The Governess in Nineteenth-Century Literature

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E. Duncan Aswell (essay date 1968)

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SOURCE: “Reflections of a Governess: Image and Distortion in The Turn of the Screw,” in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 23, No. 1, June, 1968, pp. 49-63.

[In the following essay, Aswell argues that The Turn of the Screw is a non-supernatural tale revolving around the narrator's inability to confront...

(The entire section contains 43597 words.)

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SOURCE: “Reflections of a Governess: Image and Distortion in The Turn of the Screw,” in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 23, No. 1, June, 1968, pp. 49-63.

[In the following essay, Aswell argues that The Turn of the Screw is a non-supernatural tale revolving around the narrator's inability to confront and acknowledge her dark side.]

The governess in The Turn of the Screw judges her experiences in simplistic moral terms: Miles and Flora are threatened by diabolical fiends and can only be saved by her angelic intervention. In truth, however, the governess not only creates the activities of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel out of her imagination; it is she herself who is the intruding ghost at Bly, carrying out the functions and duties she ascribes to her supposed enemies.1 Her puritanical morality requires that salvation can occur only after the confession of sins. And in order to wring a confession from the tortured children, she is forced to act out the parts of their fiendish tempters in order that she may then act out the part of the angelic deliverer and save them. She becomes convinced that Quint and Miss Jessel have returned to gain possession of the children, and, having developed a neat intellectual theory of their behavior, she proceeds unconsciously to fulfill their mission. The tale's tragic irony resides in the fact that the governess succeeds in the first half of her evangelical errand—she leads the children to an awareness and acknowledgement of evil—but she fails in the second, the salvation of their souls.

James leads his readers to identify the governess with the ghosts by dramatizing a striking change in her relationship to the spectres. The identification is suggested from the very beginning, and every one of the visitations echoes or foreshadows the specific behavior of the governess. But on the first occasion she describes the appearance of Quint as an artifact created by herself, and she presents the incident as one of her many romantic and literary experiences so charmingly evoked in the introductory pages. The clarity and control of the opening episodes gradually give way, however, to frenzy, confusion, and obscurity as she begins to suspect that the ghosts are embodiments of her own frightened impulses. Like most of James's “reflectors” in this period, the governess grows less, not more certain of reality as she scrutinizes her experience, and her reporting of the events becomes increasingly fuzzy, ambiguous, and unreliable.

Her initial presence of mind and sense of command stem in part from her tendency to associate herself with romantic figures from her reading. After she first sees Quint, she wonders if there is a “secret” at Bly, “a mystery of Udolpho or an insane, an unmentionable relative, kept in unsuspected confinement” (42).2 The “relative” she is thinking of must surely be the first Mrs. Rochester, and she herself must then be like Jane Eyre, another romantic governess in love with her employer. Thus, from the beginning, the governess's imagination prepares her to place herself in others' shoes and to think of her adventures as shaped by a creative mind. Her whole manner of reporting Quint's appearance reveals how her own mind has shaped the incident creatively, though the phrasing also implies that she has fabricated the incident out of her desire for romance. She says that “the man who looked at me over the battlements was as definite as a picture in a frame” (39) and closes her description of the scene with the ambiguous remark, “So I saw him as I see the letters I form on this page; then, exactly, after a minute, as if to add to the spectacle, he slowly changed his place …” (41). This figure moves in response to the governess's desire for spectacle and is as much under her control at this point as the narrative she is so beautifully constructing.

One disturbing feature of this episode is the exchange of looks between Quint and the governess, for it suggests a similarity in their behavior that will be emphasized more and more forcefully as the story goes on. She reports that “this visitant … seemed to fix me, from his position, with just the question, just the scrutiny through the fading light, that his own presence provoked” (40). This similarity is made far more explicit when Quint reappears at the dining-room window, and this time the governess has lost the control she wielded in the garden. Now she steps into the frame she had placed around the apparition and can find no way to explain her behavior. Thus, though she can say of the spectre this time too, “He was there or was not there: not there if I didn't see him,” she can only describe her own actions in the most tentative manner: “It was confusedly present to me that I ought to place myself where he had stood” (50). This passive impulse, however, sets the stage for the repetition of the little drama just enacted, now with the governess in the role of spectral visitant and Mrs. Grose as startled inmate. Although the governess cannot understand “why she should be scared,” Mrs. Grose lets the reader know immediately with her first rejoinder: “You're as white as a sheet” (52). Mrs. Grose, too, has seen a ghost, and now that the governess has drawn her naive companion into the role she herself played on the ghost's first appearance, she can exercise control over her and force her to share subsequent adventures. Her first reaction to Mrs. Grose's exclamation is to consider that she need no longer “respect the bloom of Mrs. Grose's” innocence. She has initiated the housekeeper into her own vision of evil by acting out the appearance of that evil, as she will do later for Miles and Flora.

The “identification” scene follows immediately, as the governess thinks, “Oh, it was quite settled that she must share!” (53). Harold C. Goddard has brilliantly and persuasively analyzed this scene by pointing out that Mrs. Grose responds not at all to the physical details of the governess's description3—which Katherine Anne Porter and Allen Tate both identify as “all the physical attributes of the legendary devil.”4 Instead, the housekeeper recognizes the hints that the governess lets fall suggesting that the spectre was an inmate of the house. She already knows that the uncle had sent “his own servants” to Bly to take care of the children (12).5 In an earlier conversation with Mrs. Grose, the sharp governess had picked up the implication that there was another man around Bly besides the master who admired pretty women (29). Her first sight of Quint follows an intense invocation of her employer, and at that moment she gives no physical description whatever. The only concrete detail about the figure that she notes is “the sign of familiarity of his wearing no hat” (40). The governess dwells upon the physical details of the house and grounds instead of upon the figure before her, and her imagination conjures up for her a featureless representation of a servant, the unidentified symbol of the existing authority before her arrival at Bly. Thus, when she finally confides in Mrs. Grose, she makes certain that the housekeeper will identify the intruder as the surrogate master. The facts to which Mrs. Grose responds are: that the visitor is no gentleman; is like nobody because he has no hat; and is like an actor. The governess adds the generic description of the devil to stir Mrs. Grose's dull and conventional imagination and, when the housekeeper asks if the intruder is handsome, acknowledges the active role she takes in the identification: “I saw the way to help her. ‘Remarkably!’” The final touch needed to complete the picture is the detail of how he was dressed: “In somebody's clothes. They're smart, but they're not his own” (56-57). There is no way the governess could have known that the clothes were borrowed. She makes up this conclusive detail in order to impress her preconceived notion of the figure's role upon the housekeeper.

The governess is motivated to identify the sinister embodiments of her own impulses with the previous servant at Bly by the need to explain her ambivalent and troubling fears about Miles and to justify her own role as a fierce and possessive protector of his and Flora's innocence. She first sees Quint shortly after she learns that Miles has been dismissed from school and immediately after she has described her worry about how “the rough future (for all futures are rough!) would handle them and might bruise them.” She had concluded her vision of the children's future by saying she could only imagine it in the form of “a romantic, a really royal extension of the garden and the park” (35). When she learned about Miles's dismissal, she instantly assumed that he had been “an injury to the others” (26) and that he had been so naughty as to “contaminate” or “corrupt” them (28). Thus, even before the ghosts appear, her puritanical imagination has conjured up past horrors that will need to be explained, but counter-balanced them with an idealized vision of an eternal Edenic future. The second appearance of Quint takes place outside the windows of the “‘grown-up’ dining-room” where the children had had their tea that day “by exception” (48). This incident follows an extraordinary passage in which the governess imagines Miles as a changeless creature who is not affected by the passage of time and untouched by the principle of growth: “I remember feeling with Miles in especial as if he had had, as it were, no history. We expect of a small child a scant one, but there was in this beautiful little boy something extraordinarily sensitive, yet extraordinarily happy, that, more than in any creature of his age I have seen, struck me as beginning anew each day” (46). Similarly, the first appearance of Miss Jessel at the lake follows the governess's full discoveries of the depravity to which the children have been exposed and her decision to “stand before” them and “protect and defend” their helplessness (67). She then goes on to describe how she submits herself to the world of the children's invention: “… my time was only taken with being, for them, some remarkable person or thing that the game of the moment required and that was merely, thanks to my superior, my exalted stamp, a happy and highly distinguished sinecure.” In this game she is “something very important,” but immediately she is aware of an “interested spectator” of her play-acting (68). The ghosts appear, thus, when the governess is both aware of the corruption which threatens the children and convinced of her own power to preserve them untainted. She envisions the ghosts summoning the children into the “grown-up” world and away from her own control, and she determines to rescue Miles and Flora from the pains of growth and maturity by preserving them from experience of any sort.

Yet, terrified as she is of the dangers awaiting the children, the governess cannot help calling up and giving life to her terrors, which she identifies with the horrors of maturity—especially of adult sexuality—lying in wait for Miles and Flora. Her ambivalent attitude toward the children is concisely expressed by her calling them “blameless and foredoomed” (91), and the juxtaposition suggests the hopelessness of any attempt to stop the march of time, to embalm the children for eternity in their most perfect state, and to shield them from experience. But she is powerless to prevent her conviction that maturity brings inevitable corruption from expressing itself in the form of embodiments of corrupted humanity. The way in which she externalizes her own grasping appropriation of the children is graphically demonstrated in the first episode by the lake. She says that Miss Jessel's first appearance provided her with “proofs … from the moment I really took hold” (67). As soon as she is certain of the demonic presence—“there was no ambiguity in anything”—she fixes her gaze upon Flora instead of addressing herself to the “alien object” whose presence she intuits and continues to stare at her until the end of her description of the incident. Finally, in the last sentence, she says, “Then I again shifted my eyes—I faced what I had to face” (71). In the next chapter she tries to convince Mrs. Grose that Flora saw Miss Jessel—a patent impossibility, since the child's back was to the water and the ghost supposedly appeared “across the lake”—but her account really recapitulates her own actions in the previous scene. As in the dining-room scene, Mrs. Grose reacts to her interlocutor as if the governess herself were the ghost. Miss Jessel is described as standing “not so near” to Flora, but the governess adds, “Oh, for the effect and the feeling, she might have been as close as you!” Then comes Mrs. Grose's reaction: “My friend, with an odd impulse, fell back a step.” By implication Flora and the housekeeper are placed in the same physical position relative to the governess, just as both are drawn into her moral crisis where they will be subjected to similar moral pressures. The governess ascribes her own purposes to Miss Jessel when she characterizes the “infamous” creature's gaze as consisting of “a kind of fury of intention,” spelled out as the desire “to get hold of” Flora. Furthermore, she recalls her own behavior when she says of Miss Jessel: “She gave me never a glance. She only fixed the child. … Ah, with such awful eyes!” In response to this Mrs. Grose “stared at mine as if they might really have resembled them” (76).

The three initial spectral appearances establish beyond question the identity of the ghosts with the governess, but confirm her in her belief that they represent the children's corrupted past and corruptible future. It is only the next three visitations, which have nothing to do with the children, that impress upon her consciousness the ghosts' relation to herself. When she meets Quint on the stairs late at night, she meets the mirror image of herself, and it is this fact that gives to the confrontation its dreadful intensity. Once again the exchange of looks is prolonged and soul-searching, and this time the two personalities are more explicitly interchangeable. “He knew me as well as I knew him,” the governess states, but the circumstance she finds most remarkable about the occasion is her lack of dread, a situation she explains in tersely ambiguous fashion: “there was nothing in me there that didn't meet and measure him.” She derives confidence from this confession, the certainty “that if I stood my ground a minute I should cease—for the time, at least—to have him to reckon with. …” Before that minute passes, however, a frightening loss of identity takes place, during which she wonders “if even I were in life” (97-98).

Almost immediately she records another nocturnal encounter, which is quickly passed over, but the image of Miss Jessel bowed in grief at the foot of the stairs makes a deep and troubling impression upon the governess's mind. There is no hint in this incident of an aggressive intent upon the children, and Miss Jessel's melancholy posture is inexplicable in a creature with the motives the governess imputes to her predecessor. But if the sobbing figure is seen to represent the governess herself, bowed down by her doubts about the justice of her cause and her sorrow for the evil she and the children must face, her reaction to it is profoundly touching: “… I wondered whether, if instead of being above I had been below, I should have had, for going up, the same nerve I had lately shown Quint” (103).

The entirely private nature of these two encounters is signified by the governess's reluctance to discuss them with Mrs. Grose. In fact, she indulges in one of her revealing suppressions of truth on this subject, when she tells the housekeeper about the intentions of the wicked visitors to destroy Miles and Flora. “They don't know, as yet, quite how—but they're trying hard. They're seen only across, as it were, and beyond—in strange places and on high places, the top of towers, the roof of houses, the outside of windows, the further edge of pools; but there's a deep design, on either side, to shorten the distance …” (117). To the reader, who has shared her recent experiences, this statement is tantamount to an acknowledgement that neither Quint nor Miss Jessel invaded Bly to corrupt the children. Since the governess is trying quite consciously in this passage to frighten Mrs. Grose with the immensity of the danger threatening the young, her omission of the fact that the demons have appeared inside the house is particularly striking.

In fact, the governess herself never even considers that the ghosts came on these two occasions to visit the children. Their appearances are not correlated with the behavior of the child each is supposed, according to her theory, to have returned to possess. Quint materializes when Flora is out of bed, and she sees Miss Jessel when she is hunting for Quint. She has met and measured herself, her own strengths and weaknesses, in order to evaluate her capacities for the fearful struggle ahead. She does not now conjure up the ghosts in connection with the children because at this point she exercises her tightest control over all the activities of Miles and Flora and makes certain that they will have recourse to no other adult. She forces Mrs. Grose to agree not to appeal to the uncle, and so long as the children are docile she enjoys an interval of peace.

The peace is shattered, however, when Miles reveals that he is anxious to escape from the governess's tight control, and the incident is charged with dramatic tension because his actions and appearance remind her of the original visitation of Quint. She has just been pleasantly surprised at the children's acceptance of her “inexorable” society and thinks: “Turned out for Sunday by his uncle's tailor, who had had a free hand and a notion of pretty waistcoats and of his grand little air, Miles's whole title to independence, the rights of his sex and situation, were so stamped upon him that if he had suddenly struck for freedom I should have had nothing to say” (131). Quint, it will be remembered, had been identified by his clothes, also turned out by the master's tailor, and Mrs. Grose had appalled the governess by saying, “Quint was much too free.” The possessive woman had cried out with disgust at this, “Too free with my boy?” (63). The governess thus inevitably associates Miles's request with the corruption to which he has been exposed; assuming that she has failed in her mission to save him, she determines to flee Bly forever.

Yet upon entering the house, she meets for the third and last time that other side of herself not in any way disguised as a representation of the children. Her first action upon her return to Bly is to sink down “at the foot of the staircase—suddenly collapsing there on the lowest step and then, with a revulsion, recalling that it was exactly where more than a month before, in the darkness of night and just so bowed with evil things, I had seen the spectre of the most horrible of women” (140). In her new resolve to abandon her duty, she imagines herself to be as reprehensible as her corrupted predecessor. Therefore it is necessary for her to face once more the dark embodiment of her fears in order to repudiate any resemblance between herself and her vision of the former governess. She reasserts her claim to absolute moral goodness, and her condemnation of Miss Jessel as evil personified is her answer to a terrifying moment of doubt when she faces her nemesis in the schoolroom. “Dark as midnight in her black dress, her haggard beauty and her unutterable woe, she had looked at me long enough to appear to say that her right to sit at my table was as good as mine to sit at hers. While these instants lasted indeed I had the extraordinary chill of a feeling that it was I who was the intruder” (141-142). To rid herself of this impression she shrieks throughout the house, proclaiming that the other woman is “terrible, miserable” and substituting for the horrible vision the conviction that she must stay.

The importance of this encounter with Miss Jessel lies in the fact that the governess has dispelled to her own satisfaction any suggestion that the ghosts are mirror images of herself. Her banishment of the former governess is a rejoinder to the earlier apparitions of Quint and Miss Jessel within the house. From now on the ghosts appear only outside and only in conjunction with the children. The denial of her own relation to the spectres confirms the governess in the belief that they represent configurations of the adult personality lying in wait for the children. Her vision of her own duty is now clearer that ever—she must directly implicate Miles and Flora in the evil that threatens them, force them to acknowledge it explicitly, and so “save” them.

Accordingly, she launches her campaign with a late-night visit to Miles's bedroom. Her purposes are twofold: to wring some confession from the child about his behavior at school, and to force him to commit a specific wicked act with which she can confront him and compel him to acknowledge his depravity. She is impelled to both steps by Miles's second explicit demand for freedom. He wants her, he says, “To let me alone” (155), to which she makes the seemingly irrelevant reply, “I've just begun a letter to your uncle.” This is an obvious lie, since she clearly stated that she left “a blank sheet of paper” to go to Miles's room. But her remark makes sense in the context of later events. After telling the boy of the letter's existence, she makes certain he will be able to find it. The next day she tells Mrs. Grose that she has written to the master and says privately: “But I didn't add—for the hour—that my letter, sealed and directed, was still in my pocket. There would be time enough to send it before the messenger should go to the village” (157). The “hour” comes after she has discovered Flora's absence and has figured out that Miles must therefore be with Quint. She tells Mrs. Grose that she doesn't mind about the boy's infernal activities at the moment, and the housekeeper asks if the reason for this sudden unconcern is the letter to the master. “I quickly, by way of answer, felt for my letter, drew it forth, held it up, and then, freeing myself, went and laid it on the great hall-table” (162). She leaves the letter exposed in the hall as a temptation to Miles, and her conviction that Quint is with him leads her to believe that he will take it. This is precisely what she wants, because a single, definite evil action will give her a handle to wring a confession from him and thus “save” him. She can freely abandon him to Quint now because that abandonment will lead the boy back to her. The children have to be fully initiated into the evil she has discovered; salvation can only come from damnation. She thus takes it upon herself to play the devil and tempt Miles, so that she can then act the angel and rescue him.

Miles, of course, is not aware of the governess's plot, and his answer to her statement about the letter is a flip “Well, then, finish it!” She then begins to put her second plan into action. “I waited a minute. ‘What happened before?’” This unexpected question catches the child off guard, understandably enough, and her fancy that his faltering reply implies a consciousness of former evil brings her new hope: “it made me drop on my knees beside the bed and seize once more the chance of possessing him” (155). Miles blows out the candle to save himself from this attempt at possession, and the governess's description of the supernatural side-effects of her offer to “save” him is confused and unconvincing. No “gust of frozen air” blew out the candle, and no one but a supernatural visitant or a deluded visionary could tell in the darkness that “the drawn curtains were unstirred and the window tight” (156). Once again it is clear that the governess herself is haunting the children.

The last two ghostly appearances complete the carefully diagrammed pattern by means of which James reveals the true nature of the ghosts. The first stage was the governess's neat theory associating Quint and Miss Jessel with the children. The three middle appearances showed her direct confrontations with the ghosts, and the final visitations enable the children to identify the fiends with the governess herself. The last appearance of Miss Jessel by the lake carefully balances the initial confrontation there, but now it is Flora, not Mrs. Grose, who leads us to the true identity of the apparition. Instead of glancing at the “prodigy” announced by the governess, the child turns upon the accuser herself “an expression of hard, still gravity, an expression absolutely new and unprecedented and that appeared to read and accuse and judge me” (171-172). A complete reversal of roles occurs here, as Flora's intense stare “somehow converted the little girl herself into the very presence that could make me quail.” The governess declares herself “appalled” at Flora's manner, at her “countenance of deeper and deeper, of indeed suddenly quite fixed, reprobation” (172). The governess has failed in her attempt to save Flora from corrupting change; in fact, by arousing Flora to an awareness of evil, she has forced the child abruptly and prematurely into responsible and painful maturity, and this is the “very presence that could make me quail.” The appaller of Quint is appalled by this being whom she sees as an “old, old woman” (165, 172); the violent change she has effected in Flora is signalled by the vile language the child later uses, while the governess's responsibility for her corruption is underlined by her thanking God at Mrs. Grose's report (185).

The coarsening of the governess's imagination and sensibility is dramatically revealed by her no longer caring that the acknowledgement of evil was to be only a means toward the end of salvation. It has become the end in itself, and by embodying a dread vision of sin without redemption the governess most cruelly and ironically acts out the parts of Miss Jessel and Peter Quint that she had begun by imagining under her control. This warped moral vision accounts for the final tragedy with Miles, also, for here again the acknowledgement of sin becomes the goal toward which the governess directs all her efforts. Her methods grow correspondingly cruder as the story progresses. She conjures up Quint by questioning Miles about the letter and forcing a confession from him, thus carrying out the program begun in Miles's bedroom, the steps of which she outlined explicitly to Mrs. Grose: stealing, confession, salvation (188-189).

Quint's appearance in response to the invocation of the letter is likened to the presence of a “sentinel before a prison” (204), a recollection of the governess's comparison of herself to a “gaoler with an eye to possible surprises and escapes” (130). But the clearest clue that she and Quint are identical resides in her strange manner of referring to the place in which she waits for Miles and where Quint again appears. She speaks of “the ponderous pomp of the room outside of the window of which I had had from Mrs. Grose, that first scared Sunday, my flash of something it would scarce have done to call light” (193). She does not refer to her own fright at seeing Quint on that day, but to her mimicry of his ghostly role. Equally curious is her ascribing the “light” she received to the expression on the housekeeper's face, not to her earlier intuition, from observing Quint's glare, that he was looking for someone else. The light that the governess cherishes is that which she sees dawning on the faces of others, the evidence that she is successful in forcing her companions to new knowledge and insight. This desire motivates her final determined effort to save Miles.

