The Haunting of Bly Manor: why Henry James’s eerie tale still inspires so many adaptations

Dani, The Haunting of Bly Manor’s Governess.

Bethany Layne, De Montfort University

New on Netflix, The Haunting of Bly Manor is the latest in a long line of adaptations of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898) that began in 1954 with Benjamin Britten’s opera. Since then, there have been more than 25 others. Adaptors’ enduring fascination with James’s “irresponsible little fiction” can be summed up in a word: ambiguity.

It is the story of a young governess who comes to suspect that her deceased predecessor, Miss Jessel, and the late valet Peter Quint, are exerting a continued influence over her orphaned charges, Miles and Flora. This influence is not only spectral but quite possibly sexual in nature.

As James’s opening line predicted, “the story … held us”, and its readers quickly fell into two main camps. Metaphysical readers chose to “believe the governess” and believe in the ghosts, while psychological readers – most famously American writer Edmund Wilson in his 1934 essay – maintained that “the ghosts are not real ghosts … but merely the hallucinations of the governess”. She, in turn, was a “neurotic case of sex repression”, possibly acting out of a sublimated desire for her employer, the children’s uncle.

Yet neither metaphysical nor psychological readings proved able to contain this story, whose details stubbornly refuse to be explained away. If the valet Quint is a hallucination, how is the housekeeper able to identify him from the governess’s description? But equally, if he has an independent existence, why, as the literature academic Sheila Teahan has noted, does the governess associate him with the act of writing? The governess suggests that Quint is only as real as “the letters I form on this page”, implying that he is her creative construct.

James’s novella thus demands a third approach, of which literary critic Shoshana Felman’s Turning the Screw of Interpretation (1977) is among the finest examples. Rather than attempting to scare the tale into consistency, this reading recognises that its ambiguity is fundamental to its effect.

With this in mind, The Turn of the Screw’s appeal to adaptors might seem paradoxical. How can the ghosts’ objective reality remain uncertain when we see them walk, talk, and, in Britten’s case, sing a 12-tone opera? Yet adaptors have used a range of innovative strategies to maintain the text’s ambiguity. The term is usefully defined in a cinematic context by director Alexander Mackendrick, not as “a lack of clarity” but as a contrast between “alternative meanings, each of them clear”.

On-screen ambiguity

Director Jack Clayton recruited Stanley Kubrick to rework the original script for The Innocents (1961) with one clear remit: to maximise the tale’s ambiguity. In the resultant film, the scene at the lake offers at least two alternative meanings for the appearance of Miss Jessel.

We see the governess (Deborah Kerr) react to a figure standing among the rushes, but a few frames later, Jessel has vanished. Has she appeared and then disappeared, or has the governess simply imagined her? Flora’s troubled face is inconclusive, reacting as much to her governess’s agitation as to any apparition.

In The Others
(2001), an oblique adaptation, creator Alejandro Amenábar takes an innovative stance on the ghosts’ reality. Marooned in an isolated house in post-second-world-war Jersey, Grace (Nicole Kidman), a staunch Catholic, resists her children’s claims to hear ghosts. It transpires that they are actually hearing the house’s new owners and that it is the children and their mother who are the ghosts. Overwhelmed by grief at her husband’s death, Grace, we eventually learn, smothered the children before shooting herself.

The Others thus combines metaphysical and psychological readings of its source. The ghosts are, in a sense, “real” (though not what we are led to believe), while at the same time, the “governess” figure, Grace, is also established as untrustworthy.

In Tim Fywell’s 2009 BBC adaptation, the governess (Michelle Dockery) is a patient in a post-first-world-war mental institution, a frame narrative that invites viewers to question the legitimacy of her testimony. Yet when, having implicated herself in Miles’s death, she is taken away in a prison van to be executed, her psychologist briefly hallucinates that the guard is Peter Quint. Such details left me wondering, as the psychologist seemed to be, whether the governess was indeed guilty, or was being prematurely and irrevocably silenced.

The teaser for The Haunting of Bly Manor reprises the eerie O Willow Waly song from The Innocents, paying homage to this foundational adaptation. The line “we lay, my love and I, beneath the weeping willow”, sung in Flora’s (Amelia Bea Smith’s) treble, chillingly captures the novella’s preoccupation with childhood innocence exposed to adult sexuality. In many of the adaptations, these shivers are compounded by our inability to entirely trust what we see, generating unanswered questions that keep the adaptive wheel turning.

