015

Spooky kids and hysterical governesses

Ugh, I really disliked this story. SO much. I'd read Henry James in an American Literature class in college, and enjoyed his writing enough that when I saw The Turn of The Screw for a dollar I thought it would be worthwhile to pick it up, but now I'm going to be forever leery of reading another work by James.

Maybe this particular copy was part of the problem - it's a Norton Critical Edition (so it's got lots of extra info and footnotes) and it was clearly used in a class by someone. Someone who maybe wasn't particularly bright, but who was tenacious enough to put notes (and drawings of snails and scribbles) on pretty much every damned page.

I'm not a highlighter when I'm reading, not even if I'm reading critically. I'll use bookmarks, and maybe I'll block out a large chunk of text to refer to, but I was never one of those folks who would underline three lines and then circle four individual words in a single paragraph. And if I were to turn into one of those people I'd like to think that I'd make better choices than "alarm," "darkness," "moon," "rooms," "right," "darkness," "motionless," and "privately," all of which were individual words circled and underlined on pages 42-43 of this copy. What was this person trying to take note of? What the hell were they tracking that they couldn't just fucking remember that "darkness" makes a lot of appearances on the pages of this story? Who were you, strange person who kept distracting me from this terrible little book? And did you have to keep writing down your teacher's sexist ramblings about female hysteria (which I will admit that James is pretty clearly all the fuck about) verbatim?

Which is kind of why I hated the story. Part of it is that Victorian ghost stories aren't all that scary after you've been raised on scary movies, but the bigger part of it is that I don't think I can hang with male authors tut-tutting nervous women who they've created anymore. Hey James, you're the one who wrote this simpering little governess, you're the one who made her so easily startled and misled, you're the one who made her weak - that isn't a commentary on the weakness of women, that's an illustration of the fact that James thought women were weak. Which I guess was kind of his deal - he wrote a lot about fragile creatures corrupted by a cruel world that wanted to hold them to high standards, but then none of the women he wrote were capable of surviving that treatment. They got destroyed because he destroyed them. He wanted to shit on aristocracy because it made naturally pure, wonderful, pedestal-standing, women into shrewish and conniving strivers, not because it lowered all people into the categories of serfs and slave-drivers. Ugh. Just ugh. Sexism isn't just about thinking women are power-hungry; thinking they're vulnerable and need to be protected and praised and are too subject to the whims of wandering wombs is just as gross.

Anyway, if you want to read a kick-ass story about female hysteria, one that is also scary as hell and sympathetic to its strong but insane female protagonist, you should check out Charlotte Perkins Gillman's "The Yellow Wallpaper." If you want to read The Turn of the Screw it's available all over the place free online but fuck if I know why you'd want to dig for it.

     - Alli

James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw. Norton Critical Editions. New York: New York. 1999. (1898).

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