After banishing Quint by wringing a confession from the boy about the letter, she turns her attention to the child's past behavior, and her insistence upon explicit identification of his actions at school brings Quint back again. But this time, instead of shielding the boy from the horror, she makes him aware of a ghost's presence by shrieking hysterically, “No more, no more, no more!” The governess herself, however, offers something more. Miles, she realizes, interprets her frenzy as “some sequel to what we had done to Flora, but this made me only want to show him that it was better still than that” (211). Her ambiguous personal pronoun, “we,” is revealing. It cannot refer to Mrs. Grose and herself and so can only point unconsciously to her collaboration with the other side of herself, acting as her wicked predecessor. Her statement also suggests that Miles has learned about Flora's misfortune, and that his only acquaintance with the demons is through the events precipitated by the governess, which have forced the dead servants upon the consciousness of those at Bly.6

Still not content with what she has achieved, the governess finally forces Miles to identify Quint with herself. Miles's frantic cry, “Peter Quint—you devil!” is addressed to the governess and Quint interchangeably, the two roles assumed for Miles by his mentor. This twofold identification of Quint as governess, each a devil, prepares for the bitterly ironic overtones of the final sentence of the narrative. Miles has been dispossessed of a sister, a home, a future, even a past by a woman who denies the principle of moral growth, without which life is scarcely worth suffering through. But the ambiguities of Miles's dispossession cut yet more mordantly close to the governess. Her recognition comes at the very moment of most intense possessiveness, as she presses him to her breast, “it may be imagined with what a passion” (213).7 It was she who had tried to get possession of the boy in his bedroom, she who had responded to his confession about the stolen letter by feeling “in the sudden fever of his little body the tremendous pulse of his little heart” (205). Her gesture of grasping appropriation, undertaken as a defiant repudiation of Quint, is repeated at the end, when she cries, “I have you … but he has lost you for ever!” (212). The whole tale, and especially this final episode, proves that the distinction offered here is a specious one.

The story offers yet another turn of the screw, however. The last pages of the governess's narrative are filled with somber and desperate doubts about her righteousness. These uncertainties reveal the deepest ironies of the story's meaning, the most poignant gaps in her awareness of herself and of the creatures she has made to act at Bly. At the moment of her most intense doubt, James subtly suggests her similarity, not to Quint or Miss Jessel, but to Miles himself. The boy tells her that his reprehensible action at school was to tell something to “those he liked.” This revelation brings to her “the appalling alarm of his being perhaps innocent.” Once again the appaller is appalled, and the reason is shown in her next remark: “It was for the instant confounding and bottomless, for if he were innocent, what then on earth was I?” (209) The confrontation is like the meeting with Quint on the stairs, for she here meets herself once again. Douglas tells his auditors in his introduction about receiving the story from her years later: “… I liked her extremely and am glad to this day to think she liked me too. If she hadn't she wouldn't have told me. She had never told anyone” (7). She and the children are both corrupted by the very fact of existence in a world without moral absolutes, where the untainted and untainting choice is impossible. But she fails to act upon her sense of the bond between herself and Miles, just as she repudiated any link between the ghosts and herself. She prefers the morally simplistic view that she alone is radiantly innocent and she alone knows the requirements for salvation. Her choice condemns herself to isolation and Miles to death.

Yet by closing her eyes to the realities of human existence, she is able to preserve her ideal untouched, to save Miles, at least, from the contaminations of the world, and to retain in her own mind an image of him perpetually young and undefiled. We as readers are shocked at the results of her labors, but sympathetic with the passion that motivated her. For all of us seek to preserve the innocent from corruption, though we must finally acknowledge that experience is not necessarily evil. The governess's incapacity to distinguish growth from corruption makes her the agent of the very evil she dedicates herself to combating. Her efforts are ostensibly directed to saving the children from the ambiguities and uncertainties she has experienced herself—for instance, throughout her narrative. Yet the final irony of The Turn of the Screw is that the governess attempts to shield the children from the future by making them confront their own past, their secret desires and impulses, while she shies away from facing up to and acknowledging the horrors that lie buried within her own soul.

In dramatizing the plight of a woman faced with physical embodiments of her own most private drives and needs which she yet refuses to recognize, James not only created his most harrowing tale of self-deception, of the fine intellect destroyed by pride, but introduced a compelling theme that he returned to several times in his late work. The Turn of the Screw is the first of many stories centering around the idea of the appaller appalled, the individual faced with the dark side of his own personality and forced to come to terms with it. The problem is central in “The Jolly Corner”; in the novel begun as a kind of sequel to the famous ghost story, The Sense of the Past; and in the first volume of James's own autobiographical reminiscences, A Small Boy and Others. In each of these other cases the confrontation is in some way successful, but none of them achieves the taut, dramatic power of The Turn of the Screw, where the consequences of the governess's failure to confront herself are fully explored and realized. The imaginations of James's readers have been horrified and perplexed by this completely non-supernatural portrait of a woman who peers into the blackness of her soul and then, like most of the rest of us, withdraws her gaze.


  1. Many recent commentators have pursued the early suggestions of Edna Kenton and Edmund Wilson that the real interest of the tale lies in the governess's manipulation of facts and in the pressure she applies upon the children. See, for instance, Leon Edel, The Modern Psychological Novel (New York, 1964), pp. 39-46. No other analysis, however, has pointed out that the governess's behavior mirrors that of the ghosts, that the language she uses to describe their activity accurately fits her own gestures and intentions with respect to the children.

  2. Page references in the text are to the first American edition of The Two Magics (New York, 1898).

  3. “A Pre-Freudian Reading of The Turn of the Screw,NCF [Nineteenth-Century Literature], XII (June 1957), 1-36; reprinted in A Casebook on Henry James's “The Turn of the Screw,” ed. Gerald Willen (New York, 1960), pp. 244-272. See especially Casebook, pp. 252-256.

  4. Tate adds, “I think James is playing with us a little there—bringing in an additional dimension of the imagination” (“James: ‘The Turn of the Screw,’” A Radio Symposium composed of Katherine Anne Porter, Allen Tate, and Mark Van Doren, originally published in The New Invitation to Learning, ed. Mark Van Doren, pp. 223-235; Casebook, pp. 160-170). Another critic, who accepts the governess's story at face value, has referred to Quint's “red hair and red whiskers” as “the conventional guise of the Devil” (Nathan Bryllion Fagin, “Another Reading of The Turn of the Screw,MLN, LVI [March 1941], 196-202; Casebook, pp. 154-159).

  5. This information is given us by Douglas, but he is obviously reporting the governess's own account of her interview with the master.

  6. Goddard's article should be consulted for a thorough analysis of this problem. He discusses, for instance, the curious conversation between the governess and Mrs. Grose about Flora's isolation after the scene at the lake (Two Magics, pp. 182-183; “A Pre-Freudian Reading,” Casebook, pp. 263-265). Notice also the governess's casual reference to her learning “that [Miles] had breakfasted—in the presence of a couple of the maids—with Mrs. Grose and his sister” (192). Since the governess does not see Mrs. Grose again, we never learn what transpired at breakfast. Why, in the previous chapter, was the governess so terrified of the children meeting, and so off-hand here about an actual encounter?

  7. Muriel West, “The Death of Miles in The Turn of the Screw,PMLA [Publications of the Modern Language Association of America], LXXIX (June 1964), 283-288, asserts that the governess's physical violence is at least the indirect cause of Miles's death. She discusses other ambiguities in the closing scene, including the confusion in the governess's grammatical references; it is often unclear whether she alludes to Quint or Miles.

Elliot M. Schrero (essay date 1981)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7911

SOURCE: “Exposure in The Turn of the Screw,” in Modern Philology, Vol. 78, No. 3, February, 1981, pp. 261-74.

[In the following essay, Schrero contends that The Turn of the Screw should be analyzed in terms of various cultural beliefs and traditions common to the Victorian era—particularly the interactions between children, parents, servants, and governesses.]

Few critics since 1925 have responded to The Turn of the Screw as its first reviewers did in 1898. Edna Kenton's 1925 essay, which was to be amplified by Edmund Wilson's three versions of “The Ambiguity of Henry James,” foreshadowed a series of ironic readings that have swelled into the mainstream of interpretation. In 1898, however, the story seemed only too clear, for reviewers complained about its horrors and confessed to being frightened by them.1 As late as 1916, William Lyon Phelps saw in the tale “the connoting strength of its author's reticence,” which made his meaning sufficiently clear. And for Phelps, as for the first reviewers, this meaning was spine chilling; it was also “profoundly ethical, making to all those who are interested in the moral welfare of boys and girls an appeal simply terrific in its intensity.” Such views stand in contrast to late twentieth-century readings of The Turn of the Screw which trace multiple and contradictory meanings in it rather than the image of a moral condition.2

What accounts for this shift in critical interest? I shall argue that, aside from the growing influence of psychoanalysis after the First World War, and, after the second, a general preoccupation with interpretation, the cause lies in the opacity of certain references in the tale—references formerly transparent but now darkened by cultural change. According to this hypothesis, James meant to show the hapless case of two abandoned orphans, not the fate of reading; and he had grounds for expecting his readers to understand the children's case as paradigmatic for civilization. For James and his contemporaries, as I hope to demonstrate, specific cultural allegiances controlled the play of textual meaning. Entwined with these allegiances were traditions about four familial and social roles whose interrelations form a center of interest in the tale: the roles of parents, servants, governesses, and children. When these are considered within a Victorian frame of reference, I shall argue, James's tale loses much of the ambiguity that has preoccupied critics since the mid-1930s; it acquires the nightmarish aspect that Victorian readers found in it. This aspect, moreover, cannot be explained by an appeal to the merely ghostly.


Three features of the preamble to the governess's narrative hint at the Victorian frame of reference. The first is Douglas's insistence that “the narrative … really required for a proper intelligence a few words of prologue” (p. 4). The importance of the prologue is reinforced by a second feature, Douglas's delay in reading aloud the manuscript arrived from London on the third day of the frame-story. He does not begin to read until the fourth night, when, by the departure of certain ladies, his “little final auditory” was “made … more compact and select … subject to a common thrill” (ibid.). The prologue, or at least crucial parts of it, he reserves for the third night; and these preliminaries, at one point, prompt a sharp question. This, the most revealing hint of the three, comes as Douglas is summarizing various explanations given to the young governess-to-be by Miles's and Flora's uncle: “There had been for the two children at first a young lady whom they had had the misfortune to lose. She had done for them quite beautifully—she was a most respectable person—till her death. … Mrs. Grose, since then, in the way of manners and things, had done as she could for Flora; and there were, further, a cook, a housemaid, a dairywoman, an old pony, an old groom and an old gardener, all likewise thoroughly respectable” (p. 5).

Here someone asks, “‘And what did the former governess die of? Of so much respectability?’” The sarcasm, plainly, is a response to Douglas's stress on the household's respectability, embracing even the pony. His irony and, no doubt, his vocal tone invite the question, which completes an exchange of innuendoes. Among these, we shall see, is the observation that the uncle has abandoned Miles and Flora; that, even worse, he has placed them in the hands of persons unfit. He has done what James Mark Baldwin, in the year Henry James noted down the germ of his tale, warned fathers against doing: he has allowed the children's “mental growth, the formation of their characters, the evolution of their personality, to go on by absorption—if no worse—from common, vulgar, imported and changing, often immoral, attendants!”3

Baldwin's warning was no innovation; on the contrary, it took up an old refrain. For at least a century conventional wisdom had held that servants were corrupters of children. This conviction has a bearing on The Turn of the Screw because of the dominant role of the servant Peter Quint in the household at Bly. “‘The master believed in him and placed him here,’” Mrs. Grose tells the young governess. “‘So he had everything to say. Yes’—she let me have it—‘even about them [the children]’” (p. 27). Douglas's prologue presumes standard attitudes toward servants and the hazards they presented to the moral welfare of children. In all likelihood, as will appear, these are the hazards James meant when he wrote to an inquiring correspondent: “The thing … I most wanted not to fail of doing … was to give the impression of the communication to the children of the most infernal imaginable evil and danger—the condition, on their part, of being as exposed as we can humanly conceive children to be.”4

The exposure of the children, indeed their victimization because of their uncle's neglect, as Victorians saw it, can be appreciated if one considers what had long been said about servants' contacts with children. As far back as The Parent's Assistant, Maria Edgeworth's collection of children's tales, it was already traditional to regard servants as likely corrupters of the young. Addressing parents in a preface, Miss Edgeworth pointed out several lessons taught by her tales. In “The Birthday Present,” she said, one sees “the dangers which may arise in education from a bad servant.”5 The tale bears out this claim. A spoiled little girl, Bell, is overindulged by her mother and is thrown much in the company of Nancy, “the maid who educated her,” as the text remarks in italics. Bell, it appears, “had learned from her maid a total disregard of truth,” evident in Bell's deceitful behavior.6

Corruption by servants received still greater emphasis in the work on education that Miss Edgeworth wrote with her father. Their Practical Education, published in 1798 and several times reprinted, recommends that children be isolated from servants. There should be no conversation between them. Parents “should be absolutely strict in this particular,” and should discharge servants who break the rule. “It may be feared that some secret intercourse should be carried on between children and servants; but this will be lessened by the arrangements in the house which we have mentioned, and by care in a mother or governess to know exactly where children are, and what they are doing every hour of the day. …”7

Of special interest is the Edgeworths' reiterated warning against secret contacts between servants and children. They remark that “where parents have not sufficient firmness to prevent the interference of acquaintance, and sufficient prudence to keep children from all clandestine communication with servants, we earnestly advise that the children be sent to some public seminary of education.”8 Without supposing that Henry James or his readers had looked into Practical Education, it is worth our notice because the warning it sounds was traditional and remained so.9

Evidence that the warning was traditional appears in the Edgeworths' remark that “all these things have been said a hundred times: and, what is more, they are universally acknowledged to be true.” In fact, “it has passed into a common maxim with all who reflect, and even with all who speak upon the subject of education, that “it is the worst thing in the world to leave children with servants.’”10 Corroboration of the tradition appears in a quarter where one might not expect it. Servants, wrote William Godwin, “will instruct us in the practice of cunning, and the arts of deceit. They will teach us to exhibit a studied countenance to those who preside over us. … They will make us confidants of their vices.”11 (This exactly describes the influence ascribed by the young governess to Quint and his instrument Miss Jessel.) Godwin, like the Edgeworths, testifies to an entrenched disapproval of contacts between servants and children. “A resource frequently employed … is for parents to caution their offspring against the intercourse of menials, and explicitly tell them that the company of servants is by no means a suitable relaxation for the children of a family.”12

Later in the nineteenth century, the precepts of Godwin and the Edgeworths were echoed in widely read tales for children or adults. Mrs. Henry Sherwood's The History of the Fairchild Family (1818-47) is an example. It was standard fare for English children until about 1887, and although condemned for its Evangelical terrors, “was perhaps as widely read … as any English book ever written for children.”13 It was still thought suitable to be given as a prize book by a Church of England Sunday School in 1908.14 Although the fictive Mrs. Fairchild did not prohibit contacts with all servants, “she did not approve of [her young son's] going into the stable or offices amongst the lower men-servants and stable-boys, where he must hear much that was wrong.” She insists “that he should not wilfully hear what must hurt his mind, his morals, and his manners as a gentleman, and, above all, as a Christian.” “No gentleman by birth is a real gentleman,” she declares, if he “loves the stable-yard, and the company of uneducated grooms and keepers of dogs.”15 In one episode the Fairchild children learn how a child grew up to be a murderer because of a careless upbringing that “allowed [him] to be with the servants in the stable and kitchen.”16

And there were other echoes of what remained the conventional view in 1847. Anne Bronte's Agnes Grey, published in that year, presents Mrs. Bloomfield, the wife of a rich retired tradesman, instructing the heroine in her functions as governess: “Mary Ann … is a very good girl upon the whole: though I wish her to be kept out of the nursery as much as possible, as she is now almost six years old, and might acquire bad habits from the nurses. I have ordered her crib to be placed in your room, and if you will be so kind as to overlook her washing and dressing, and take charge of her clothes, she need have nothing further to do with the nursery maid.” Subsequently, in the home of the Murrays, who are gentry, the younger daughter Matilda must be forbidden the stables and “the companionship of the coachmen, grooms, horses, greyhounds, and pointers” because of the “roughness of her manners.”17

Servants and their corrupting influence continued to be viewed in much the same light up to the end of the century at least. The tradition continued in the Parent's Assistant and The Fairchild Family, both enduringly popular. As for the oral tradition mentioned by Godwin and the Edgeworths, there was little or nothing in Victorian life to weaken it. On the contrary, there was much to reinforce it in late-Victorian social and economic conditions.

Distrust of servants rose sharply in the late 1880s and early 1890s—so much, in fact, as to become a notorious topic for the reviews read in cultivated households. “To judge from the number of magazine articles which have of late appeared, touching more or less upon the subject,” one writer complained, “an unwonted interest is being taken in the domestic servant.” A recent piece by Lady Violet Greville was typical, he observed. It had treated the faults of menservants indulgently but disdainfully. The masters and mistresses of England, he continued, took the view that “servants are low, mean and degraded, but if there be maintained towards them a repressive attitude of haughty disdain, society will be preserved from contamination.”18 The author, himself a butler, conceded that servants' “reputation for meanness and general depravity is abundantly supported [by the daily papers and the registry offices],” and it “affords a fairly adequate criterion of [their] real worth.”19

The causes of this problem, he said, included something more than “the deterrent conditions which tend to eliminate the better class of men and women.” The evil was passed on from older servants to younger ones, whose elders were commonly “sensualists in a more or less advanced stage of degradation.” Responsibility for this lay with the employers. “Society is too much taken up with its balls and millinery, its dinners and matchmaking. … The care of servants is too often relegated to a butler or housekeeper more debauched than those over whom they have charge.”20 Obviously, it was still worse to entrust children to the care of such persons; and the practice, as we have seen, was condemned by James Mark Baldwin. No doubt he also had in mind attendants who were nurses or governesses. The point is that the worry over immoral attendants persisted, and servants virtually by definition figured as immoral in late-Victorian eyes. There might be honorable exceptions (Mrs. Grose is one), but it was proper to act on the principle that servants were guilty until experience proved them innocent.

But how were children to be shielded from these corrupters; who was to relieve the parental burden of forming manners and morals? The solution was the one announced by Mrs. Bloomfield to Agnes Grey: it was the governess. It was she who took charge of girls from the age of six or seven until their coming out and of boys from about six or seven until they acquired a tutor or went off to a preparatory school at eight or nine. According to one Victorian authority, Sir George Stephen, the governess stood precisely in loco parentis; she was “to consider herself the delegate of the mother, such as she ought to be, rather than such as she is usually found.”21 Her authority included all questions of “moral and general tuition,” subject only to the control of the mother, whose commands, however, were to be resisted if ill-conceived.22

Still, governesses also may have been suspect. Miss Jessel after all was a governess, and there had been earlier wicked governesses in fiction (as noted below). But, in regard to the antecedent probabilities for a late-Victorian reader, two points must be considered. First, Miss Jessel is the victim and instrument of Quint, who “‘did what he wished,’” says Mrs. Grose, “‘with them all’” (p. 33). In the first apparitional episode as in the final and climactic one, Quint is in the foreground. In the foreground, therefore, is an opposition between the traditional depravity of a bad servant and the moral allegiances of the governess-narrator. Moreover, the question about her—when, rarely and only temporarily, the earliest commentators had one—concerned not her virtue but her sanity. The second point to be raised, then, is whether Victorians viewed governesses as especially liable to madness.


Let it be said at once that madness was not a trait that most Victorians associated with governesses. This is clear despite the assertions of Lady Eastlake and Harriet Martineau, in 1848 and 1859-60, that governesses formed the most numerous class of female inmates in lunatic asylums.23 Important discussions by medical authorities did not support this contention; neither did the statistics of mental patients in England and Wales, nor the reports of the Governesses' Benevolent Institution.24 The informed view, which was expressed in Macmillan's Magazine by Daniel Hack Tuke, one of the foremost English alienists, was that governesses formed only a small part of the patient population. In both country and urban asylums, said Tuke, “are to be found a few governesses and teachers,” whereas farm laborers and their families in the former and “mechanics and artizans” in the latter were in the majority. It was, in fact, the laboring poor who were thought by the upper classes to be especially liable to madness, and Tuke took pains to dispel this notion.25

Fictional governesses, also, were not commonly mad. Patricia Thomson identifies three main types of governess in fiction: the criminal, the rebellious, and the submissive.26 As for real governesses, the prevailing opinion was that they might be worn down by slights and hardships over many years, might gradually become harsh, rigid, ailing, and ungenial—but not mad.27

By the close of the century, and about the time that the reputation of servants was worse than ever, governesses were enjoying increased respect in households that were not philistine. Their “position in the house and the consideration with which they are treated … have immeasurably improved,” wrote Mary Maxe in the National Review. Governesses' social status, however, remained anomalous and often bred discontent. Sometimes, Maxe noted, “the discontent goes so deep, and so influences the attitude toward life, that the governess becomes an unhealthy companion to [her] pupils. … The tone of the schoolroom is morbid, trifles are exaggerated, and the girl gets her first view of the world through the eyes of a fretful and discontented woman.”28

This is not madness, nor is it descriptive of the governess in The Turn of the Screw. Despite such “loss of geniality,” as John Duguid Milne called it, despite incompetence, ignorance, or lack of refinement in some governesses, A. W. Pollard in 1889 upheld the cause of “the average highly cultivated governess,” too often undervalued by her employers. Like Mary Maxe, he thought that the social position of governesses had improved. “Public opinion,” he said, “is on the side of the governess, and it is only the people who are inaccessible to public opinion by whom the governess is still regarded as a cypher or a butt. These, it is true, are still unhappily numerous.”29

For readers holding such views, the governess-narrator in The Turn of the Screw would not have been especially a candidate for madness. On the contrary, her situation is the reverse of that usually cited by Victorians as the cause of governesses' ill health. She is young, not old. She lives in comfort on a delightful estate instead of in cramped, depressing quarters. She suffers neither physical privation nor social slights; rather, she enjoys the deference of all at Bly, where she is the only gentlewoman, vested with the master's authority. Her pupils are not dull or sullen, but beautiful, gifted, charming, and affectionate.30 The only feature of her stay at Bly that belongs to the conventional hardships of governess life is the isolation of the household.

In 1898, what would have seemed important to respectable readers was her fitness to fulfill the role defined by Sir George Stephen: serving as “the delegate of the mother, such as she ought to be, rather than such as she is usually found.”31 This preeminently moral and feminine burden was weightier than any merely private responsibility. Ruskin's well-known lecture “Of Queen's Gardens” sets forth what was thought to be involved: woman was the high priestess who made Home a temple of the spirit and a shrine of civilization.32

Implicit in this conception was the special responsibility of women for the moral training of the young. Samuel Smiles expressed the standard view in writing that “the happiness or misery, the enlightenment or ignorance, the civilisation or barbarism of the world, depends in a very high degree upon the exercise of woman's power within her special kingdom of home.” “Posterity,” he declared, “may be said to lie before us in the person of the child on the mother's lap,” for “woman cultivates the feelings, which mainly determine the character” and “it is chiefly through her that we are enabled to arrive at virtue.”33 Implicated, therefore, in the function of a governess, as of a mother, was the fate of society.