We are likely to see many more screen translations, and more of the literary appropriations I discuss in my book, of which AN Wilson’s A Jealous Ghost (2005) and John Harding’s Florence and Giles (2010) are examples. Viewers and readers will continue to find what Virginia Woolf found in 1921: this is a story that “can still make us afraid of the dark”.The Conversation

Bethany Layne, Senior Lecturer in English Literature, De Montfort University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Louise Glück: literature Nobel for American lyric poet a healing choice after years of controversy

Nikolai Duffy, Manchester Metropolitan University

Louise Glück is the first poet to win the Nobel Prize in Literature since Tomas Tranströmer in 2011 and the first American to win since Toni Morrison in 1993.

In their preference for the muddiness of everyday life over explicit engagement with their political and social issues, you can see a broad link between Glück and Tranströmer. On the surface, though, Morrison and Glück couldn’t appear to be more different. Morrison’s work lays bare both the lasting scars and the perennial nature of American trauma, whereas Glück’s work is altogether quieter, more local and apparently lacking that broad, socially and politically engaged canvas.

But look past the surface and there are affinities between the two writers. Since her early poems, Glück has been concerned with charting what it means to live as an individual in America. It is a nuanced, controlled form of lyric poetry that is as interested in what it has not been possible to say as what has been said – and the ways the latter haunts and shapes the former.

I dislike being herded into certainty”, Glück has written. We live in an age in which certainty is valued above almost anything else. We appear to want, for instance, the certainty of a vaccine against COVID-19, the certainty that the pandemic will be brought to heel, and the certainty that we will not die, at least not yet and not like this.

But there is something greatly important in remembering that life, in all its forms – social, political, personal – remains incomplete, uncertain, and endlessly revised.

In Parable of the Swans from the 1996 collection, Meadowlands, two swans live: “On a small lake off / the map of the world”. The two swans spend much of their time studying themselves, some of their time studying each other. Ten years later “they hit / slimy water”.

She continues:

Sooner or later in a long
life together, every couple encounters
some emergency like this, some
drama which results
in harm.

It is a parable of domestic life, devastating in its directness, even more so in the way such dramas are repeated interminably behind closed doors only to be shoved aside when the door opens, replaced by a public face that projects only possession and assurance.

Individual becomes universal

The Nobel committee has heralded Glück “for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal”. It is a blanket phrase that might be applied to much lyric poetry.

But what has made Glück’s concern with individual experience resonate over the years is its quiet insistence that that even in the private sphere, everything is touched – and shaped – by the public sphere. No matter what we each might claim to the contrary, we are all the products of the world around us.

And it’s upon these affects and consequences that Glück shines such a clarifying light. It has done so, not by telling us this, but by showing us the ways it can be done.

It is a humble corrective to the discourses of power and authority – so often male – that colour and corrupt great swaths of what we are encouraged to view as important. We are each answerable to how we choose to live, or as the poet puts it in Parable of the Swans: “love was what one did.”

Sidestepping controversy

There is an argument that, after two years of self-inflicted controversies and incomprehensible decisions, the Nobel committee has elected to play it safe this year. Glück is not a polarising poet. In any case, there was an expectation that the prize would be awarded to a non-European female writer.

There is also an argument that in awarding the prize to a white American writer whose work is often characterised by critics as not having an explicit political dimension, the committee has deliberately chosen to sidestep what could have been an important and timely intervention into the necessary debates about diversity and inclusivity – debates which run the risk of being rendered invisible by politicians’ more explicit desire to be seen to be waging war against the pandemic.

No doubt there is something to these arguments. But to criticise the award on both of these fronts is also to neglect the very particular qualities and resonances of Glück’s work. Her preference for the discretion of lyric poetry has something very specific to say about the lives we choose to lead.

As the poet writes in the final lines of the 2008 poem Dawn:

You get home, that’s when you notice the mold.
Too late, in other words.

As though the sun blinded you for a moment.

By drawing back a veil, Glück lets us see what is often overlooked, and the consequences that arise from the recklessness of not paying attention to ourselves and the way we live in the world.The Conversation

Nikolai Duffy, Senior Lecturer, Department of English, Manchester Metropolitan University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.