Readers in 1898 did not have to be told what it meant for Miles and Flora to be deprived of a mother's care and left in the hands of servants. The uncle's remoteness has an obvious significance, underlined by his bland explanation that Mrs. Grose, “who had formerly been maid to his mother,” had been for some time superintending Flora “in the way of manners and things” (p. 5). (The insouciant phrase calls up a world of idlers, the Dolly Longstaffes and Sir Felix Carburys of Victorian London.) The uncle pretends to have kept the children with “the best people he could find to look after them, parting even with his own servants to wait on them”—the narrative irony in this is clear. He further says that he has visited the young pair whenever he could; unfortunately “his own affairs took up all his time”—these being, one gathers, exclusively consistent with “expensive habits … charming ways with women … the spoils of travel and the trophies of the chase” (pp. 4-5).

When the uncle is said to make the claim that “he immensely pitied the poor chicks and had done all he could” but that the “awkward thing was that they had practically no other relations and that his own affairs took up all his time” (p. 5), both language and sentiment suggest that the frame-narrator is reproducing an ironic undercutting by Douglas of what the uncle had said. At this point in the tale there is no basis for judging how much of the irony originates with the governess, from whom Douglas had the story, nor how adequately she understands the irresponsibility of the uncle. The tale eventually provides a basis for judging, as will be seen below. For the moment, however, what most matters is the implication that the orphans have been abandoned and that the young governess will be called on by her station to rescue them; and this duty will impose a fearful trial. This would have been evident to an attentive reader in 1898 without explicit moralizing. Douglas, indeed, has already said that the tale will contain horrors. Now his prologue has pointed out the quarter in which pain and ugliness will appear. The issues thus posed are moral ones. Among them the central one concerning the governess is her adequacy to perceive and face them. The importance of posing such issues partly accounts for Douglas's remark—no doubt deceptively unemphatic for readers of a later time—that the governess's narrative “really required for a proper intelligence a few words of prologue” (p. 4).


When the governess takes up the narrative, she shows that she recognizes and despises the uncle's irresponsibility. Whatever she originally feels about him, she swiftly recovers her judgment. At four points in the story and with increasing emphasis, she condemns him. Her judgment is not merely retrospective, for she partly expresses it to Mrs. Grose and eventually to Miles. Hearing from the housekeeper that the master would not tolerate talebearing because, “‘if people were all right to him …,’” she chimes in, “‘He would n't be bothered with more?’” “This,” says the governess, “squared well enough with my impression of him: he was not a trouble-loving gentleman, nor so very particular perhaps about some of the company he himself kept” (p. 27). Later she remarks to Mrs. Grose, “‘His indifference must have been awful’” (p. 50). These are not the accents of love; even less so is her response to Miles's asking whether his uncle knows “‘the way I'm going on’”: “I recognised quickly enough that I could make, to this enquiry, no answer that would n't involve something of a sacrifice of my employer. Yet it struck me that we were all, at Bly, sufficiently sacrificed to make that venial. ‘I don't think your uncle much cares’” (p. 57). A little later, canvassing the question of why Miles had been expelled from school, she tells Mrs. Grose that it can only have been for wickedness. “‘After all,’ I said, ‘it's their uncle's fault. If he left here such people—!’” Upon which, meeting this as a grave accusation and turning pale, the housekeeper takes the blame on herself, excusing the uncle (illogically) on the ground that he “‘did n't really in the least know them’” (p. 61).

Ultimately the reader's impression of the story greatly depends on the personal aura of the governess. In oral narration her accent and intonation would have counted for much. In the story, oral signs of her character are not available, but we have her prose style, her choices of detail, her turns of thought, and her moral judgments. Something of her presence is suggested in the frame-narrator's comment that Douglas's reading of her manuscript was accomplished “with a fine clearness that was like a rendering to the ear of the beauty of his author's hand” (p. 6). The handwriting implies what her vocal tone would have been; her tone implies her cultivation and her clarity and “authority,” as James called it in his preface to The Turn of the Screw (p. 121).

More directly verifiable, as the tale progresses, are the governess's moral consciousness and her conception of her duty to the children. To some twentieth-century critics she is a monster of suspicion who leaves Miles and Flora no peace. To most Victorians, however, she will have demonstrated a proper concern for the moral welfare of her pupils. “It cannot be supposed that moral and general tuition is a simple matter,” wrote Sir George Stephen. On the contrary, he declared, everyone admits it to be “the most difficult of all tutorial duty,” for “the eye of the governess must be fixed on her pupils from morning till night, every day of existence: her duty is not confined to the school-room, nor to mere lessons on the subjects of study: it extends to every occupation—almost to every word and gesture.”34 Thus “it is the governess who has to pass her daily life with these tender objects of maternal anxiety: every hour of every day is spent with her … it is she and only she [who can see] the hourly indications of temper, of disposition, and even of vice.”35

This burden will have been all the greater for the governess in The Turn of the Screw because she is compelled to act as the sole representative of parental authority. If she feels that rescuing the children is her lone battle, she is only recognizing a responsibility defined by Victorian culture and thrust on her by the moral abdication of her employer. But, in 1898, how reliable should her account of matters have seemed to an attentive and perceptive reader?


Two turning points in the governess's depiction of the children illustrate the ambience imparted to her tale by Victorian attitudes. The first occurs when she learns that Miles has been expelled from school. Her horror at this seems to some twentieth-century readers an instance of her sickness. After all, what could Miles have done that was truly wicked? “No reader assumes that the little boy had done anything very bad,” according to Mark Van Doren. “Nothing bad at all,” Allen Tate agrees. “Some vague little offense against Victorian morality, no doubt,” says Katherine Ann Porter.36 The governess, on the contrary, infers that the boy has been guilty of some real wickedness, since for no other reason could he—bright, handsome, charming—have proved unacceptable (p. 61). Her attitude toward schools in general may also strike twentieth-century readers as a neurotic projection of her own fantasies, for what can she know of “the little horrid unclean school-world” (p. 19), as she calls it? But she is not the only proper maiden in Victorian fiction who takes such a view of schools. Fanny, cousin and mentor to Frederic W. Farrar's Eric, worries about his possible corruption at school. “I have heard strange things of schools; oh, if he should be spoilt and ruined. … Those baby lips, that pure young heart, a year may work sad change in their words and thoughts!”37

It is easy today to laugh at such maidenly worries, but any former schoolboys among James's readers would easily have been able to “think the evil … think it for himself” as James hoped (p. 123). The graduates of public schools in Britain and of their counterparts in the United States could have supplied details such as Thackeray confided to his companions at the Punch dinner table in 1858: “Thackeray says one of the first orders he received [at Charterhouse] was ‘Come & frig me.’”38 Lincoln Steffens, at military school in the early 1880s in California, discovered among the boys “an ancient, highly organized system of prostitution”; yet, he said, it was one of the best private schools in the state.39 In the 1840s, when the action of The Turn of the Screw takes place, the reforms of Thomas Arnold would have been fresh, the struggle to introduce or maintain them outside Rugby would have been vigorous, and the expulsion of a boy for “wickedness” very much in keeping with the masters' aims. Whether or not, in 1898, cultivated male readers knew much about Thomas Arnold, they knew the unclean school world either at first hand or by report. For such readers, the governess's explanation of Miles's dismissal from school was credible.

And both sexes probably could have recalled a fictional precedent. Frederic W. Farrar's Eric, or Little by Little: A Tale of Roslyn School, quoted above, was one of the best-known public school novels in late-Victorian times. It appeared in 1858 and attained no fewer than thirty-six editions by 1903.40 In this novel, contamination by a school acquaintance plays a major role. Bull, a schoolfellow of the protagonist, is so wicked, says the narrator, that “happy would it have been for all of them if Bull … had never come to Roslyn school.” “He had tasted more largely of the tree of the knowledge of evil than any other boy. … Bull was the tempter. Secretly, gradually, he dropped into their too willing ears the poison of his polluting acquirements.” As Bull carries on, the narrator apostrophizes his protagonist: “Now Eric, now or never! Life and death, ruin and salvation, corruption and purity, are perhaps in the balance together. …”41

There is no doubt that Miles would have been considered an injury to his schoolfellows by talking as Bull does. Farrar, certainly, would have sent a boy like Bull away from a school over which he had authority—Farrar who, before becoming Dean of Canterbury, was a master at Harrow and from 1871 to 1876 head of Marlborough. Miles's confession to the governess that he had been dismissed because he “‘said things’” (pp. 86-87) is perfectly plausible. What kind of things is clear: the kind that Bull had said—sexual things, which Miles could have learned only from adults.

Precedent also exists for the governess's interpretation of little Flora's accusations against her, which precipitate another turning point in her perceptions of her pupils. Bell, the spoiled child of Miss Edgeworth's tale “The Birthday Present,” tries but fails to follow her maid's advice “‘to look as if nothing was the matter.’” Trapped in a lie, she flies into a tantrum against Rosamond the heroine: “‘I say I did not!’ cried Bell furiously. ‘Mamma, mamma! Nancy! my cousin Rosamond won't believe me! That's very hard. It's very rude, and I won't bear it—I won't.’”42

The parallel with Flora's behavior extends to her style of speech: “‘I don't know what you mean. I see nobody. I see nothing. I never have. I think you 're cruel. I don't like you!’” This, as the governess correctly observes, is the style of “a vulgarly pert little girl in the street” (p. 73). It lends credence to her judgment that Flora was “hideously hard; she had turned common and almost ugly” (pp. 72-73).

Previously the governess notices that, under the influence she imputes to Miss Jessel, Flora “was not at these times a child, but an old, old woman” (pp. 71-72). This is not necessarily a mere fantasy on the part of the governess. Preternatural aging was a standard attribute of children with precocious knowledge or licentious manners.43 The characterization of Flora as “an old, old woman” struck a reviewer for the New York Times as perfectly natural: “The awful ‘imagination of evil’ this fair boy and girl must possess,” he exclaimed, “the oldness of heart and soul in each young body …” (p. 171).

Thus, all the corrupt traits discerned in Miles and Flora by their governess are traditional consequences of contact with bad servants. The role of the bad servant Quint is stressed in the story, as is his unfitness as a “‘base menial’” to be Miles's companion (pp. 27, 36). Miss Jessel, although a gentlewoman, had transgressed the rules of class and decency under the domination of Quint. As his victim and accomplice, she had exposed the children to his influence. Her employer had facilitated her corruption by leaving Quint at Bly “‘in charge’” with “‘everything to say—even about them’” (pp. 24, 27). By force of personality, depth of evil, and the power vested in him by the master, Quint was the dominant member of the guilty pair, the devil and seducer from the servant class.

Nevertheless, the governess (unlike a typical paranoid) worries that her suspicions about Miles may be wrong: “if he were innocent what then on earth was I?” (p. 87). Her worry can hardly have erased the impression that many details in the story would have combined to convey to a literate Victorian: “the impression of the communication to the children of the most infernal imaginable evil and danger” by their false friends, the dead Quint and Miss Jessel.


It is possible for a late twentieth-century reader to confess, “I do not truly feel the corruption of the children or the horror of their putative relations with Quint and Jessel.”44 The revulsion of the original circle of readers, attested by virtually all the early reviews, no doubt was connected with the sexual transgressions imputed to the children; yet there was something more involved. In addition to horror, there was fear. This is suggested by reviews that compared the story to “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” or told of the writer's responding “with a shudder and a creepiness to the hint of the gruesome to whose contemplation we were invited—a hint that had its fulfillment in such vividness that we were glad … to finish the reading in the obtrusively human companionship of a crowded trolley car” or that warned “persons of a highly sensitive nature” to read the story “before nightfall, unless they wish to be thoroughly alarmed.”45 What was there in the story to frighten its readers in 1898?

The answer, it may be suggested, lies partly in those elements of the tale that have struck later readers as ambiguous. For critics such as Edmund Wilson and John Lydenberg, the tale presents equivocal signs of what is happening: one cannot be sure of the facts. For Peter Coveney, on the contrary, “the depravity of the children is a given fact” and what is ambiguous is the response to this fact which the story seems to demand. “… James introduces an ambiguity as to the attitude he requires from us towards them. The boy is at once vicious and corrupt and yet pathetic, the victim of the Governess's cruel pursuit. The Governess herself is at once the virtuous agent of the child's salvation, and at the same time an executioner, a clumsy and deranged pursuer. There seems in James a conflict in himself which he translated into the ambiguities of this painful story—the pursuit of the admission of guilt and resentment of the agent of discovery.”46

Victorians, however, could have had little doubt that the governess was compelled to “hound” the children. In a sense this is what governesses were for, in an age that laid more stress on parental authority than on infantine spontaneity. Watchfulness and cross-questioning, as Victorians viewed them, were not hounding at all, but loving care. Anxiety produced in the readers of 1898 would not have been a simple and direct response to some vision of the governess as a relentless pursuer, and it was probably more than a displaced emotion stirred by infantile sexual bogeys.47 Walter Houghton has discussed the “unmistakable note of horror and fear” in Victorian writings about unrestrained sexuality. He has also treated the Victorian belief that sexual misconduct can destroy society, a belief exemplified in Tennyson's Idylls of the King.48 The danger to society, in which we may read mainly a threat to middle- and upper-class culture, furnishes one key to the anxieties stirred in Victorian readers by The Turn of the Screw.

It was partly the civility and, ideally, the moral superiority of the possessing classes that justified their social position and made it something more than a reward for elbowing one's way above the mass. It was lack of sobriety, frugality, industry, and—above all—lack of sexual restraint in the degraded poor that kept them poor, Malthus had long ago argued. But sexuality was perpetually threatening to leap out of the lower classes and attack the moral claims of their employers, to thrust aside barriers erected by social training, and, finally, to obliterate class distinctions. Especially was this the case in a servant-filled household. Social revolutionaries recognized the potency of the threat. “Take your revenge by depraving the children of your masters!” cried a revolutionary journal at Lyons to working girls in the homes of the bourgeoisie.49 In The Turn of the Screw, Miss Jessel is first a victim, then the instrument, of a servant's assault on respectability.

Quint and Miss Jessel, moreover, are nightmare parodies of the respectable tutors who inducted the young into civilized amenity. They exactly reverse the teaching of proper tutors and governesses; thereby, they undo the training required for membership in the higher classes. The consequent loss of status for Miles is marked by his disgrace at school; for Flora, it is marked by her coarseness in accusing the governess in the accents of a “vulgarly pert little girl in the street.”

We may hazard the speculation that this fictive situation also acts out a repressed wish, perhaps an infantile fantasy of being given a sexual carte blanche by adults. (Sometimes, we know, this was more than a fantasy.)50 If the fantasy, repressed the more strongly because of its power, was reactivated by The Turn of the Screw in 1898, it could only have added to the gruesome, nightmarish quality mentioned by the reviews. It would have been exacerbated by what the story seems to say in its latent content: that to deprive a person of sexuality is to deprive him of life; for, on an unconscious level, it may well seem that the loss of erotic freedom is what kills little Miles at the end of the tale.

“Exposure,” then, occurs in at least four different senses in The Turn of the Screw. There is, first, the exposure of Miss Jessel, the lady seduced by a lower-class man. Second, and centrally for James, there is the exposure of the children. It is possible to view them as representatives of the hapless Victorian ego, subject to contradictory demands by morality and by Eros, the one threatening to stifle instinctual life, the other enticing to social and eternal damnation. Third, there is the exposure of the higher classes and their privileges, which may be swept away if morality and gentility crumble. Finally, there is the exposure of the governess. In her desire to save the children, she underestimates the effect of evil on herself. Her zeal and her youthful vanity, and at length her desire for vindication, carry her too far, first with Flora and then, disastrously, with Miles.51 Because she represents civilization, her helplessness to overcome the Yahoo in human nature is frightening indeed.


  1. See the review from the New York Times reprinted in Robert Kimbrough, ed., The Turn of the Screw:An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Sources, Essays in Criticism (New York, 1966), p. 170; also reviews in the Literary World (Boston) 29, no. 23 (November 12, 1899): 368, and the Literary World (London) 58, N.S. 1519 (December 9, 1898): 456. Two early comments reprinted by Kimbrough mention a suspension of opinion about the ghosts' reality but treat it as ultimately resolved in favor of the governess's view: “the reader who begins by questioning whether she is supposed to be sane ends by accepting her conclusions” (p. 174); cf. Oliver Elton's remarks (p. 176). Citations from The Turn of the Screw or from other material in the Kimbrough edition will be identified by page numbers in parentheses.

  2. Phelps's comments first appeared in William Lyon Phelps, “Henry James,” Yale Review 5 (1916): 783-97, and were quoted by Edna Kenton in “Henry James to the Ruminant Reader: The Turn of the Screw,The Arts 6 (1924): 245-55. They are excerpted in Kimbrough, p. 178. Kenton's essay is reprinted in Gerald Willen, A Casebook on Henry James'sThe Turn of the Screw,” 2d ed. (New York, 1969), pp. 102-14. For examples of recent deconstructive or ironic readings, see Shoshana Felman, “Turning the Screw of Interpretation,” in Literature and Psychoanalysis. The Question of Reading: Otherwise, ed. Shoshana Felman, Yale French Studies, no. 55/56 (New Haven, Conn., 1978), pp. 94-207, and Shlomith Rimmon, The Concept of Ambiguity—the Example of James (Chicago, 1977), pp. 116-66.

  3. James Mark Baldwin, Mental Development in the Child and the Race: Methods and Processes, 2d ed. (New York, 1895), p. 365. Baldwin, recognized as an authority, thanks distinguished colleagues, among them William James, for suggestions used in his text (p. xi).

  4. Henry James to F. W. H. Myers, December 19, 1898, in Percy Lubbock, ed., The Letters of Henry James, 2 vols. (New York, 1920), 1:300; reprinted in Kimbrough, p. 112, and Willen, p. 382.

  5. Maria Edgeworth, The Parent's Assistant (1796-1800; reprint ed., London, 1907), p. 3. This children's classic was reprinted at least twelve times by 1897. The Macmillan reprint of 1907 contains a laudatory introduction by Thackeray's daughter, Lady Ritchie.

  6. Ibid., pp. 159-60, 164.

  7. Richard and Maria Edgeworth, Essays on Practical Education, 2 vols. (London, 1815), 1:165, 167-68. This appears to be a reprint of the third edition (London, 1811). Earlier editions were entitled Practical Education.

  8. Practical Education (1815), 2:414.

  9. I can find no record of a British edition later than 1815. The latest U.S. edition is that of Harper & Bros. (New York, 1835). James read the novels of Maria Edgeworth in childhood (“Chester,” in English Hours, ed. Alma L. Lowe [New York, 1960], p. 43).

  10. Practical Education, 1:156.

  11. William Godwin, The Enquirer. Reflections on Education, Manners, and Literature. In a Series of Essays (London, 1798), pp. 201-2.

  12. Ibid., p. 202.

  13. F. J. Harvey Darton, Children's Books in England: Five Centuries of Social Life, 2d ed. (Cambridge, 1958), p. 175.

  14. Gillian E. Avery and Angela Bull, Nineteenth Century Children: Heroes and Heroines in English Children's Stories 1780-1900 (London, 1965), pp. 175, 83.

  15. Mrs. [Henry] Sherwood, The History of the Fairchild Family; or, The Child's Manual (London, n.d.), p. 438.

  16. Ibid., p. 36.

  17. Anne Bronte, Agnes Grey, The World's Classics, no. 141 (London, 1967), pp. 16, 156.

  18. John Robinson, “A Butler's View of Men-Service,” Nineteenth Century 31 (1892): 925-33. See also Violet Lady Greville, “Men Servants in England,” National Review 18 (1892): 812-20.

  19. Robinson, p. 926.

  20. Ibid., pp. 926-27, 929-31.

  21. [Sir] G[eorge] S[tephen], The Governess (London, 1844, 186[7?]), p. 20. This work was in print at least until 1881: a copy in the Library of Congress is stamped, “Received Library/AUG 4 1881/U.S. Patent Office.”

  22. Ibid., pp. 50, 8.

  23. Elizabeth Rigby (subsequently Lady Eastlake), “Vanity Fair, Jane Eyre, and the Governesses' Benevolent Institution,” Quarterly Review 84 (1848); 153-85; Harriet Martineau, “Female Industry,” Edinburgh Review 222 (1859): 293-336; and “The Governess: Her Health,” Once a Week 3 (September 1, 1860): 267-72.

  24. See John Thurnam, Observations and Essays on the Statistics of Insanity … to Which Are Added the Statistics of the Retreat, Near York (London, 1845), table 9, “Shewing the Rank or Profession of the Patients,” with Thurnam's comment on this table, pp. 72-73; also the Statistical Appendix to the Report of the Metropolitan Commissioners in Lunacy to the Lord Chancellor, Ordered by the House of Commons to Be Printed, 8 August 1844 (1844), pp. 4-11. The detailed analysis supporting my argument is too long to be presented here. The reports of the Governesses' Benevolent Institution are summarized in [Bessie Rayner (Parkes) Belloc], “The Profession of the Teacher: The Annual Reports of the Governesses' Benevolent Institution, from 1843 to 1864,” in Essays on Woman's Work (London, 1865), pp. 87-98; see also her essay, “The Profession of the Teacher: The Annual Reports of the Governesses' Benevolent Institution, from 1843 to 1856,” English Woman's Journal 1 (1858): 5-6.

  25. Daniel Hack Tuke, “Modern Life and Insanity,” Macmillan's Magazine 37 (1877): 130-33; cf. chaps. v and vi of his Insanity in Ancient and Modern Life (London, 1878), esp. pp. 87 ff.

  26. Patricia Thomson, The Victorian Heroine: A Changing Ideal 1837-1873 (London, 1956), pp. 49-53; see also E. M. Delafield [Edmée Elizabeth Monica de la Pasture], Ladies and Gentlemen in Victorian Fiction (New York, 1937), pp. 83-85; Katharine West, A Chapter of Governesses: A Study of the Governess in English Fiction 1800-1949 (London, 1949), pp. 54-186.

  27. See, in addition to Belloc's essays cited in n. 24 above, [Elizabeth Missing Sewell], Principles of Education … Applied to Female Education in the Upper Classes (1865; reprint ed., New York, 1866), p. 417; Mrs. Anna [Brownell] Jameson, “On the Relative Social Position of Mothers and Governesses,” in Memories and Essays Illustrative of Art, Literature, and Social Morals (London, 1846), p. 273; and esp. [John Duguid Milne], Industrial and Social Position of Women, in the Middle and Lower Ranks (London, 1857), p. 132.

  28. Mary Maxe, “On Governesses,” National Review 37 (1901): 397-402.

  29. A. W. Pollard, “The Governess and Her Grievances,” Murray's Magazine 5 (1889): 505-15.

  30. Cf. Harriet Martineau, “The Governess: Her Health,” p. 269, with The Turn of the Screw, pp. 5, 19-20, 38-40.

  31. Cf. p. 265 above.

  32. Walter E. Houghton, The Victorian Frame of Mind (New Haven, Conn., 1957), pp. 343-53, esp. p. 343, n. 7.

  33. Samuel Smiles, Character, rev. ed. (London, 1882), pp. 37-38.

  34. Stephen (n. 21 above), pp. 49-50.

  35. Ibid., p. 18.

  36. “James: ‘The Turn of the Screw,’” radio transcript in Mark Van Doren, ed., New Invitation to Learning (New York, 1942), p. 231; reprinted in Willen (n. 2 above), p. 168.

  37. Frederic W. Farrar, Eric: or, Little by Little: A Tale of Roslyn School (1858; reprint ed., New York, n.d.), p. 12.

  38. Gordon N. Ray, Thackeray: The Uses of Adversity 1811-1846 (New York, 1955), p. 86, n. 39.

  39. Lincoln Steffens, The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens, 2 vols. (New York, 1931), 1:104-5, 103.

  40. Darton (n. 13 above), pp. 293-94.

  41. Farrar, pp. 98-99.

  42. Edgeworth (n. 5 above), pp. 160, 164.

  43. See, e.g., Charles Dickens, Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son, The New Oxford Illustrated Dickens (London, 1950), p. 394, and Bleak House, The New Oxford Illustrated Dickens (London, 1948), pp. 275, 288; W. M. Thackeray, Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero, ed. Geoffrey and Kathleen Tillotson (Boston, 1963), p. 21; Margaret May, “Innocence and Experience: The Evolution of the Concept of Juvenile Delinquency in the Mid-nineteenth Century,” Victorian Studies 17 (1973): 7-29.

  44. John Lydenberg, “The Governess Turns the Screw,” in Willen (n. 2 above), p. 276.

  45. See the reviews cited above, n. 1.

  46. Peter Coveney, Poor Monkey: The Child in Literature (London, 1957), pp. 164, 166-67.

  47. See Mark Spilka, “Turning the Freudian Screw: How Not to Do It” (1963), in Kimbrough, pp. 245-53, esp. p. 253. Spilka's hypothesis about the latent meaning of the story, in the psychoanalytic sense, is somewhat modified and extended in the present essay.

  48. Houghton (n. 32 above), pp. 359-72.

  49. Cited by E. A. Sheppard, Henry James and “The Turn of the Screw” (Auckland, 1974), p. 100, n. 148. This incitement was mentioned by Alfred Fouillée, “Les Jeunes Criminels, l'école et la presse” (Revue des deux mondes 139 [1897]: 417-49), which Henry James may have seen.

  50. Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy, The Unnatural History of the Nanny (New York, 1973), pp. 163, 99-100.

  51. She speaks of her own “exposure” and “danger,” pp. 34, 52. She recognizes in retrospect—partly also at moments of her adventure—that she “had gone too far” with Miles (p. 65); with Flora (p. 75); and again, catastrophically, with Miles (p. 87).

Alice Hall Petry (essay date 1983)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9482

SOURCE: “Jamesian Parody, Jane Eyre, and The Turn of the Screw,” in Modern Language Studies, Vol. 13, No. 4, Fall, 1983, pp. 61-78.

[In the following essay, Petry claims that with The Turn of the Screw James wrote a parody of the popular novel Jane Eyre, portraying his own narrator (the unnamed governess) as an almost exact parody of Brontë's famous female protagonist.]

Ever since it was first published in 1898, Henry James's The Turn of the Screw has received a phenomenal amount of critical attention and popular acclaim; and no small portion of this perennial interest is due to the fact that there are basically two ways in which to read the story: (1)that the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel really do appear to the governess (and that, consequently, she is indeed a reliable narrator); or (2)that the ghosts do not exist, and the governess is deluded—perhaps insane.1 I happen to agree with the second interpretation, with the important qualification that I do not believe the governess is insane. Rather, I would argue that the governess, a basically normal albeit sensitive and impressionistic young lady, has been unduly influenced by her reading of one of the most popular books of the nineteenth century, Jane Eyre; more specifically, that the tragic events which occur at Bly are the direct result of her perceptions of herself, her employer, her situation, and of Bly itself having been hopelessly distorted by her pathetic attempt to emulate Charlotte Brontë's famous heroine. In support of this interpretation, I would further argue that James borrowed heavily from Brontë's novel: the similarities in plot, characterization, narrative technique, and even phraseology are so striking that it is impossible to believe that they are purely fortuitous. In fact, I would argue that these similarities are intentional and conscious; that James expected his readers to perceive parallels between Brontë's novel and his tale; and that, in the final analysis, James is utilizing, exploiting, indeed undermining the literary tradition of the plucky English governess: that in The Turn of the Screw he is, in fact, writing a parody of Jane Eyre.

It is a matter of common knowledge that James was well aware of the work of Charlotte Brontë and her siblings, and in particular of Jane Eyre, for he refers to the book several times in his reviews and in his autobiographical writings. In A Small Boy and Others, he recalls Anne King, “young and frail, but not less firm, under stress, than the others of her blood,” who reminded him of “a little Brontë heroine … though more indeed a Lucy Snowe than a Jane Eyre, and with no shade of a Brontë hero within sight.”2 In an 1866 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, he praises the “very good poetry” of the Moor House chapters in Jane Eyre, and a year later, in a review of Mrs. R. H. Davis's “Waiting for the Verdict,” he notes that Mrs. Davis had “evidently read” Brontë's novel, one of the “great authorities” for Mrs. Davis's type of fiction.3 But his references to Jane Eyre are not altogether laudatory; indeed, in 1905 he speaks, less wistfully than cuttingly, of the “lucky box” in which the Brontë sisters found themselves, viz, “a case of popularity …, a beguilded infatuation, a sentimentalized vision, determined largely by the accidents and circumstances originally surrounding the manifestation of the genius—…” In fine, the reading public's blurring of the distinction between the Brontë's own remarkable private lives and the equally remarkable lives of the characters they created was generating “the most complete intellectual muddle, if the term be not too invidious, ever achieved … by our wonderful public.”4 That the readers of Brontë's durable novel were somehow blurring the distinction between reality and fiction seems to have struck James's fancy: and what better way to develop this bizarre notion than to write a parody in which the heroine confuses her own life with that of Brontë's heroine and becomes, as it were, a flesh-and-blood parody of Jane—with horrible consequences?

That James was familiar with Jane Eyre is, then, a matter of common knowledge; and indeed, several commentators have noted similarities between Brontë's book and The Turn of the Screw. Oscar Cargill and Robert Kimbrough have pointed out that there is a blatant reference to Jane Eyre in the passage “Was there a ‘secret’ at Bly—… an insane, an unmentionable relative kept in unsuspected confinement?” (179).5 Walter de la Mare points out that James's governess, “with her queer little flutters, her impassioned self-dedication, faintly recalls no less delightful a prototype than Jane Eyre.”6 Krishna Vaid notes that James may have been drawing upon “the fictional convention of the English governess,” and Leon Edel, in his preface to his edition of Stories of the Supernatural (formerly the Ghostly Tales) remarks that “The Turn of the Screw is in the Brontë tradition; much of its atmosphere and even language represents James's attempt to enshrine that tradition in his story. It is to the Brontës, rather than to the modern psychological movement in its nascent state in Vienna, that this story must be referred …”7 But none of these critics—not even Edna Kenton, who reminds us that the story was designed to “catch” us8—has perceived that James was not simply drawing upon the literary tradition of the English governess popularized by Brontë, but rather was brilliantly parodying it; and not merely, I must emphasize, for the sake of comedy.

I believe that the process of parodying Jane Eyre begins with the general story line of the two works: a young woman goes to a remote country estate to serve as governess. In each case, her immediate confidante and associate at the estate is a widow who functions as the housekeeper: Mrs. Fairfax and Mrs. Grose. The children involved do have notable similarities: both Adèle Varens and Flora are eight-year-old girls, and although there is no boy corresponding to Miles in Jane Eyre,9 all the children share an unfortunate double situation: they have no parents, and their guardians have little interest in them. Céline Varens had abandoned the illegitimate Adèle; as Rochester makes clear, although “‘she was left on my hands,’” she is not his daughter (“‘Pilot [his dog] is more like me than she’” [chaps. 17, 15]),10 and his relationship with her is chilled at best (“‘I am not fond of the prattle of children’” [chap. 14]). Likewise, the bachelor at Harley Street acquired Flora and Miles upon the death of their parents in India, and although “he immensely pitied the poor chicks,” James makes it clear that they weighed “very heavy on his hands. It had all been a great worry and, on his own part doubtless, a series of blunders …” (153-54). Each guardian is a man in early middle age who is understandably resentful about being forced into the role of surrogate father, in part apparently because each is something of a ladies' man: Rochester has left a string of sexual conquests on the Continent (chap. 27), and the Harley Street bachelor has, according to Mrs. Grose, “carried away” numerous damsels (162). In fine, the two men are both essentially sociable urbanites, so they keep their wards at their country estates which, presumably, are sound environments for growing children: Bly is said to be “healthy and secure” (154), and Adèle lives at Thornfield, which Rochester declares is healthier than his other home, Ferndean Manor (chap. 27). Finally, both men are posited as eligible: everyone at Thornfield—even Rochester himself—calls him a bachelor (e.g., chap. 14), even though he is very much married to Bertha Mason Rochester; and the employer at Harley Street is repeatedly referred to as a bachelor (e.g., 153). Likewise, each man is repeatedly spoken of as “the master.”

What we have, in essence, is this: two broad story lines and a series of characters which are so similar that it is doubtful that they could be attributed to anything other than conscious artifice on James's part. But what of the specific story line of the corrupting governess and the immoral love affair between servants, and what of the governesses themselves? Various scholars have attempted to pin down the origins of these elements: James himself attributed his story to an anecdote told to him by Edward White Benson, the Archbishop of Canterbury, although Benson's sons were dubious of the veracity of the account.11 Robert Lee Wolff has suggested that James may have seen the painting “The Haunted House,” by Tom Griffiths, in the 1891 Christmas issue of the London review Black and White.12 Oscar Cargill has suggested that James may have been drawing upon the case study of “Miss Lucy R.” in Freud's Studien über Hysterie (a matter to be considered at some length below), and Francis X. Roellinger, Jr., offers several other case studies which may have inspired James.13 But to the best of my knowledge, no one has recognized another possible source for the specific story line of The Turn of the Screw: the account given by Rochester's supposed fiancée, Blanche Ingram, of the love affair between her brother Tedo's tutor (Mr. Vining) and her own governess (Miss Wilson): “‘we surprised sundry tender glances and sighs which we interpreted as tokens of “la belle passion” … Dear Mama, there, as soon as she got an inkling of the business, found out that it was of an immoral tendency.’” As Blanche points out, with such a liaison there is the “‘danger of bad example to innocence of childhood.’” So much is made of this extended account in Jane Eyre that eventually an unidentified character declares “‘… no more need be said: change the subject’” (chap. 17). Granted, both Vining and Wilson are very much alive, but the fact remains that they are teachers whose questionable relationship (indeed, a relationship which may have been “immoral” only in the minds of the children and Mrs. Ingram) may be corrupting the innocence of their students—and Peter Quint, as Mrs. Grose emphasizes, behaved as if he were Miles' “‘tutor—and a very grand one’” (213).

Even if one cares not to entertain the possibility that Blanche's anecdote might have inspired James (either by itself, or interacting with Archbishop Benson's story, Griffiths' painting, or whatever), I think one still must acknowledge that the similarities between his and Brontë's governess are really quite remarkable: in background, personality, and behavior they are strikingly alike—so much so that I believe James expected his readers to perceive his governess as modeling herself upon Brontë's heroine, and with lamentable consequences.

What little background information we have of James's governess squares nicely with what we know of Jane Eyre. Jane is 18 when she leaves Lowood School for Thornfield (chap. 10), and James's governess is 20 when she arrives at Bly (152-53). The father of Brontë's heroine was “a poor clergyman” (chap. 3), and James's governess is the daughter of “a poor country parson” (152). Jane Eyre is from “———shire” (chap. 10); James's governess is from Hampshire (153). Finally, each woman comes from an unhappy family situation: Jane's unfortunate childhood at Gates-head with the Reeds and at Lowood constitutes the first ten chapters of Brontë's novel, and although James reveals little of life at the Hampshire vicarage, he does note that the governess had been receiving “disturbing letters from home, where things were not going well” (183).

However much one might argue that these common background elements are rather superficial or inconclusive, one must at least acknowledge the possibility that James was drawing upon Jane Eyre in writing The Turn of the Screw—or, more to the point, that he wishes us to realize that his governess perceived her situation as similar to that of Jane Eyre, and began to ape her: even to the point of locating—or creating—a horrible mystery at Bly with which she could heroically deal.

That James's governess perceived herself as a Jane Eyre figure is supported by the blunt fact (mentioned above) that her immediate reaction to Quint's appearance on the tower is to draw upon her reading experience: “Was there a ‘secret’ at Bly—a mystery of Udolpho or an insane, an unmentionable relative kept in unsuspected confinement? I can't say how long I turned it over …” (179). Through her reading of Anne Radcliffe and Charlotte Brontë, James's governess is familiar with heroines caught in harrowing circumstances, and she (not James) automatically applies this vicarious experience to her own situation at Bly. In effect, I believe James's heroine is a flesh-and-blood governess attempting to act out the part of a fictional one, Jane Eyre; and she succeeds (up to an optimal point) so well that it is impossible for the reader to determine how much of her character (including her personality and behavior) is “real” and how much of it is simply an uncanny imitation of Brontë's governess. At some point, in other words, James's governess crosses the line between consciously emulating a positive role model whose background superficially resembles hers, and subconsciously imitating her in circumstances far more mundane than those found at Thornfield. And at the moment she crosses that line she becomes, as it were, mentally unstable: she hallucinates ghosts.

Now, as noted above, there are simple facts of background which Jane Eyre and James's heroine have in common. But their personal characters are also strikingly alike. Each woman is a voracious reader. As a child, Jane Eyre reads Bewick's History of British Birds, “some Arabian tales,” and Gulliver's Travels, which she perceives as “a narrative of facts,” and in her adulthood continues to indulge her passion for literature with Sir Walter Scott's Marmion (chaps. 1, 4, 3, 33). As I have pointed out earlier, James's governess has read Radcliffe and Brontë, and what she finds particularly attractive about Bly is the availability of books: books which were denied her in her youth, and which she reads when fatigued, overwrought, and, presumably, particularly receptive to the ideas encountered in her reading. The following passage tells of the circumstances immediately preceding her third encounter with Peter Quint, on the staircase at Bly:

I had not gone to bed; I sat reading by a couple of candles. There was a roomful of old books at Bly—last-century fiction some of it, which, to the extent of a distinctly deprecated renown, but never to so much as that of a stray specimen, had reached the sequestered home and appealed to the unavowed curiosity of my youth. I remember that the book I had in my hand was Fielding's “Amelia”; also that I was wholly awake. I recall further both a general conviction that it was horribly late and a particular objection to looking at my watch.


As Oscar Cargill has pointed out, Fielding's novel is especially appropriate for James's tale inasmuch as it focuses upon a pursued woman who cares for a little girl and boy,14 but I would like to take this one step further and say that both governesses tend to prefer rather sensationalistic reading matter. Indeed, Jane Eyre's initial interest in Johnson's “Rasselas” (a title “that struck me as strange, and consequently attractive”) is cooled significantly when she finds that it contains “nothing about fairies, nothing about genii” (chap. 5). What this suggests is that Jane, as well as James's governess, have an unusual interest in the supernatural, parapsychology, and the dead—an interest which owes much to their reading and which significantly affects their way of perceiving and dealing with the world. Jane, for example, has an apparently genuine interest and belief in ghosts. Locked in the “red room” at Gateshead when a child, she fancies she is visited by the spirit of her uncle Reed (chap. 2), and one of the first things she asks of Mrs. Fairfax is if there are any ghosts—or even “traditions,” “legends or … stories” of them—at Thornfield (chap. 11); her disappointment that there are none is palpable. Indeed, Jane's personality is such that Rochester consistently associates her with the netherworld, not only of the moon (e.g., chap. 24), but of the dead:

[Jane:] “I have been with my aunt, sir, who is dead.”

[Rochester:] “A true Janian reply! … She comes from the other world—from the abode of people who are dead; and tells me so when she meets me alone here in the gloaming! If I dared I'd touch you to see if you are substance or shadow, you elf! …”

(chap. 22)

Jane has, as it were, a preoccupation with spirits—a striking personality trait which could very well have been absorbed by a young,15 impressionistic governess whose background is similar to that of Brontë's heroine.

Part and parcel with both governesses' sensitivity to other-worldly phenomena is that other people tend to perceive these two women as unusual—even abnormal. The servant Bessie Lee (one of Jane's few friends at Gateshead) regards Jane as “queer,” and even her fiancé Rochester terms her “strange,” “almost unearthly” (chaps. 4, 23). Indeed, many characters in Brontë's novel perceive Jane as evil or insane. The dying Mrs. Reed asserts that once Jane spoke to her “‘like something mad, or like a fiend’” (chap. 21); Rochester terms her a “witch,” “sorceress” (chap. 15); and Jane, attempting to fathom her relationship with the master of Thornfield, notes that “… the evil—if evil existent or prospective there was—seemed to lie with me only; …” (chap. 23). That those around her perceive Jane as queer, demonic, or mentally unstable does not seem to bother her; indeed, she seems only mildly annoyed that her confidante Mrs. Fairfax, who was so “glad” to see her arrive at Thornfield (chap. 11), occasionally avoids her: “The answer was evasive … ; but Mrs. Fairfax either could not, or would not, give me more explicit information” about Rochester's “trials” (chap. 13). A strikingly similar—albeit horribly magnified—situation exists at Bly. Throughout The Turn of the Screw, there are various questionings of the governess's normalcy, both by herself and others. She instinctively infers that Mrs. Grose (who also, significantly, was “glad” to see her arrive at Bly [160]) perceives her as “mad” and remarks “‘That's charming news to be sent [to the Harley Street bachelor] by a person enjoying his confidence and whose prime undertaking was to give him no worry’” (239); and, intensifying Brontë's technique of reflecting her heroine in the eyes of those around her, James shows not only the children's reactions to the governess (“‘I think you're cruel. I don't like you!’ … oh take me away from her!’” [281]), but also those of the anonymous servants: “… I could see in the aspect of others a confused reflexion of the crisis. What had happened naturally caused them all to stare; …” (293). But there is an important distinction between Jane Eyre's personality and that of James's governess. Whereas in Jane Eyre the implication that Jane is evil or insane comes from the antagonistic Reed family, and that she is a “witch” stems from Rochester's affection and admiration for her, in The Turn of the Screw the negative reactions of others seem grounded in a genuine belief on the part of non-prejudiced individuals that the governess is unstable. Since Jane perceives her relationship with Rochester as wholesome and equal, she is being rhetorical in her assertion that if there were any “evil” in their relationship, it “seemed to lie with me only.” Similarly, she does not really doubt her sanity when, upholding “laws and principles,” she declares that she is “‘insane—quite insane’” if she doubts their worth (chap. 27). But James's governess genuinely questions her propensity for evil (“if he were innocent what then on earth was I?” [307]) and does have real doubts about her sanity: Miss Jessel “was there, so I was justified; she was there, so I was neither cruel nor mad” (278). And Mrs. Grose's avoidance of her, established early in the tale (168), is a recurrent pattern rather than an isolated incident grounded in the housekeeper's disinclination to reveal information about the master to a new servant. In fine, Jane's and others' perceptions of her do seem to be reflected in James's governess; but Jane is adequately stable, and has a sufficiently accurate self-image, to know when she is not to take seriously the questionings of her sanity and her “evilness.” As a result, she is able to maintain her emotional health and deal with the world in a constructive way, her supernaturalism notwithstanding. In contrast, James's governess seems to embody in reality the most extreme negative aspects of Jane (viz, the impression she sometimes gives that she is abnormal) without Jane's stability and accurate self-image. In other words, that James's governess might truly be evil, insane, or strange seems grounded in fact, rather than in prejudice or rhetoric. If The Turn of the Screw is indeed a parody of Jane Eyre—if, in fact, James's governess is acting the part of Brontë's heroine—then her failure to react normally to the decidedly negative feedback which she receives from Mrs. Grose, the children, and the servants, may be due to her erroneous belief that, like Jane Eyre, she is supposed to have people perceive her as odd: in fact, the odder (read “the more Janian”) the better.

What I am trying to suggest is that James's governess is a quite pale copy of Jane Eyre. The paleness is most assuredly not a reflection of James's inadequacy as a writer, but rather his deliberate attempt to convey his governess's horrible mistake in emulating Brontë's fictional heroine. It is impossible to act as a fictional character in the real world; but James's governess—whose only experience of the world has been the vicarious experience of reading—fails to realize this until, I would surmise, many years after the events at Bly, when she writes her story for Douglas. Be this as it may, her emulation of Brontë's heroine is seen in more than just such elements as their background, love of reading, preoccupation with the supernatural, and the ways in which they are perceived. I believe that James's governess's behavior, attitude, and motivations also are strikingly similar to those of Brontë's heroine—so much so that at times it is impossible not to believe that she is acting the part of “Jane Eyre, governess.”

The most noticeable similarity in the two women's behavior is that they thrive on adversity. Both women, although initially more or less beset by doubts, take up challenging responsibilities as governesses in remote locales; are faced with feeling romantic inclinations towards employers who are substantially their superiors; and find themselves, unsupported by family or friends, dealing with rather knotty problems, real or imagined—an insane woman in the attic, and two evil ghosts. Lesser women would crumble under the stress of even a fraction of these challenges, but Jane is—and, I would argue, James's governess fancies herself to be—made of the sort of stuff which allows some people to meet such adversity and emerge shining. As Rochester points out to Jane, “‘not three in three thousand’” governesses could deal with him as she does (chap. 14), and James's governess, whose tone of self-congratulation (which I feel reflects retrospective irony) permeates The Turn of the Screw, notes that “… I could succeed where many another girl might have failed. … I confess I rather applaud myself as I look back! …” (199). Indeed, both governesses positively welcome challenges, not only as an opportunity to show their strength of character, but also because they derive a sort of excitement from potential danger. When Rochester threatens Jane with “violence” if she does not become his mistress, she notes:

… I was not afraid: not in the least. I felt an inward power; a sense of influence, which supported me. The crisis was perilous; but not without its charm: such as the Indian, perhaps, feels when he slips over the rapid in his canoe.

(chap. 27)

Compare the initial reaction of James's governess to the evil ghosts: “… I was in these days literally able to find a joy in the extraordinary flight of heroism the occasion demanded of me” (198-99). These two passages are so similar in content, tone, and style that, were they taken out of context, one could not readily determine which passage was written by which governess; indeed, the technical similarities of Jane Eyre and The Turn of the Screw are so pronounced that I will deal with them at length somewhat later. For now, let enough be said that the two women welcome adversity and, to an extent, thrive on it.

I say “to an extent” because the two governesses also share a distinctive habit: when a given situation becomes too intense, they have what are charitably referred to as “fits.” As was indicated above, one of the earliest traumas of Jane Eyre's life was being locked in the “red room” of Gateshead where she was (apparently) visited by the ghost of her uncle Reed, who had died there. Having screamed for help, she is rescued (temporarily) by servants, but her aunt “abruptly thrust me back and locked me in … soon after she was gone, I suppose I had a species of fit: unconsciousness closed the scene.” Chapter 3 begins immediately thereafter: “The next thing I remember is, waking up with a feeling as if I had had a frightful nightmare” (chaps. 2, 3). A very similar fit occurs in the transition from chapters 26 to 27, wherein the troubled Jane resolves to leave Thornfield. Now, James's governess reacts in the same way to the trauma of Flora's demand that Mrs. Grose take her away:

Of what first happened when I was left alone I had no subsequent memory. I only knew that at the end of, I suppose, a quarter of an hour, an odorous dampness and roughness, chilling and piercing my trouble, had made me understand that I must have thrown myself, on my face, to the ground and given way to a wildness of grief. I must have lain there long and cried and wailed, for when I raised my head the day was almost gone.


The similarities between the quoted passages—similarities not only in content, but also in phraseology—are simply too pronounced to have been fortuitous. Likewise, the two governesses, when “fits” are not feasible, decide to run away. Jane, having forgiven Rochester for attempting to enter into a bigamous marriage with her, but newly distressed over his efforts to make her his mistress, flees Thornfield at the insistence of a light which proves to be “not a moon, but a white human form” (chap. 27), travels to Whitcross, and enters into a tenuous relationship with St. John Rivers, a relationship which serves only to confirm her love for Rochester. James's governess, too, in an opportune moment decides to run away from Bly, but there are certain distinctions between her escape and Jane's: Jane leaves at the suggestion of a spirit, whereas James's governess wants to flee out of a self-originating sense of helplessness; Jane's compulsion to leave is so powerful that she escapes at night, giving no thought to practical matters, whereas James's governess is overwhelmed rather easily: “… the question of a conveyance was the great one to settle. Tormented, in the hall, with difficulties and obstacles, I remember sinking down at the foot of the staircase …” (256). Finally, James's governess never does escape Bly: encountering Miss Jessel in the schoolroom causes an abrupt change of plans. One might question whether the governess's decision to stay at Bly is the result of the triumph, once again, of the thrill of adversity, or simply a paradoxical expression of weakness: a matter of immature inertia rather than mature determination.

Whatever the case may be, what is especially noteworthy in this regard is not that both Jane Eyre and James's governess occasionally have fits or feel the desire to run away, but that these highly dramatic ways of reacting to stress are so atypical of both women. The fact is that the two governesses are posited as being rational and remarkably self-analytical: each tends to probe and to test herself and others to a significant degree, and each recognizes from the outset that the immediate source of her motivation is her bachelor/employer.

Jane, for example, is particularly self-analytical as she ponders whether to stay at Thornfield after learning of Rochester's wife. She decides she cannot leave, “But, then, a voice within me averred that I could do it; and foretold that I should do it. I wrestled with my own resolution: I wanted to be weak that I might avoid the awful passage of further suffering I saw laid out for me; and conscience, turned tyrant, held passion by the throat …” (chap. 27). However one chooses to react to the battle between the personified aspects of Jane's mind, the fact remains that Jane analyzes herself to a striking degree: indeed, almost as much as James's governess does:

[The Harley Street bachelor] never wrote to them—that may have been selfish, but it was a part of the flattery of his trust of myself; … So I held that I carried out the spirit of the pledge given not to appeal to him when I let our young friends understand that their own letters were but charming literary exercises. … There appears to me moreover as I look back no note in all this more extraordinary than the mere fact that, in spite of my tension and their triumph, I never lost patience with them. Adorable they must in truth have been, I now feel, since I did n't in these days hate them! Would exasperation, however, if relief had longer been postponed, finally have betrayed me?


In addition to their tendency to be highly self-analytical, both women are inclined to probe and test. Jane spends an inordinate amount of time in Jane Eyre observing, cross-examining, and asking others about Grace Poole, the village woman hired to guard the insane Bertha, and whom Jane (in her ignorance) believes to be responsible for setting fire to Rochester's bed. Jane states explicitly that she will “put [Grace] to some test,” and she marvels at Poole's ability not only to field her probing questions, but also—as Jane incorrectly perceives matters—to ascertain her life-style in order to attack the governess at night: “‘Fiend! she wants to know my habits, that she may lay her plans accordingly!’” (chap. 16). Although Jane's appraisal of the behavior of Grace Poole is (significantly) incorrect, she nevertheless is accurate in recognizing that there is indeed “a mystery at Thornfield; and that from participation in that mystery, I was purposely excluded” (chap. 17). It is but a short step from Jane's recognition of a horrible “mystery” at Thornfield and her misguided attempt to fathom it, to James's governess's automatic, immediate assumption that the man on the tower is part of a “mystery” at Bly—goings-on which she attempts to unravel by cross-examining and observing the children and Mrs. Grose considerably more vehemently than Jane questioned Grace Poole or Mrs. Fairfax:

Lord, how I pressed her now! “So that you could see he knew what was between the two wretches?”

“I don't know—I don't know!” the poor woman wailed.

“You do know, you dear thing,” I replied; … “But I shall get it out of you yet! …”


Once again, James's governess emerges as a pale copy of Jane Eyre; but her paleness, paradoxically, seems to be the direct result of her exaggerating certain salient features of Jane: and exaggeration is a hallmark of parody. Perhaps the most notable instance of this is seen in the governesses' relationships with their respective wards. Jane's relationship with Adèle Varens is not greatly developed in Brontë's story: the governess is a bit critical of Adèle's materialism and her precocious concern for her “toilette” (“there was something ludicrous as well as painful in the little Parisienne's earnest and innate devotion to matters of dress” [chap. 17]), but generally speaking the two seem to get along well: Jane is neither overly-lax nor overly-protective. The only time Jane does reveal more maternal impulses is in her dreams just prior to the aborted wedding. In the first dream, she is “burdened with the charge of a little child: a very small creature, too young and feeble to walk, and which shivered in my cold arms, and wailed piteously in my ear.” In the subsequent dream, “the child rolled from my knee, I lost my balance, fell, and woke” (chap. 25). It is in her dreams, then, that Jane emerges as a heroine, protecting a child and suffering in the process. James's governess also is heroic in regard to children, but her inclination towards heroism is quite self-conscious: “I had an absolute certainty that I should see again what I had already seen [i.e., ghosts], but something within me said that by offering myself bravely as the sole subject of such experience, by accepting, by inviting, by surmounting it all, I should serve as an expiatory victim and guard the tranquillity of the rest of the household. The children in especial I should thus fence about and absolutely save” (195). This sense of a compulsion to save the children—whether or not there is anything to save them from—is the predominant note in The Turn of the Screw, and one may attribute it to James's governess's attitude towards the children's uncle. From the beginning of the story, it is evident that she is in love with her employer, even though, as Douglas points out, she had seen him “only twice” (150, 156); and it is evident throughout the tale that her relationship with him—asexual and unrequited as it is—is her primary source of motivation. According to the governess, Mrs. Grose could not appreciate her refusal to enlist the uncle's aid because “She did n't know—no one knew—how proud I had been to serve him and to stick to our terms” (240); but her determination to deal with the ghosts herself was not simply a matter of principle, for she vividly imagined “his derision, his amusement, his contempt for the breakdown of my resignation at being left alone and for the fine machinery I had set in motion to attract his attention to my slighted charms” (239-40). The word “charms” is notable, for Jane Eyre feels secure in her relationship with Rochester because Blanche Ingram “could not charm him” (chap. 18, Brontë's emphasis), and each governess feels a special closeness and obligation to her bachelor/employer because of his warmly holding her hand in gratitude: in the case of Jane Eyre, for her saving Rochester from his burning bed (chap. 15), and in The Turn of the Screw, for her agreeing to care for Flora and Miles (156).

Each governess has, as it were, a quasi-romantic relationship with her bachelor/employer, but in the case of The Turn of the Screw, the relationship does not seem to be rooted in reality; in fact, I would argue that it is grounded in the reading experience of James's governess, and in particular in her reading of Jane Eyre. Note, for example, how our knowledge of him is filtered through the governess's consciousness: “He struck her, inevitably, as gallant and splendid …”—whether or not he really was gallant and splendid; similarly, “She figured him as rich, but as fearfully extravagant—saw him all in a glow of high fashion, of good looks, of expensive habits, of charming ways with women” (153, emphasis mine). In fact, he was “a bachelor in the prime of life, such a figure as had never risen, save in a dream or an old novel, before a fluttered anxious girl out of a Hampshire vicarage. One could easily fix his type …” (153). In fine, the bachelor at Harley Street is something out of fiction—out of Jane Eyre, perhaps, for he sounds more than a little like Edward Fairfax de Rochester (minus, of course, the gruff Orson Welles exterior). It is notable in this regard that James's governess seems almost disappointed at the cheery aspect of Bly: “I suppose I had expected, or had dreaded, something so dreary that what greeted me was a good surprise” (158). “Expected”? “Dreaded”? “Dreary”? Since there is absolutely nothing in James's all-important frame story to indicate that the Harley Street bachelor gave her any concrete indication of what to expect Bly to be like (“his country home, an old family place in Essex” [153]), then her distinctive reaction suggests that her preconceived notions of Bly may possibly have come from her reading of Jane Eyre. The only thing that Bly and Thornfield have in common (aside from being large and old) is the flocks of cawing rooks (JE, chap. 11; TS [The Turn of the Screw], 158); but to a woman whose background superficially is akin to that of Jane Eyre, and whose subjective impressions of her bachelor/employer are notably like something out of a novel, then the Bly/Thornfield connection is virtually cemented by the rather minor shared element of cawing crows. Under the circumstances, it should come as no surprise to find James's governess apparently expecting to hear odd sounds in the house: she listened “while in the fading dusk the first birds began to twitter, for the possible recurrence of a sound or two, less natural and not without but within, that I had fancied I heard. There had been a moment when I believed I recognised, faint and far, the cry of a child; there had been another when I found myself just consciously starting as at the passage, before my door, of a light footstep” (160). Since these sounds never recur and are never explained, one may surmise that they reflect the governess's expectation that she would confront and deal with a Bertha Mason-like mystery at Bly; indeed, it is a significant part of this self-fulfilling prophecy that for eleven nights (“they were all numbered now” [227]), she “sat up till I did n't know when … stealing out” when Flora slept; “I even pushed as far as to where I had last met Quint,” and met Miss Jessel sitting on the stairs (226-27). In effect, she seems so determined to locate a mystery at Bly comparable to the mystery of Bertha Mason at Thornfield that it is entirely possible that she did indeed imagine the ghosts: a viable approach to the story which such critics as Edna Kenton and Edmund Wilson have offered,16 and which Jane Eyre herself would certainly appreciate: “It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquillity: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it” (chap. 12).

That James's governess perceives her employer as Rochester, Bly as Thornfield, and herself as Jane Eyre is further supported by other notable parallels between the two stories. As Robert Heilman has argued convincingly in his classic essay “The Turn of the Screw as Poem,”17 James's story is laced with imagery of pre- and post-lapsarian Eden; and Charlotte Brontë also presents the garden at Thornfield as Edenic:

… I went apart into the orchard. No nook in the grounds more sheltered and more Eden-like; it was full of trees, it bloomed with flowers: a very high wall shut it out from the court, on one side; on the other, a beech avenue screened it from the lawn. … Here one could wander unseen. While such honey-dew fell, such silence reigned, such gloaming gathered, I felt as if I could haunt such shade for ever: …

(chap. 23)

What is especially notable in this regard is that both governesses take a special pleasure in walking in the Edenic gardens of their respective estates. But it is quite clear that James's governess walks in the garden of Bly musing on the possibility of encountering her bachelor/employer there:

One of the thoughts that, as I don't in the least shrink now from noting, used to be with me in these wanderings was that it would be as charming as a charming story suddenly to meet some one. Some one would appear there at the turn of a path and would stand before me and smile and approve. I did n't ask more than that—I only asked that he should know; and the only way to be sure he knew would be to see it, and the kind light of it, in his handsome face.

(175, first emphasis mine)

Since there is nothing in the important frame story to indicate that the Harley Street bachelor could reasonably be expected to visit Bly, let alone seek out the governess in the garden, then the governess's hope that he might be there is obviously founded upon something else—in fact, perhaps upon the knowledge of a bachelor/employer's behavior which she acquired from reading Jane Eyre. After all, Rochester proposes to Jane in an unforgettable scene in the garden at Thornfield; indeed, perhaps sensing the proposal coming, Jane attempted to leave the garden when she realized that Rochester was nearby. To continue the passage cited above:

… I felt as if I could haunt such shade for ever: but in threading the flower and fruit-parterres … my step is stayed—not by sound, not by sight, but … by a warning fragrance.

Sweet briar and southernwood, jasmine, pink, and rose, have long been yielding their evening sacrifice of incense: this new scent is neither of shrub nor flower; it is—I know it well—it is Mr. Rochester's cigar.

(chap. 23)

Two elements of tremendous importance must be discussed at this juncture. First, Rochester is associated with a cigar. I do not care to belabor the point that a cigar is one of the most blatant symbols of male sexuality ever noted by clinical psychology; however, I do wish to note Oscar Cargill's suggestion that James may have based The Turn of the Screw on the case of the governess “Miss Lucy R.,” one of the patients discussed in Freud's classic Studien über Hysterie. As Cargill explains, Miss Lucy R. suffered from chronic purulent rhinitis; in particular, she was obsessed with the idea that she smelled burned pastry. After she confessed that she had fallen in love with her employer after a single interview, there came about “a strange symbolic substitution in her subjective sense of smell—that of the aroma of a cigar; …”18 What Cargill fails to note is that both James's and Brontë's governesses have unusually acute senses of smell: James's governess, for example, speaks of the “fragrant faces” of Flora and Miles (210). More to the point, one of Jane Eyre's earliest impressions of Lowood School is the smell of burned porridge, “an odour far from inviting” (chap. 5). What I would suggest is that if indeed James were inspired by the story of Miss Lucy R., then the inspiration may have gone deeper than has previously been recognized—that, in fact, it went to his recollections of the burned porridge and cigar in Jane Eyre.

A second point. My previous remarks have indicated that I believe Jane's governess was blurring the identities of her bachelor/employer and of Brontë's Rochester. Now, several critics have surmised that she was blurring the identities of Peter Quint and the Harley Street bachelor;19 after all, Quint was his valet and wore his clothes, and most importantly, the governess saw Quint on the tower at the very moment she was brooding about meeting her employer in the garden—indeed, she mistook Quint for him (175). I would like to suggest that James's governess was confusing Quint not only with her employer, but also with Rochester. It is noteworthy, for example, that both men are seriously injured while slipping on ice. Jane meets Rochester in a memorable scene wherein his horse Mesrour has lost its footing on icy Hay Lane (chap. 12); Peter Quint ostensibly dies after falling on a “steepish icy slope” (198). If indeed James's governess is sensitive to similarities between herself and Jane Eyre, then the association of “ice” with “lover” would be instantaneous, even if subconscious. Indeed, this Quint/Rochester association would explain why James's governess remarks rather illogically to Mrs. Grose that Quint looks like an “actor”—“‘I've never seen one, but so I suppose them’” (191). After all, throughout Jane Eyre Rochester's talent as an actor is reiterated: he is the star of the charades at his house party, and fools even Jane in his portrayal of an old gypsy woman (chaps. 18, 19).20

If indeed James's governess is blurring the identities of her employer, Quint, and Rochester; if she reacts to Bly as if it were Thornfield and creates a “mystery” to complete the picture; if, in fine, she regards herself as a Jane Eyre figure and acts accordingly, then one can better comprehend the similarities in the two tales' narrative techniques. The underlying premise is identical: each story is posited as a first-person narration, written by the governess involved, and recorded several years after the events depicted. Each governess/author, whether or not she is reliable, tends to be intrusive, even chatty: for example, Jane Eyre declares happily, “Reader, I married him” (chap. 38), and James's heroine calls “the sisterhood [of governesses] to witness” how unusual it is to make “constant fresh discoveries” about one's pupils (181). And each governess/author, because she is writing retrospectively, apparently perceives her old self with the clarity granted to maturity. If she saw Bly today, James's heroine's “older and more informed eyes” would make it seem of “very reduced importance” (163), a phenomenon Jane Eyre would appreciate: “… what is so headstrong as youth? What so blind as inexperience?” (chap. 22). Indeed, I would surmise that, because of her maturity, James's governess is retrospectively able to perceive how pathetically she was emulating Jane Eyre during her sojourn at Bly—a situation which would explain why Douglas (who met her years after the events at Bly) saw her as “charming” and “agreeable” (149), whereas the impression she conveys in the story proper is that she is strange—perhaps insane.

As noted earlier in this paper, both James's governess and Jane Eyre seem extraordinarily self-conscious, e.g., they are self-analytical and tend to question and test others. But this self-consciousness attains a special intensity in The Turn of the Screw. Indeed, James's governess is so oddly self-conscious about her personality, behavior, and thoughts that she seems to be acting a part. She imagines that her actions “must have seemed magnificent had there been anyone to admire” them (221), and she even goes so far as to shut herself up “audibly to rehearse” the eventual show-down with Flora and Miles (245). What this theatricality suggests to me is that James's governess's highly dramatic imitation of Jane Eyre is so complete that it is not simply a matter of there being many passages in both stories which are so similar in content, style, diction, and even cadence that, if they were pulled out of context, it would be impossible to ascertain from which tale they were drawn; rather, it is a matter of James's governess being so imbued with the literary tradition of the plucky English governess popularized by Brontë's work that it extends even to the act of writing her story. James's governess is not simply drawing upon a fictional convention: she is living it, and so completely that both she and her employer are given generic rather than Christian names: “the governess” and “the master” or “the bachelor.” She is, in fine, a flesh-and-blood parody of Jane Eyre.

At this point, it would seem that nary a stone has been left unturned in this attempt to enumerate the relationships which exist between Jane Eyre and The Turn of the Screw. On the basis of the textual evidence alone, it seems clear that James was consciously utilizing and parodying the literary convention of the English governess, and more precisely Jane Eyre. But I do wish to make two more points in support of my thesis. First, it is entirely possible that, as Cargill suggests, James may have reviewed the work of the Brontës at approximately the time he began to formulate The Turn of the Screw, simply because Clement Shorter, editor of the Illustrated London News (for which James wrote The Other House) had just published Charlotte Brontë and Her Circle (1896).21 My second point is closely aligned with this. In an entry in his Notebooks, coming between 18 November 1894 and 12 January 1895, James apparently cast about for a surname for the character who came to be known as Mrs. Grose.22 In the process of doodling, he wrote several names which are of special significance: “Blanchett” may very well have originated in the name “Blanche Ingram”; “Shirley” is the title of Charlotte Brontë's 1849 novel; “Nettlefield” and “Nettlefold” are remarkably similar to “Thornfield”; and “Glasspoole” strikingly echoes “Grace Poole.” If one may attribute anything to such jottings, at the very least it may be stated that James had Jane Eyre on his mind—subconsciously or otherwise—as he began to write The Turn of the Screw.

If The Turn of the Screw is indeed “a piece of ingenuity pure and simple, of cold artistic calculation, an amusette to catch those not easily caught” (preface, xviii), then might James be referring not to the ghosts (real or imagined), and not to the mental state of the governess, but rather to the simple fact that he is writing a remarkably clever parody? Certainly parody—and the idea that a real person might behave as if he were a fictional character—was something in which James indulged. Consider, for example, the case of Mrs. Lavinia Sloper Penniman of Washington Square, whose efforts to unite her niece with Morris Townsend are highly melodramatic:

Mrs. Penniman started for church; but before she had arrived, she stopped and turned back, and before twenty minutes had elapsed she re-entered the house, … and knocked at Catherine's door. She got no answer; … and Mrs. Penniman presently ascertained that she was not in the house. “She has gone to him, she had fled!” Lavinia cried, clasping her hands … But she soon perceived that Catherine had taken nothing with her … and then she jumped at the hypothesis that the girl had gone forth, not in tenderness, but in resentment. “She has followed him to his own door—she has burst upon him in his own apartment!” It was in these terms that Mrs. Penniman depicted to herself her niece's errand, which, viewed in this light, gratified her sense of the picturesque only a shade less strongly than the idea of a clandestine marriage. To visit one's lover, with tears and reproaches, at his own residence, was an image so agreeable to Mrs. Penniman's mind that she felt a sort of aesthetic disappointment at its lacking, in this case, the harmonious accompaniments of darkness and storm. A quiet Sunday afternoon appeared an inadequate setting for it; …23

That Mrs. Penniman acts, feels, indeed thinks as if she were a character in a melodrama is, to my mind, the same as James's governess acting, feeling, even thinking as if she were Jane Eyre. The difference is that Mrs. Penniman's confusion of her reality and her reading is amusing (albeit occasionally annoying), and she apparently lacks the intelligence and the retrospective acuity to ever realize that she was a living parody of the duenna of melodrama. In the case of The Turn of the Screw, the governess's confusion of her reality and the Jane Eyre model is ghastly—and it is all the more ghastly in that she comes to realize (and ultimately to write down) exactly what was happening to her at Bly.

If indeed The Turn of the Screw is a parody of Jane Eyre—and there seems little doubt that this is the case—then it is a remarkably clever one. Indeed, perhaps it is too clever, if it has not been noticed for nearly ninety years.


  1. For a good brief overview of the controversy surrounding The Turn of the Screw, see Thomas Mabry Cranfill and Robert Lanier Clark, Jr., “Introduction,” An Anatomy of The Turn of the Screw (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1965), pp. 3-15. Several of the most noted articles regarding James's tale have been reprinted in two collections: Robert Kimbrough, ed. The Turn of the Screw, Norton Critical Editions (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1966) and Gerald Willen, ed. A Casebook on Henry James's The Turn of the Screw (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1960).

  2. Henry James, Autobiography: A Small Boy and Others, Notes of a Son and Brother, The Middle Years, ed. Frederick W. Dupee (New York: Criterion Books, 1956), p. 222.

  3. Henry James, “The Novels of George Eliot,” Atlantic Monthly, 18 (October, 1866), 491; “Waiting for the Verdict,” Nation, 5 (November 21, 1867), 410.

  4. Henry James, “The Lesson of Balzac,” Atlantic Monthly, 96 (August, 1905), 168.

  5. I follow the revised version of The Turn of the Screw published in The Aspern Papers/The Turn of the Screw/The Liar/The Two Faces (New York: Charles Scribner's sons, 1908), pp. 145-309. All references to this text, volume 12 of The New York Edition, will be indicated parenthetically in the body of the paper.

    See Oscar Cargill, “The Turn of the Screw and Alice James,” PMLA [Publications of the Modern Language Association], 78 (June, 1963), 238-49; and Kimbrough (above, note 1), p. 17, note 1.

  6. Walter de la Mare, “The Lesson of the Masters,” originally published in the Times Literary Supplement, May 13, 1915; cited in Kimbrough (above, note 1), p. 177.

  7. Vaid Krishna, Technique in the Tales of Henry James (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964), p. 272, note 18; Henry James: Stories of the Supernatural, ed. Leon Edel (New York: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1970), p. 433.

  8. Edna Kenton, “Henry James to the Ruminant Reader: The Turn of the Screw,” The Arts, 6 (November, 1924), 245-55; reprinted in Willen (above, note 1), pp. 102-14.

  9. The only little boy in Jane's care in Brontë's story is the son she has by Rochester (chap. 38). However, he is born at the end of novel and does not really function in the tale.

  10. I follow the edition of Jane Eyre with an afterword by Arthur Zeiger (New York: New American Library, n. d.). References to this edition will be indicated parenthetically (by chapter number) in the body of the paper.

  11. For James's account of Benson's anecdote, see The Notebooks of Henry James, ed. F. O. Matthiessen and Kenneth B. Murdock (New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1955), pp. 178-79. Benson's sons' reaction to James's account is discussed in Robert Lee Wolff, “The Genesis of ‘The Turn of the Screw,’” American Literature, 13 (March, 1941), 1-8.

  12. Griffiths' painting is reproduced in Wolff's article in American Literature (above, note 11).

  13. Cargill (above, note 5) pp. 244 ff.; Francis X. Roellinger, Jr., “Psychical Research and ‘The Turn of the Screw,’” American Literature, 20 (January, 1949), 401-12.

  14. Cargill (above, note 5), p. 248.

  15. Muriel G. Shine's point is well taken that the governess in James's tale is quite young: “… she is a notable, if heightened, portrait of an adolescent,” and, I would argue, as such she is particularly receptive to the types of role models she would encounter in her reading. Shine, The Fictional Children of Henry James (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1969), p. 132.

  16. Kenton (above, note 8); Edmund Wilson, “The Ambiguity of Henry James,” in The Triple Thinkers (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1938).

  17. Robert Heilman, “‘The Turn of the Screw’ as Poem,” The University of Kansas City Review, 14 (Summer, 1948), 277-89; reprinted in Kimbrough (above, note 1), pp. 214-28.

  18. Cargill (above, note 5), p. 244.

  19. See, for example, Edmund Wilson (above, note 16): “One day when his face has been vividly in her mind, she comes out in sight of the house and sees the figure of a man on the tower …” (123).

  20. It may be noted in passing that Miles bears certain resemblances to John Reed, Jane's cousin in Jane Eyre: John typically calls his mother “old girl” (chap. 2), much as Miles addresses the governess rather precociously as “my dear” (249). Likewise, both boys are dismissed from school (JE, chap. 10; TS, 165) and both die young—although John Reed apparently commits suicide (chap. 21). Although the similarities exist, I do not think it would prove particularly fruitful to pursue the matter any further than to make note of them.

  21. As Cargill writes of James and Shorter, “Since his editor was new to him, what would have been more natural to James than to read the biography … of the Brontë sisters in order to post himself on Shorter's taste?” As a matter of fact, there is no question whatsoever that James read Shorter's biography, for he mentions it at the end of an article datelined “London. January 15, 1897” in Harper's Weekly, 41 (February 6, 1897), 134-35. James's positive reaction to the biography was tempered by the fact that he apparently did not think Shorter had considered sufficiently the unfortunate situation of the Brontës: their personal unhappiness “was the making of their fame” (135)—in other words, the public tended to blur the distinctions between the reality of the Brontës and the fiction they created.

    I may note in passing that Cargill points out the common references in Jane Eyre and The Turn of the Screw to (1)sunk fences and (2)the David/Saul allusion (p. 243, note 24). However, Cargill does not pursue the implications of these shared elements.

  22. Notebooks (above, note 11), p. 178.

  23. Henry James, Washington Square, ed. Gerald Willen (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1970), p. 143.

Kathryn Hughes (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: “Reader, I Married Him,” in The Victorian Governess, The Hambledon Press, 1993, pp. 1-9.

[In the following excerpt, Hughes provides an overview of nineteenth-century fiction featuring the character of the governess, beginning with Jane Austen's 1816 novel Emma, and ending with James' 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw.]

Reader, I married him. A quiet wedding we had: he and I, the parson and clerk, were alone present.

Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (1847)

It is a curious proof of the present feeling towards governesses, that they are made the heroines of many popular novels.

Mary Maurice, Governess Life (1849)

If we think we know the Victorian governess it is because we have read her story—or something which purports to be her story—in numerous novels of the day. For that reason any investigation into her life and times has to begin with the popular images, the confusions and the fantasies which have both familiarised the governess as an historical subject and, paradoxically, made her more remote.

The year 1847 marked the governess' arrival at the very heart of the English novel.1 While she had been hovering on its edges since the end of the previous century, it was not until that year that a middle-class woman employed to teach the daughters of those better off than herself appeared as the central character in a major work. First on the scene was Becky Sharp, heroine or anti-heroine of William Thackeray's Vanity Fair, a governess who learns to rise through Regency society by means of her own energetic and amoral efforts.2 Employed by a country baronet, she manages to carry off the son of the house before abandoning him when greater prizes beckon. Devious beyond dreaming, Becky manages to cheat, steal and lie without getting caught by the agents of social, moral and economic order who pursue her throughout her disreputable career. She ends the novel as the self-styled Lady Crawley, a raddled demi-mondaine condemned to live out the rest of her days in second-rate resorts, having long since been shunned by decent people. Her story is told in the third person by a buoyant, all-knowing narrator who sweeps his way confidently through the jostling, promiscuous panorama which is Vanity Fair. The tone is detached, ironic. Characters reveal themselves in their behaviour towards others, conceived by the narrator as puppets whose interior life remains opaque if, indeed, it exists at all.

That same year there appeared a book on a strikingly similar subject, for it too told the story of a young orphan obliged to go out as a governess who eventually marries a man of higher social status than herself. Yet Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre treated its material in a very different way.3 Told in the form of an autobiography, the drama of the book lies in the way in which Jane processes and then reacts to the fantastic events unfolding around her. Courted by her employer, she discovers at the altar that Mr Rochester is already married to the madwoman in the attic whose screams have previously disturbed and puzzled her. Fleeing to the moors, Jane takes refuge with her cousins before returning a year later to discover that the house where she once worked has been burned to the ground and that Mr Rochester, though blind, is now free to marry. Essentially an account of the social, moral and sexual development of its central character, Jane Eyre depends for its dramatic interest upon the densely plotted consciousness of its first-person narrator. The latter's quietly emphatic ‘Reader, I married him’ confirms the sense that her story has been told in the form of an intimate conversation between two individuals, between Jane and her reader.4

While contemporaries insisted upon seeing the two novels as bound together both by subject matter and by the real-life friendship of their authors, the marked differences in their conception and execution should warn against trying to identify a coherent genre of governess fiction. One has only to look at the vast array of novels featuring a governess which appeared between 1814 and 1865—one estimate has put the figure at around 140—to see the difficulties of classification.5 These books span virtually every category of fiction, including melodrama, morality tale and silver-spoon, as well as the more general territory into which both Jane Eyre and Vanity Fair fall. Fictional governesses are, according to the demands of the story in which they appear, wicked and pious, French and English, victims and schemers. They play both major and minor roles, are observed from the outside, and minutely plotted from within. They were created by men and by women; by women who had themselves once worked as governesses, as well as by those who had not. While the way the governess was portrayed in the novel shifted as the century progressed—in response to changes both in the conditions of her historical model as well as to internal developments in the form itself—what remains is a sense of the sheer range of fiction in which she appears. Far from defining a particular type of novel by her presence, the governess seems to have provided a figure or space in the fictional landscape which could be used by writers for a whole variety of literary ends.

The transformation of the governess into a major literary character was inseparable from the wider process of feminisation which the novel had been undergoing since the middle of the eighteenth century.6 Burgeoning levels of literacy amongst middle-class women, combined with the greater leisure time now available to them, fuelled a hunger for fiction which concerned itself with female experience. This, in turn, created a market for middle-class women writers only too happy to find a way of supporting themselves without having to embrace the stigma which came with waged work. Yet almost immediately a tension arose in the demands which these female writers and readers made upon the novel form. The novel had historically concerned itself with the social, moral and, above all, economic, journey of a man obliged to make his own way in the world without the normal resources of kith and kin. For female writers and readers these conventions presented problems, since women lacked access to the public world, the domain of action and doing, in which the narrative was necessarily set.

It was to ease this tension that the governess began to appear as a central character in the novel. On the one hand, she was an orphan, propelled by economic circumstances into taking a moral, geographic and social journey similar to that of any male hero. On the other hand, she was a middle-class woman who could be re-incorporated at the end of the narrative into the domestic sphere, the proper realm of women, by means of a conventional marriage plot. Winning a husband who could restore her to her rightful social position, if not advance it a little, represented a reworking of the hero's goal of economic self-sufficiency, while still resisting any challenge to a social order which insisted upon women's financial dependence on men. Thus the governess provided a point of entry into the novel for both the female writer and reader. For the former, she was the economically precarious woman who, like herself, was obliged to make a living whilst clinging to the status of a lady. In this case the governess' triumph in winning social and economic security functioned as a wish-fulfilment for the woman writer anxious about her own ambiguous status. For the reader, the governess became a daring alter-ego who could wander the world in a manner quite unthinkable for a young woman in more comfortable circumstances.

That the governess functioned within the novel as a symbol for all middle-class women, including those whose actual circumstances were far removed from her own, is clear from Emma, Jane Austen's novel of 1816.7 Although not yet working as a governess, Jane Fairfax has been educated explicitly with this end in mind. As a result she is prodigiously accomplished, able to sing, play and speak French with an ease which is secretly galling to Emma Woodhouse, who, as a young lady of independent means, is expected to excel in these subjects without any financial motivation to spur her on. As it turns out, Jane's secret engagement to Frank Churchill, a young man of some fortune, means that she will not have to seek work in the schoolroom but can instead look forward to the socially and financially secure life of a married woman. Within the terms which Jane Austen sets out in Emma, the highly-skilled and accomplished governess represents both an ideal of refined ladyhood and, in her likely spinsterhood and poverty, its antithesis. The only thing which divides governesses from ladies is the attainment of a husband (Emma's own governess has recently quitted her post on her marriage to the gentlemanly Mr Weston). Far from being some remote horror, becoming a governess is revealed within the novel as the fate which shadows all middle-class women except for those lucky few who, like Emma, are absolutely assured of their own fortune.

Once this elision had been made between the governess and all middle-class women, the way was open for novelists to use her to explore far more than life in the schoolroom. As a lady who was nonetheless exempt from some of the more constricting aspects of ladyhood, she represented the perfect place to mount an enquiry into the social and moral codes which middle-class women were increasingly obliged to observe. The governess' situation within the household, her relationship with her pupils, her choice of a marriage partner, could all be represented as a discussion about the governess' unusual and uncomfortable situation, while at another level functioning as an examination of genteel femininity in action. The following passage from Jane Eyre shows how the process worked. At its opening the ostensible subject is Jane-as-governess, but two thirds of the way through the more radical possibility emerges that it is actually Jane-as-woman who is under discussion:

I climbed the three staircases, raised the trapdoor of the attic, and having reached the leads, looked out afar over sequestered field and hill, and along dim skyline—that then I longed for a power of vision which might overpass that limit; which might reach the busy world, towns, regions full of life I had heard of but never seen; that then I desired more of practical experience than I possessed; more of intercourse with my kind, of acquaintance with variety of character, than was here within my reach. I valued what was good in Mrs Fairfax and what was good in Adele; but I believed in the existence of other and more vivid kinds of goodness, and what I belied in I wished to behold.

Who blames me? Many, no doubt: and I shall be called discontented. I could not help it; the restlessness was in my nature; it agitated me to pain sometimes …

It is vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquillity: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it. Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot. Nobody knows how many rebellions besides political rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people earth. Women are supposed to be very calm generally; but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.8

Jane starts with a set of grievances which appear to arise from her position as a governess: that she lives in an isolated region with only a child and an old housekeeper for company; that she has no access to people of her own temperament; that she longs for more ‘practical experience’. These are complaints which are familiar from the public discussion of the governess' ‘plight’: Jane's revolt, as articulated in the first paragraph of this extract, can be accommodated, understood and even excused. Only with the sentence beginning ‘women are supposed to be very calm generally’ is it revealed that Jane is talking not about herself as a governess but herself as a middle-class woman. In this case, the companionship of children and old domestics becomes the lot of bourgeois women generally while the ‘busy world’ Jane longs for is not so much a position in an urban household but rather the public world of literature and the professions, the world occupied by men. It is only once the subject is made explicit—‘women are supposed. …’—that the pent-up torrent of puddings, stockings and pianos is released. Early in the passage Jane asks, disingenuously, ‘Who will blame me?’, anticipating that while many will, many will not: everyone knows that being a governess is a rotten deal. Only subsequently, when it becomes clear that her discontent arises from her experience as a middle-class woman, does that question ‘Who will blame me?’ take on an altogether more urgent edge.

The fictional governess was not always made to serve such subversive ends. Two novels of the 1840s, Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë9 and Amy Herbert by Elizabeth Sewell,10 both use her ambiguous status as a way of conducting an essentially conservative enquiry into the social and moral responsibilities of ladyhood. In both texts a sharp distinction is set up between the governess, a clergyman's daughter of high ideals and behaviour, and the selfish and, by implication, slightly vulgar people for whom she works. Agnes Grey, for instance, finds herself in the employment first of the middle-class Bloomfield family, and subsequently of the aristocratic Murrays. The Bloomfields indulge their brutish children to excess, them dismiss Agnes when she is unable to exert control over them. Mrs Murray does much the same, keeping up a running commentary of complaints against Agnes while doing nothing to control the infuriating behaviour of her teenage daughters. Interested only in men, clothes, horses and dogs, Rosalie and Matilda Murray refuse to occupy themselves with the church-going and poor-visiting which, as squire's daughters, should be their proper concern. The quiet and sober Agnes Grey, by contrast, carries out these duties on their behalf and is rewarded with the love of the curate, Mr Weston. Rosalie Murray, meanwhile, finishes the story with a loveless match to the wealthy but degraded Sir Thomas Ashby.

Emily Morton, the governess in Amy Herbert, undergoes a sensationalised version of the trials of Agnes Grey. Her employers, the Harringtons, may be gentry, but they are more concerned with wealth and status than with their social responsibilities. While the orphaned clergyman's daughter Emily Morton is beautiful and good, her elder pupils Dora and Margaret are rude, dishonest and mainly concerned with getting their governess into trouble. Emily is sacked when her youngest charge is fatally injured and the blame laid unjustly at her door. Her innocence eventually revealed, Emily is taken in by the Herberts (Mrs Herbert is the sister of Mrs Harrington and mother of the eponymous Amy), where she becomes a much-loved member of a thoroughly Christian home. Elizabeth Sewell uses the contrast between Emily Morton's behaviour and that of the Harringtons to dramatise Christian gentility in action. Although Emily may appear shabby (the footman mistakes her for a maid) she has the breeding and virtue of a real lady. Her pupils, by contrast, exhibit all the moral refinement of fishwives. The young Amy's attempt to puzzle out just where Emily Morton stands in the social and moral hierarchy allows the author to present a series of Sunday School homilies, designed to remind her young female readers of the obligations attached to their (assumed) status as ladies.

While she could not be more different from the saintly Emily Morton, Becky Sharp serves a similar moral and literary purpose within the pages of Vanity Fair. Like Emily Morton and, indeed, Jane Eyre and Jane Fairfax, Becky is an orphan without fortune who has been educated specifically with her future role in mind. Significantly Becky's late mother was French, a fact which hints at a certain moral turpitude, most particularly with regard to truth-telling and sexual conduct. In the event, Becky turns out to be scandalously wicked, the absolute antithesis of all ladylike virtues as represented by her best friend and schoolmate Amelia Sedley. Far from functioning as a model against which the moral inadequacy of the other female characters may be shown up, the figure of Becky is a measure of just how debased society has become. If a wild and wicked woman such as this has been installed at the heart of the Christian English home, implies the narrator, then all indeed must be Vanity Fair.

The manner in which Becky Sharp became the shadow of the more conventionally heroic Amelia Sedley prefigured a phenomenon increasingly common in the cheap, melodramatic ‘railway’ novels of the 1850s and 60s. Earlier books like Amy Herbert relied upon a generalised contrast between the governess and a series of financially secure women, most typically her pupils and her employers, to create moral and dramatic tension. Others, such as Agnes Grey and Jane Eyre, used the internal struggles of the fictional autobiographer as a way of voicing the debate over the nature of female experience. As those struggles became increasingly intense the female figure at the centre of the novel split in two and the contradictions which she had previously strained to contain were now externalised and embodied in the twinned figures of the governess and the lady. As with Becky and Amelia, these pairings were used to demonstrate a series of oppositions—dark/light, sin/virtue, virgin/prostitute—which were believed to express the dual aspect of female nature. This time, however, it was the lady who embodied all the traditional virtues associated with Christian gentility, leaving the governess to represent those darker qualities which had been repressed from the dominant ideal.

One book which sensationally organizes itself around this governess/lady pairing is Mrs Henry Wood's best-seller of 1861, East Lynne.11 It tells the story of the beautiful aristocrat Lady Isabel Vane who, as a result of a momentary madness, leaves her husband Archibald Carlyle and her beloved children for an affair with the weak and wicked Francis Leaveson. Swiftly abandoned by Leaveson in France, and hideously disfigured by a railway accident in which she has been reported dead, Lady Isabel returns to East Lynne to take up the position of governess to her own children. Disguised by her facial scars and the curious costume she adopts, Vane is able to live undetected in the home where once she was mistress. That position is now taken by Barbara Hare, Carlyle's second wife, a model of genteel virtue. Fair where Isabel is dark, faithful where she has been flightly, maternal where she was sexual, Barbara represents the ideal of English motherhood from which the governess has fallen, the Madonna to Isabel's Whore. Significantly, there is only space for the two women in the book as long as they continue to embody these polarities. Once Lady Isabel has been recognised and forgiven by Carlyle, she is no longer required to live out the darker side of female nature, and her harrowing deathbed scene effectively brings the narrative swiftly to a close.

While East Lynne stays just this side of melodrama, rooting itself in a recognisable social landscape, Uncle Silas, the 1864 novel by Sheridan Le Fanu, represents a flight into the fantastic.12 Foisted on the motherless Maud Ruthyn by her remote father, Madame de la Rougierre embodies the worst qualities associated with Frenchness or, more particularly, with French governesses. She drinks, lies, uses rouge, wears a wig and steals from her pupil. Worst of all, she doesn't speak English. Within the text she is paired with Maud's fifty-year-old cousin, Lady Knollys. While by no means a pasteboard version of virtue, Lady Knollys embodies the more attractive qualities associated with English gentility. Kind, unpretentious, and completely lacking in guile, she acts as protectress to Maud, warning her against the sinister de la Rougierre, who turns out to be involved in a plot to murder her pupil.

By 1864 the passage of the governess through every type of novel and to every literary end was virtually complete, although she continued to turn up as late as 1907-9, when she appeared in Henry James' The Turn of the Screw.13 From being the barely-named shadow of the English gentlewoman in Emma, she became the model of genteel virtue to which every lady should aspire in Amy Herbert. In Jane Eyre she was used to explore the social and intellectual limitations laid upon all bourgeois women, while in Vanity Fair her function was to point up the moral feebleness of the existing social order. In East Lynne she served as a dreadful warning to those English gentlewomen who failed to live up to the moral responsibilities attendant upon their social position, while in Uncle Silas she was the embodiment of evil which threatened the well-being of the genteel Christian home.

The problem remains, however, as to what the fictional governess can be assumed to tell us about the historical figure upon which she is based. The fact that many of the authors of these novels had direct personal experience of the schoolroom only reinforces the confusion about where documentary ends and fantasy begins.14 Even today, at the end of the twentieth century, our perceptions of the Victorian governess are based on nothing more solid than hazy recollections of Jane Eyre and Vanity Fair. Yet the fact remains that few of the 25,000 women who were working in the home schoolroom in the middle of the century would have recognised themselves from the fiction of the day. Unlike Jane and Becky the governess seldom married into her employer's family; unlike Emily Morton she did not often find herself accused of causing her pupil's death; unlike Madame de la Rougierre it was unusual for her to embark upon murder and, unlike Isabel Vane, she was not frequently called upon to don an elaborate disguise. In short, the reality of the governess' life was at once more prosaic and more complex than anything experienced by her fictional counterpart. …


  1. My discussion of the fictional governess is indebted to Susan A. Nash, ‘“Wanting A Situation”: Governesses and Victorian Novels’, unpublished PhD thesis, Rutgers, State University of New Jersey, (New Brunswick, 1980).

  2. William Thackeray, Vanity Fair (Harmondsworth, 1968; first pub., London, 1848). Vanity Fair appeared in monthly installments from January 1847 before being published in novel form in 1848.

  3. Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (Harmondsworth, 1966; first pub., London, 1847).

  4. Ibid., p. 474.

  5. For a list of Victorian novels which have either a governess as a main protagonist, or contain a statement about the nature of governessing, see Susan A. Nash, “‘Wanting A Situation’”, appendix c., pp. 437-44.

  6. Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel (London, 1972), pp. 171-72. See also Terry Lovell, Consuming Fiction (London 1987).

  7. Jane Austen, Emma (Harmondsworth, 1966; first pub., London, 1816).

  8. Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre, pp. 140-141.

  9. Anne Brontë, Agnes Grey (Harmondsworth, 1988; first pub., 1847).

  10. Elizabeth M. Sewell, Amy Herbert 2 vols. (London, 1844).

  11. Mrs Henry Wood, East Lynne (London, 1861).

  12. Sheridan Le Fanu, Uncle Silas (London, 1864).

  13. Henry James, The Turn of the Screw (Harmondsworth, 1986; first pub., New York, 1907-9).

  14. Anne and Charlotte Brontë had both worked as governesses; Elizabeth Sewell ran a school with her sisters; William Thackeray relied on governesses to look after his children, since his wife's ill-health prevented her from doing so.

Millicent Bell (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: “Jane Eyre: The Tale of the Governess,” in American Scholar, Vol. 65, No. 2, Spring, 1996, pp. 263-69.

[In the following essay, Bell focuses on what she describes as Jane's intense desire for independence, which the critic argues is the heroine's prime “social fault.”]

Although Jane Eyre is a love story that ends in marriage, everything Jane says about herself is calculated to show that she is not the romantic heroine for whom the marriage ending is a foregone conclusion. To begin with, she is plain; her lack of the requisite beauty of such a heroine is stressed continually. She is puny, her features irregular—and her unpromising physical attributes never fail to be remarked upon by everyone she encounters, and by herself. Even as a child, her appearance contrasts, like that of George Eliot's Maggie Tulliver, with a cousin's “pink cheeks and golden curls [which] seemed to give delight to all who looked at her, and to purchase indemnity for every fault.” But she is also different from the romantic heroine in her rejection of the defect—seen as a grace—of female helplessness. She is threateningly intelligent, forthright to the point of bluntness, submitting herself mentally to no one, not even when she finally does improbably win a man's love. Her unsubmissiveness, her independence is her social fault.

With Rochester as with everyone an urge to independence of mind possesses her to a degree that would be a handicap to the conventional Victorian marriage. Such independence is a threat to the literary tradition of masculine heroism—and, indeed, it is not surprising that when she does marry him, he is literally a cripple, reduced in manly strength, maimed and blind, forced to lean on her, to accept her guiding hand. Brontë herself could not conceive of male heroism surviving in its full splendor at the side of such a mate. But the first meeting of this hero and heroine occurs when he falls from his horse and, limping, must lean on her shoulder to mount again. He collapses again upon her shoulder when he learns with dismay of the visit of his dangerous brother-in-law to Thornton Hall. It is she who rescues him when his bed has been set afire by the lunatic Bertha. Even in the time of their courtship when he is his full self, she makes it clear that though she calls him “master” (and she will always call him that) she will not be a helpless parasite. When she discovers his deception on the eve of a bigamous marriage, she rejects his assumption that she is helpless, a bird in the fowler's net. “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will; which I now exert to leave you,” she says.

Yet dependence is the essence of her condition in the economic meaning of the word when, as a little girl, she is orphaned and sent to live with unsympathetic relatives. She suffers not only from the weakness of femalehood but from the further insecurity of the poor person always threatened with a pauper's helplessness. Her insecure position between middle-class status and that of those coerced and confined absolutely by poverty is already signified by the history of her father, “a poor clergyman,” like the novelist's father, the Reverend Brontë. The Reverend Eyre already had represented that vulnerable gentility combined with poverty which is his daughter's portion. He and her mother have both died of the typhus he contracted while visiting among the poor in “a large manufacturing town”—in, that is, the nineteenth-century city, the major focus of the new capitalist society which was creating a proletariat underclass as the century got under way. He joins his impoverished parishioners in death, dying of the infection of poverty from which his negligible class advantage had not been able to protect him.

But Jane does not willingly give up the claims of the superior class to which she belongs by right of birth and upbringing. With the Reeds she suffers not only the dependency of childhood and of femalehood, but the excruciating humiliation of the poor relation, someone who has a claim upon those who shelter her but pays for that shelter in the coin of shame. She suffers precisely because she knows the value of caste; she may be poor, but she does not want to belong to the Poor. Little John Reed, finding her reading, says, “You have no business to take our books; you are a dependent, mamma says; you have no money; your father left you none; you ought to beg, and not to live here with gentlemen's children like us, and eat the same meals we do, and wear clothes at our mamma's expense.”

The small boy is allowed to abuse her, and when she strikes back, she is reproved by the nurse, Bessie, for her “shocking conduct” in striking “a young gentleman, your benefactress's son. Your young master.” “Master! How is he my master? Am I a servant?” cries Jane—clinging to her title of gentlewoman even at the age of eight—and is told: “No; you are less than a servant, for you do nothing for your keep.” When asked if she would like to find some of her other relatives, she replies, having heard that they are poor: “I should not like to belong to poor people.” She adds, “I could not see how poor people had the means of being kind; and then to learn to speak like them, to adopt their manners, to be uneducated, to grow up like one of the poor women I saw sometimes nursing their children or washing their clothes at the cottage doors of the village of Gateshead: no, I was not heroic enough to purchase liberty at the price of caste.”

She does dare to imperil her relation with the Reeds, nonetheless: “I will never call you aunt again as long as I live,” she declares to Mrs. Reed, and though the time will come, in the romantic turnabout of the plot, when she forgives her former oppressor and calls her “dear Aunt,” her casting out into the snake pit of the Lowood Institution is an expectable immediate consequence. This school (like the real Cowan Bridge School for Clergymen's Daughters which Brontë attended) is an institution for orphaned and unprovided-for girls of “good” family, and the treatment of its inmates is punitive in large measure; they are punished for an economic “fall” which is as disgraceful as the Fallen Woman's surrender of moral status—and implies, indeed, that such ultimate disgrace may be in store for them.

But Lowood turns out to be not only a place of punishment for Jane. Such education as Lowood provides makes possible a way of independence through self-support. She finds at Lowood at least one admirable teacher as a model and begins her own career as a teacher. Teaching, of course, was one option for such a girl as it was for Charlotte Brontë and her sisters. It meant modest independence in the place of dependence on one's relatives or a marriage motivated by the need for support. At Miss Wooler's School at Roe Head where she had been a pupil, Charlotte, at nineteen, began teaching, a drudging, confining occupation which she hated but which gave her the idea that she and her sisters might themselves establish a school of their own. With this aim, Emily and Charlotte went to Brussels to train themselves in foreign languages at the pensionnat Héger, and Charlotte stayed on as a teacher.

How inadequate a fulfillment teaching might be for such women as the Brontë sisters is, of course, made obvious in the late chapters of Jane Eyre, when Jane accepts a post as a rural school mistress after her rescue by the Rivers family. And yet teaching was distinguishable from the only alternative mode of paying work available to them, which was governessing, by the greater independence and dignity it made possible. Jane observes of her position, “In truth it was humble—but then it was sheltered, and I wanted a safe asylum; it was plodding—but then, compared with that of a governess in a rich house, it was independent; and the fear of servitude with strangers entered my soul like iron; it was not ignoble—not unworthy—not mentally degrading.”

In teaching the children of the humble farmers and workers of a country neighborhood, moreover, she heals, a little, her fearful shrinking from identification with the poor, which is the consequence, as has been seen, of her attachment to caste superiority. She feels a democratic kinship with the young minds ready to grow and develop and to challenge the presumptions of privileged refinement: “These coarsely-clad little peasants are of flesh and blood as good as the scions of gentlest genealogy … the germs of native excellence, refinement, intelligence, kind feeling, are as likely to exist in their hearts as in those of the best-born.”

Although she finds some satisfactions in this meritorious occupation, her unique personal capacities are not called upon, as St. John Rivers observes. What he offers her instead is another form of the marriage-ending, an invitation to become a missionary wife in India. But Jane does not see such a discovery of vocation as necessarily connected with marriage. Missionary work attracts her; she is willing to go as his “sister,” his fellow worker; but he is right to insist that this would not be socially acceptable. There were no single female missionaries. It was not even teaching, however, but governessing, to which she had unfavorably compared it, that eighteen-year-old Jane reaches for when she places her advertisement in a newspaper after eight years at Lowood: “A young lady accustomed to tuition is desirous of meeting with a situation in a private family where the children are under fourteen. She is qualified to teach the usual branches of a good English education, together with French, Drawing, and Music.”

In going to Thornfield to care for Rochester's niece Adèle, Jane will try the only other approved occupation besides teaching for the unmarried poor gentlewoman. Despite the greater constriction and deprivation of the governess's life, it might seem to prove again what she had lost, the safe domestic enclosure of home and family. But even in the home of so good-natured an employer as Rochester, Jane's position as a governess illustrates the particularly poignant condition of the “gently bred” woman who, lacking or rejecting the refuge of marriage, is forced to work for her living. Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century and to a degree even in later decades, a governess was likely to be someone who suffered what modern sociologists call “status incongruity” in being neither a member of her employer's class nor exactly a servant. As a girl of slender means who is of neither the servant nor the master class, the governess was poised precariously on the divide between, nostalgic for the lost security of her own family and her original social position, in danger of collapsing into working-class slavery or even pauperism if she was, as was often the case, summarily dismissed by her employers. The governess was more in peril of such a fate than the household servant, who was traditionally supported in old age or infirmity by the family that employed her.

The plight of the unemployed governess poised in an acute form the problem of the “distressed gentlewomen” that aroused considerable discussion in the 1830s and 1840s, a period of worsening economic crisis and unemployment in England when gentlemen as well as others could suffer such loss of income as made it no longer possible for their adult unmarried daughters to depend on them. The unemployed governess became an embarrassment to the members of her class—as the distress of unemployed workers' daughters might not. It was a situation that led not only to the formation of a Governesses' Mutual Assurance society in 1829 but a Governesses' Benevolent Institution in 1841 that aimed to come to the aid of such unfortunate women. It led, also, to the beginning of higher education for them—the beginnings, really, of higher education for women—which might strengthen their professional qualification.

The possibility of pauperism raised an even more alarming spectre in the mind of the comfortable class: pauperism might lead literally to the ultimate in female degradation, prostitution, to which the unemployed woman, once a Lady, might be driven. This employment of her feminine attributes was an ultimate condition already dangerously intimated in her descent into the ranks of teachers and, even more, of governesses. More comprehensively than the teacher who teaches outside the home, the governess is paid to perform the motherly functions of protecting and caring for children and teaching them in their own homes, as the prostitute offers wifely sexual service for payment. In Jane Eyre the governess is the maternal surrogate for an orphan, yet governesses may be said to assume these roles even where the middle-class mother is present but has surrendered them.

The crucial issue was payment—the gentleman's wife was the proof of his affluence by never being involved in paying work, however diligently she might work in the home, as well as outside it in volunteer social service or religious organizations. The very definition of Victorian ladyhood included her completest abstention from the exchange of labor for pay. With the growth of a servant class and the prestige of visible idleness, female weakness and practical incapacity were the very signs of leisure-class femininity.

It was certainly paradoxical, just the same, that, though her status as a paid person degraded her, the governess was entrusted with the tenderest maternal function as inculcator of morality—which was why, of course, she had to be a Lady herself, so that the values of class would have been inbred in her. In her own childhood, when her own family had been more prosperous, she had herself had a governess. But the essential of femininity, the sexual, was denied her since she had the task of conveying to the middle- or upper-class child a behavioral code purged of sexual knowledge. For this reason she was, in a contemporary phrase, a “tabooed woman” for the gentlemen she came into contact with in the household in which she was employed, and also tabooed among those employed alongside of them in the same households. Nothing was more revolting than a fallen governess. There was literally nothing left for her, after her fall, than “the streets.”

Rochester's upper-class guests discuss governesses they have known, “half of them detestable and the rest ridiculous,” says Blanche Ingram, who, with her brother, recalls the nasty tricks they used to play on their own governesses, especially one who had fallen in love with the tutor. A governess's liasions even with a person of low class were held to present a “bad example to the innocence of childhood.” Perhaps in part because she herself is not definable simply as a working-class person, though she works, she “lowers herself” dangerously by violating the prohibitions against such class merger. And such social mobility suggests an even more dangerous possibility, her re-entry into her own class by an upward rather than a downward movement, by marriage to a man of the employer class. In Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, which is haunted by Brontë's novel, the undenotable evil of his governess's predecessor may be only that she has had a love affair with a servant, the valet Quint. But it may also be that she has been, like James's narrator herself, even more transgressive in falling in love with her Master.

Even the upper-class girls who seem so secure when they are first encountered at Gateshead by Jane are subject to the same anxieties of femalehood she has known. With the decay of the family, the profligacy of the elder son, the imminent death of the mother, the attractive Georgiana is more obviously an absurd, indolent person without any futurity unless she secures an affluent husband. Her more serious sister makes a telling indictment of female dependency and offers a prescription for rational living and the pursuit of the work ethic that, even within the middle-class household, enabled women to escape the vanity and uselessness of their lives, the endless make-work of repetitious chores, the busyness of hands always employed, even in useless needlework. This statement by a minor character in Brontë's narrative is important, irrefutable:

Georgiana, a more vain and absurd animal than you, was certainly never allowed to cumber the earth. You had no right to be born; for you make no use of life. Instead of living for, in, and with yourself, as a reasonable being ought, you seek only to fasten your feebleness on some other person's strength: if no one can be found willing to burden her or himself with such a fat, weak, puffy, useless thing, you cry out that you are ill-treated, neglected, miserable. Then, too, existence for you must be a scene of continued change and excitement, or else the world is a dungeon: you must be admired, you must be courted, you must be flattered—you must have music, dancing, and society—or you languish, you die away. Have you no sense to devise a system which will make you independent of all efforts and all wills but your own? Take one day; share it into sections; to each section aportion its task; leave no stray unemployed quarters of an hour, ten minutes, five minutes, include all; do each piece of business in its turn with method, with rigid regularity. The day will close almost before you are aware it has begun; and you are indebted to no one for helping you to get rid of one vacant moment; you have had to seek no one's company, conversation, sympathy, forbearance; you have lived, in short, as an independent being ought to do.

Such a desperate extreme of self-sufficiency is achieved within the bounds of the family at the cost of denying all dependencies of affection, however. After their mother's death, this pseudo-heroine of independence, completely washing her hands of any family claims, prepares to retire to a nunnery, renouncing marriage but also all ordinary social bonds. She and her sister are to be contrasted with those two other sisters who resemble Charlotte Brontë's own—the intelligent, generous-hearted Rivers girls who, when Jane first sees them, are studying German in order to prepare themselves as self-supporting single women, schoolteachers, or governesses.

The Rivers had been an old family, “gentry i' th' owd days o' th' Henrys,” as the servant Hannah says. But now they were poor. “Mr. St. John, when he grew up, would go to college and be a parson; and the girls, as soon as they left school, would seek places as governesses; they had told her their father had some years ago lost a great deal of money, by a man he had trusted turning bankrupt; and as he was now not rich enough to give them fortunes, they must provide for themselves.” And this, indeed, is what happens to Diana and Mary, with all the humiliating loss of dignity involved when they (daughters of the poorer north, like the Brontës) go to work for wealthy, fashionable families in “a south-of-England city, families, by whose wealthy and haughty members they were regarded only as humble dependents, and who neither knew nor sought one of their innate excellences, and appreciated only their acquired accomplishments as they appreciated the skill of their cook, or the taste of their waiting-women.”

Charlotte Brontë's ideal of female selfhood cannot be realized simply by the attainment of economic independence, however. To Jane, St. John's loveless proposal is shocking. Spinsterhood is preferable, even if urealizable in the vocation he offers her, that of a foreign missionary. But spinsterhood is not what she is made for—and even when she becomes an heiress we know that her story is not done, that she must be reunited with Rochester. From the start it is evident that her passionate nature can only be satisfied in love, however much (with her plain appearance and unsubmissive temper) she may seem a destined spinster. Brontë wants to show that Jane's nature can give and take most fully only in the ardor of a passionate and equal relationship. So she makes her seek some other sphere beyond Lowood. She wants her heroine to meet the hero.

Jane Eyre, of course, is a highly original variation upon a genre made popular in the nineteenth century by the real problem of the displaced governess, romantic “governess novels” which solved her situation by marriage. In some of these, the poor governess, who, unlike Jane, is as winsome as she is attractive, simply achieves by charm and niceness the appropriate reward of marriage to a man of wealth. But there were other novels in which the governess heroine's career is religiously conceived as providential, a pilgrim's progress through trial and temptation towards vocation, generally marriage to a clergyman. Thackeray, in writing Vanity Fair, mocked the design of the providential governess novel in his title, while exhibiting a wicked and clever heroine who climbed into high society by marrying into her employer's family. Brontë, who found herself unable to dispense with a marriage ending, also married her unique heroine to her employer, but complicated that outcome by richly altering her character and her aims. Jane may be regarded as a Christiana of a sort who experiences doubt, revelations, and spiritual trial, but she rejects the providential governess novel's outcome in the form of St. John Rivers's proposal. Hers is a quest for selfhood and not religious duty. Her religion is love.

It is at Thornfield that Jane falls into a dream that denies the class barrier between herself and the man whom she, like the lower servants, calls “master” (she continues to call him this even when they have mutually admitted their love for each other). At the outset, Jane warns herself: “It does good to no woman to be flattered by her superior, who cannot possibly intend to marry her; and it is madness to all women to let a secret love kindle within them, which, if unreturned and unknown must devour the life that feeds it; and, if discovered and responded to, must lead, ignisfatuus-like, into miry wilds whence there is no extrication.” She tells herself to look honestly into her mirror and see there the type to which she belongs: “Portrait of a Governess, disconnected, poor, and plain.” The first two attributes are social and economic, and the third prohibits the hope of any escape from such disadvantages. She reflects: “He is not of your order; keep to your caste; and be too self-respecting to lavish the love of the whole heart, soul, and strength, where such a gift is not wanted and would be despised.” Later, when Jane is about to marry him, Mrs. Fairfax, the housekeeper who has a family connection with Rochester but seems to have accepted a lower-class status without complaint, tells Jane disapprovingly, “Try to keep Mr. Rochester at a distance; distrust yourself as well as him. Gentlemen in his station are not accustomed to marry their governesses.”

Yet as her feelings for him grow greater and his interest in her begins to be evident, Jane makes the romantic claim, to herself, that class need not separate them after all. His upper-class friends have no real relation that can be compared with her own natural affinity to him:

He is not to them what he is to me … he is not of their kind. I believe he is of mine,—I am sure he is,—I feel akin to him—I understand the language of his countenance and movements; though rank and wealth sever us widely, I have something in my brain and heart, in my blood and nerves, that assimilates me mentally to him. Did I say, a few days since, that I had nothing to do with him but to receive my salary at his hands? Did I forbid myself to think of him in any other light than as paymaster? Blasphemy against nature!

Of course, if it is blasphemy against “nature,” it is also the social reality of class separation that only the romantic imagination can—in a fantasy—transcend. Brontë wants to see this transcendence take place, though she knows the unlikelihood of its realization in the real social world in which she had herself grown up. Jane must leave Rochester in order to understand this—not merely because he has betrayed her trust by concealing his marriage, but in order that she may experience to the utmost what her quest for independence might lead to. That abject poverty is a conceivable danger for Jane is shown in those astonishing pages in Jane Eyre during which, in flight from Thornfield, she wanders in the countryside for three days, starving, unable to find work or charity, suffering acutely all that loss of self, that separation from the roles and categories of society by which, alone, the self finds form.

These pages are powerful because the reader is compelled to learn, with Jane, what are the inescapable conditions of the very poor, to identify with those who have always lived at the bottom of society, those whose sufferings are more literal than mere nostalgia for lost status. And she must realize the inefficacy of the romantic will that aspires to freedom from social role and that would deny the force of any limitations or conditions altogether.

In Charlotte Brontë's own life, the quest for independence defined a role for women that had had only a few precedents till she and her sisters created it—that of a novelist with the highest artistic ambitions who was also successful in the market. In the case of her younger sisters, very early death cut off any hope of an erotic union that might combine with their desire for self-expression. Charlotte survived to fall in love, imprudently, with her married Belgian school principal, and she married only after selfhood—and her power as a producer of her own income as a writer—had been established. Then she married her father's curate, a marriage totally without romantic excess, a marriage if not of convenience, then of comfort. And isn't this the marriage Jane settles for, after all? She does not now need to marry in order to survive economically; she has, in a fairy-tale way, come into an unexpected legacy. But the Byronic glamour of Rochester is gone when Jane accepts him at last. He has been submitted to that necessary chastisement that has purged him of class and gender arrogance. His chastised maleness will look very much like a crippling, as, indeed, he is literally crippled. He is unable to see his wife, made blind to the visible world so that he may see more inwardly.

Jane Eyre is a novel that daringly confronts social reality yet opposes it with the author's utopianism. Jane is a realist, yet also utopian, romantic. Her creator desires her heroine's achievement of the utopian ideal of union in which men and women, rich and poor, are no longer categories separated by iron barriers. Yet the writer's truth-admitting sense is so great that she cannot, after all, award her heroine an unqualified victory. Brontë's ending secures her heroine, grants her independence in the only way that society as well as romance sanctioned it. When she inherits an unexpected fortune from her uncle, she also immediately releases those duplications of herself, the Rivers sisters, from enslavement as governesses. And because fairy-tale cannot altogether die, she marries at last the upper-class gentleman with whom she had fallen in love. But perhaps he has become her providential destiny, too, her unforeseen duty. The subdued Rochester, broken in body and dimmed in spirit, will, with her help, regain some if not all of his former powers. But it may be that one can regard this “happy ending,” along with other arbitrary improbabilities in the plot of Jane Eyre, as less important than the character of the heroine in whom the will to independence persists to the end.

Teresa Mangum (essay date 1997)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11258

SOURCE: “Sheridan Le Fanu's Ungovernable Governesses,” in Studies in the Novel, Vol. 29, No. 2, Summer, 1997, pp. 214-37.

[In the following essay, Mangum explores how the grotesque, abusive, powerful, and gender-ambivalent governesses in Le Fanu's short stories and novels challenge traditional patriarchal authority and threaten domestic order.]

The stereotypical down-trodden, ill-used Victorian governess abandons her abject demeanor and launches into the domestic fray over social and cultural authority in the work of Anglo-Irish short story writer, novelist, journalist, and editor, Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873). Duplicitous, grotesque, alcoholic, foreign, and gender-ambivalent, the governesses that haunt his short stories, his best-known novel Uncle Silas (1864), and the lesser-known novel A Lost Name (1868) could be unrepressed ids of any number of their living and fictional contemporaries. Le Fanu's figure synthesizes cultural constructions of the Victorian governess—sociological studies that protested the governess's plight, advice columns that alternately defended the governess and warned employers to beware of her powers over the household, melodramatic novels that pictured the governess as victim, and sensation fiction that permitted her brief, limited revenge—into a fractious domestic world in which intimacy incites conflict and privacy conceals torture. Marshalling cultural stereotypes into the formal structures of paranoia characteristic of sensation fiction, Le Fanu's governess narratives emplot an exploitive triangle of abuse among father figures, daughters, and female agents of male authority that bears uncanny resemblance to Victorian flagellation pornography, another narrative exhibition of the disciplining but potentially undisciplined governess.

Among the better-known Victorian fictional governesses, Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847), Anne Brontë's Agnes Grey (1847), and the main character of Henry James's much later Turn of the Screw (1898) tell the story of the governess's humiliations at the hands of condescending employers, sneering servants, and malicious pupils from the governess's point of view.1 Life and art collide in Charlotte Brontë's letters when she denounces her treatment as a governess. Writing to her sister Emily in 1839, she complains: “I see now more clearly than I have ever done before that a private governess has no existence, is not considered as a living and rational being except as connected with the wearisome duties she has to fulfill.”2 Even more vehemently, Brontë condemns the cause of her misery, the mother in the home where she worked, as an example of “the dark side of ‘respectable’ human nature; under no great temptation to crime, but daily giving way to selfishness and ill-temper, till its conduct towards those dependent on it sometimes amounts to a tyranny of which one would rather be the victim than the inflicter.”3 Though some early readers, including Harriet Martineau and Elizabeth Rigby, Lady Eastlake, described a victimized governess like Jane Eyre (and by extension Charlotte Brontë) as a deceitful, egoistic manipulator, most readers are won over, even to what could be interpreted as the madness or sadism of Henry James's governess, by the sheer control the governess exerts over the narration.4 In Uncle Silas, however, Maud Ruthyn, the pupil, recalls her seventeenth through nineteenth years, a period of transition from girlhood, dominated by the father, to womanhood, dominated by the husband. The governess is crucial to Maud's story and to the fate of the Ruthyn family because though the male characters dictate the terms of the daughter's exchange, the governess, as the father's agent, mediates the transaction. As Elizabeth Bowen points out in reference to the governess and master in Uncle Silas: “As a woman, she can intrude on the girl at all points … While the uncle gains in monstrousness by distance, the governess gains in monstrousness by closeness.”5

The shift in Uncle Silas from the governess's to the pupil's perspective allows for the argument that the socially misused governess will perpetuate cycles of abuse in the private spaces of childhood and adolescence. (This shift also suggests another allusion to the Brontës: one former employer claimed Anne Brontë tied her children to a table leg in order to write.6) In Uncle Silas, the pupil lives in terror of her governess. As Maud recalls, “The fact is, I was altogether quiet and submissive. But I think she had a wish to reduce me to a state of the most abject bondage. She had designs of domination and subversion regarding the entire household, I now believe, worthy of the evil spirit I sometimes fancied her.”7 In Uncle Silas the governess is a character of nightmares rather than of the schoolroom: a witch on Walpurgis night (p. 33), a self-proclaimed “Madame le Morgue—Mrs. Deadhouse” (p. 32), “the white owl sailing back and forward on its predatory cruise” (p. 94), the “ghoul wife” of the Arabian Nights (p. 94). The isolation and dependency that leave Maud prey to such a governess were concerns that preoccupied periodical writers and reformers as well as novelists by mid-century.

The census of 1861 numbers 24,770 governesses in England, and the British Library catalog includes hundreds of titles under the subject heading “governess,” including novels, memoirs, advice books, and diaries, testament to a contrary fascination with a seemingly mundane and predictable figure of middle-class female labor.8 For the middle classes, the hiring of a governess, like the hiring of servants, signified a family's financial and social status. However, when the number of women advertising themselves as governesses increased, suspicions of their character, class, qualifications, and fitness for the task of educating impressionable children escalated. Periodical authors such as Harriet Martineau repeatedly (though perhaps inaccurately) claimed that a formidable number of governesses were driven to alcohol or insane asylums by their loneliness, injured pride, repeated humiliations, celibacy or sexual transgressions, as well as by inevitable unemployment.9 These fears also surface in fiction. For all her comic qualities, the revelation that William Thackeray's occasional governess, the home-wrecking Becky Sharp of Vanity Fair (1848), is an alcoholic signals the seriousness of her plight and her danger to others. Charlotte Brontë's Lucy Snow of Villette (1853) has a nervous breakdown while teaching at a Belgian girls' school (and recovers, in part, by cross-dressing in a school theatrical). While the murderous Becky and the seething Lucy only teeter on the brink of madness, journalists' dire psychological prophecies are fulfilled in Mary Elizabeth Braddon's best-selling sensation novel, Lady Audley's Secret (1862), where Lucy, a governess who first seems innocent and childlike herself, vamps an aristocratic neighbor, marries him, attempts to murder him (having already tried to murder her first husband), then either goes mad or is simply incarcerated in a madhouse when her schemes fail.

In fact, governesses had such potency as imagined agents of harsh discipline and domestic disruption that they could be exploited by other women in a household, however playfully, to secure children's loyalty. Charlotte Brontë commented on this phenomenon, recalling that when a pupil attempted to atone for one of his many abuses of her by announcing “I love ‘ou, Miss Brontë,” his mother mocked her son before the other children, “‘Love the governess!’”10 Despite the publicity campaign launched by the Governesses' Benevolent Institution and the higher educational standards promoted by training schools for governesses during the 1840s, stereotypes persisted.11 In a later memoir, A Nursery in the Nineties, Eleanor Farjeon remembered her mother frightening the children by masquerading as the new governess: “One day a sinister figure mounted the stairs and came to the Nursery Door; a thin, queer, formless figure draped in black, with a shapeless hat swathed in a heavy veil that darkened the visitor's features, and black kid gloves protruding from a strange mantle.” Later the children felt “a curious horror of the things Mama had done to herself,” with her “burnt-corked eyebrows” and “reddened” nose.12 Similarly, Mrs. R. L. Devonshire recalled “the idea of a coming governess was held up to children as a terror, a sort of judgment about to fall upon them: she was expected to be thin, middle-aged, and spectacled, fearfully strict, and wielding a sharp-edged ruler with which cold, stiff fingers were soon to become acquainted whilst trying to play scales on wintry mornings.”13

Cumulatively, these examples testify to the contradictory status of the governess. On the one hand, she is a querulous, pathetic, gawky, ineffectual single woman; on the other, she is mysterious, unknowable, alien, and capable of ruthless violence in the service of her employer's desire that she not only teach, but also morally and socially indoctrinate the young.

Writing from his social position as a member of the mid-Victorian Anglo-Irish Ascendancy, Le Fanu had particular evidence that social controls could be successfully disseminated through the relationships created by an educational system. Marjorie Howes points out that when nineteenth-century English politicians sought methods to assimilate the “Celtic” Irish, they determined the most desirable was education and the least desirable was intermarriage.14 By extension, Howes's argument suggests that the position of “educators,” particularly those who instructed women (the weaker sex being at greatest risk for the “wrong” kind of reverse assimilation), would be crucial to the ascendancy of the English over the “Celts” among Le Fanu's community. As Howes argues, Maud's “dangerous femininity” thus becomes a metonym for a fragile Anglo-Irish community that must be protected from inappropriate forms of contact.15 The familial and colonial history Howes chronicles also bears upon the “foreignness” of Le Fanu's governesses. A foreigner, particularly the vulgar, licentious, alcoholic French woman of Uncle Silas—the cultural mediatrix and (to misuse the term deliberately) sexual dominatrix or governess—threatens to undermine social (and by analogy colonial) power. In effect, the foreignness of Le Fanu's governesses forestalls their ultimate loyalty to any local “politics,” domestic or national.

Le Fanu's suggestive incorporation of foreignness into the characterization of the governess can be traced through short stories that preceded the novels Uncle Silas and A Lost Name. Uncle Silas developed from two different series of short stories. “Passage in the Secret History of an Irish Countess, Being the Fifth Extract from the Legacy of the Late Francis Parnell, P.P. of Drumcoolagh” was first published in The Dublin University Magazine between May and November of 1838. This was the first of twelve stories printed in The Dublin University Magazine, framed by the pretense that they had been found among the collected papers of a Catholic priest, Father Purcell. In 1850 Fanu revised the story, retitled it “The Murdered Cousin,” and included this second version in Ghost Stories and Tales of Mystery (1851). A final version was ultimately published in the three-volume The Purcell Papers in 1880.16

In the several versions of this first short story, the character who later evolves into the governess in Uncle Silas appears only glancingly as a suspicious French servant hired to replace the faithful Irish maid of the main character, a young countess, who is also the narrator. Her evil uncle is named Sir Arthur T—n (in the second version of the story the T—n becomes Tyrell). In both versions of the short story, the uncle and his son attempt to murder the orphaned female heroine to secure her inheritance. However, they accidentally bludgeon Emily, their own daughter/sister, to death while the intended victim watches, paralyzed, from behind a curtain. Abusing their power, the men of the household quite literally destroy the family.

In terms of Le Fanu's construction of the governess, the stories offer an explicit rationale for the “Frenchwoman's” cruelty to the Countess, for her allegiance to her male employer, and for her ultimate betrayal of all of her “superiors”: this rationale informs Le Fanu's later explicit characterizations of governesses. The French servant desperately desires revenge against the family patriarch, a former lover who has betrayed her. Consequently, when she is arrested after the father and son flee, she vindictively confesses that she had been the housekeeper and “chere amie” of the evil uncle in the past and had witnessed the unsolved murder that precipitated the uncle's downfall. In “The Murdered Cousin,” the Countess recalls that the Frenchwoman “died the same hardened wretch she had lived, confessing her crimes only, as she alleged, that her doing so might involve Sir Arthur Tyrrel, the great author of her guilt and misery, and whom she now regarded with unmitigated detestation.”17 The governess is motivated by her explicit sense that having been manipulated to serve the male head of household's ends, she has gained just enough power, in the form of information, to exalt in a momentary exercise of her own malevolent agency, a crucial feature of the governess's function in Uncle Silas.

The aggressive foreign governess moves to center stage as a homewrecker in another Le Fanu short story, “Some Account of the Latter Days of the Hon. Richard Marston, of Dunoran.” Once again, the first version of the story was published in The Dublin University Magazine (1848) and the second version, entitled “The Evil Guest,” in Ghost Stories and Tales of Mystery (1851).18 This governess, “Mademoiselle Eugenie de Barras,” is an exceptionally beautiful young woman hired by the moody, miserable, dissipated Marston, who has cruelly estranged himself from his adoring wife. From the opening pages of both versions of the story, the narrator notes the governess's “unquestionable influence, at first sight, upon the fancy of every man of taste who beheld her.”19 The narrator also cautions that even when the governess tenderly fusses over the neglected wife, a “spectator” might have seen “a lithe and painted serpent, coiled round and round, and hissing in [Mrs. Marston's] ear.”20 Mademoiselle's youth, beauty, and in particular her nationality guarantee her power. She is from

a noble though ruined French family, and a certain nameless elegance and dignity attested, spite of her fallen condition, the purity of her descent. She was accomplished—possessed of that fine perception and sensitiveness, and that ready power of self-adaptation to the peculiarities and moods of others, which we term tact—and was, moreover, gifted with a certain natural grace, and manners the most winning imaginable. In short, she was a fascinating companion.21

These two stories introduce duplicitousness and intrigue as fundamental characteristics of the governess, who is literally, economically, socially, and emotionally a “foreigner” in the household. Mademoiselle first tries to play the conventional role of the victimized governess when Richard Marston accuses her of conspiring against him, pleading with his wife, “is it not most cruel to call me conspirator, and spy, and intriguante, because I talk to my dear madame, who is my only friend in this place?”22 However, during a visit from a wealthy womanizer, Sir Wynston Berkeley, Marston learns that Mademoiselle has been in secret and sexual contact with Berkeley in France prior to being hired by the Marston family. Infuriated by Berkeley's wealth and jealous of his relationship with the governess (a motivation given greater weight in A Lost Name), Marston secretly murders the house guest in his bed. Unfortunately, the governess has witnessed the murder, and she traps Richard into an affair.

After the governess gains power over Marston, her relationship with the female head of the household sours. Domestic power is transferred from the wife/mother to the governess during Mademoiselle's domestic coup. Mrs. Marston orders her daughter, Rhoda, out of the room; the governess orders her pupil to stay. Confident she will triumph, Mrs. Marston tells her daughter, “Stay where you are … I am your mother, and, next to your father, have the first claim upon your obedience”23 and calls Richard Marston into the room to break this impasse. He implicitly admits not only his wife's defeat but his own by sending his daughter to obey the governess's wishes. Later, Marston evicts his wife and daughter and installs the governess; moreover, when the first Mrs. Marston dies of heartbreak, the governess becomes her legal as well as practical replacement.

While the first set of short stories establishes the threat that a foreign female might turn on the men within the household to whom she is financially bound, the treatment of the French governess in this second set of short stories complicates the permutations of betrayal. The governess and Mrs. Marston violate the boundaries between women in the household, designed to forestall circulations of power to the governess within the domestic sphere. In anticipation of this danger, Harriet Martineau and Anna Jameson, a former governess who had turned to journalism, argued strenuously for further divisions within the domestic sphere. Even though Martineau calls the governess's lonely position within the household a “privation,” she insists that this is essential to the performance of duties: “A close and equal friendship in the house or neighbourhood is an impossible blessing to a resident governess. With the mother it is out of the question, from their irreconcileable positions in regard to the children; and with anyone else it is practically (and naturally) never tolerated.”24 In her 1846 essay “The Relative Social Position of Mothers and Governesses,” Anna Jameson goes further. Jameson's analysis of the mother-governess relationship, addressed alternatively to the mother and to the governess, offers astute psychological justification for the class and social barriers between the employer and employee. Acknowledging that despite the mother's superior social and economic position the mother still may suffer from feelings of inferiority due to the governess's better education, Jameson argues that the governess and mother are “the opposite extremities of society,—the woman of the people, and the woman of the aristocracy;—the poor woman who sells her services, and the rich woman who buys them.”25 Therefore, Jameson protests the “felling” of social distinctions and denounces employers as cruel who give a governess any hopes for friendship. In effect, Jameson blames mothers who befriend their governesses for problems that follow, the “temptation to obliquity, the deterioration of character which gradually creeps on in consequence.”26 George Stephen, one of the most powerful advocates for governesses, also returns repeatedly to the problematic relationship between mother and governess in his book The Governess (1844) which went through several printings over the century. Unlike Martineau and Jameson, he seems almost to encourage abuse of the mother's authority. Urging the governess “to consider herself the delegate of the mother,” Stephen quickly qualifies “such as is ought to be, rather than such as she is usually found.”27

While Stephen seems to be implicitly defending the rights of the child (against an ineffectual mother), the kind of advice he offers leads to catastrophe in Le Fanu's “The Evil Guest,” where the governess's license quickly translates into licentiousness, resonating with Harriet Martineau's caution to employers against

adventuresses who hope to catch a husband and establishment of one or another degree of value; fawning liars, who try to obtain a maintenance and more or less luxury by flattery and subservience; ignorant pretenders, who, wanting bread, promise things which they cannot do:—these, and the merely infirm in health or temper, might furnish as much true material for domestic tragedy as any number of oppressed governesses.28

Underlying Martineau's categories is the assumption that male employers, including fathers, sons, and extraneous male relatives, suffer from sexual vulnerability. As a result, in a vivid display of the double standard, these writers indict the governess and the women in the household when they warn against sexual transgressions or prescribe remedies rather than seriously challenging the predatory behavior of men. Once the chain of command breaks down (the governess no longer obeys the female head of household or forms an alliance with a man against her “mistress”), anarchy ensues. Thus, in “The Evil Guest,” Mademoiselle de Barras soon dictates the terms of her relationship with father, daughter, and all the employees within the household. In these two short stories and A Lost Name, the “mother” pays dearly for her social violation of class differences within the household as well as for her ignorance of cultural fantasies of national differences.

The characterization of the governess as a kind of sexual dominatrix can also be seen in Mary Maurice's Governess' Life. She, like Martineau, anticipates that a governess may abuse both mother and daughter, as she discovers the real centers of power in the household through an exchange:

the love of admiration has led the governess to try and make herself necessary to the comfort of the father of the family in which she resided and by delicate and unnoticed flattery gradually to gain her point, to the disparagment of the mother, and the destruction of mutual happiness. When the latter was homely, or occupied with domestic cares, opportunity was found to bring forward attractive accomplishment, or by sedulous attentions to supply her lack of them; or the sons were in some instances objects of notice and flirtation, or when occasion offered, visitors at the house.29

Maurice's sensational account of the machinations by which the governess might erode the position of the mother could be a blueprint for “The Evil Guest,” where the governess's manipulations lead not only to the undoing of “appropriate” family relations but to “domestic” anarchy, both in the sense that a woman overthrows domestic order within the house and that national order has been undermined. After Rhoda and her mother are evicted, the grieving daughter writes a letter to her brother wherein she anxiously puzzles over the governess's anarchic reign; she attributes the governess's power to “some mysterious cause” that “enables her to frighten and tyrannise over my poor father” even though “he absolutely detests her.”30 The governess's transgressions against the state must be redressed, and this foreign supplanter soon meets the anticipated fate of a French tyrant. Richard Marston commits suicide (a kind of self-imposed domestic regicide); at the same time, the domestic intruder flees to Paris where she and members of the aristocratic family whom she serves as governess are presumed to have been executed during another domestic (though “foreign”) crisis, the French Revolution.

Speaking to the governess's function as moral arbiter, Victorian commentators often expressed particular trepidation about foreign women. Kathryn Hughes surmises that the European revolutions of the late 1840s prompted French, Italian, and German emigrations and cites the census, which notes 1,408 foreign governesses working in England in 1861.31 One explanation for their numbers, as Jeanne Peterson suggests, is that hiring a foreign governess might have helped alleviate the tense social relations between female employers and their governesses since the differences between them would be more marked. Peterson notes, for example, that Elizabeth Sewell described foreign governesses as “‘less tenacious of their dignity.’”32 Hughes, however, argues that foreignness only exacerbated an already mutually suspicious relationship. Though foreign governesses were admired for their superior education and multi-lingual facility, French Catholics were regarded suspiciously as heretics and subversives. Citing such complaints as that of Charlotte Yonge (“‘it is notorious that the French standard of truth is very unlike the English, especially in Roman Catholics’”),33 Hughes argues that “Protestant doubt about the moral probity and sexual chastity of priests, monks and nuns spilled over into a more general perception that all who followed Rome were sensuous liars and vain idolators.”34

The genesis of the governess in Uncle Silas in short story characters who are both foreign and working-class further insinuates that alien, upstart, lower-class women were weaseling their way into middle-class homes in the guise of the governess, another common claim in Victorian periodical literature. Lady Eastlake complains in the Quarterly Review that she can ultimately forgive Thackeray's Becky Sharp everything except her nationality: “The only criticism we would offer is one which the author has almost disarmed by making her mother a Frenchwoman. The construction of this little clever monster is diabolically French. Such a lusus naturae as a woman without a heart and conscience would, in England, be a mere brutal savage, and poison half a village. France is the land for the real Syren, with the woman's face and the dragon's claws.”35 The essay revealingly brings together foreignness and class difference as mutually constituting elements that structure the anomalousness and hence untrustworthiness of the governess. It is predictable, therefore, that later Lady Eastlake attacks deficient class standing in a “real” governess with similar vigor: “Farmers and tradespeople are now educating their daughters for governesses as a mode of advancing them a step in life, and thus a number of underbred young women have crept into the profession who have brought down the value of salaries and interfered with the rights of those whose birth and misfortunes leave them no other refuge.”36 Here, the moral and sexual laxity Victorians tended to ascribe to French character collapses into more general attacks on the “fallenness” of the governess. As Mary Poovey has argued, as a working woman, the governess was even explicitly aligned by her critics with the prostitute, an explicit nexus of labor, cash, and gender in excess of “fallenness.”37 This conflation was substantiated by reports like that of William Tait, who claimed to have found numerous former governesses among the prostitutes he interviewed in the 1840s.38 Thus, the governess is positioned nationally, economically, and therefore morally in a lower class. Because her responsibility in the household was first moral instruction and only secondarily the dissemination of specific forms of “knowledge,” this fallenness threatened not only the daughter, but the “family” and nation more broadly. The deceitfulness of the French governess, her cunning manipulation of women and men within the English (or Anglo-Irish) household, and the threat she posed to the daughter's body and soul tangle into a series of domestic conflicts in Uncle Silas, and the other female characters within the household are the first to sense her perfidy.

The first installment of Uncle Silas, like the short stories, was published in The Dublin University Magazine in July, 1864 as “Maud Ruthyn.” The novel then appeared in the next two installments as “Maud Ruthyn and Uncle Silas,” only to be retitled once again in the October through December installments as “Uncle Silas and Maud Ruthyn.”39 To Le Fanu's delight, Richard Bentley agreed to publish a three-decker version of the novel, fueling Le Fanu's hopes that he might profit from a far larger English audience. Bentley stipulated that Le Fanu drop references to Ireland and change his title to Uncle Silas: A Tale of Bartram-Haugh. Though all of these titles exclude the governess (as they do Maud's father, Austin Ruthyn, who dies early in the novel), the short stories that preceded the novel help to suggest how she evolved and why she functions so pivotally within the novel's plot of domestic corruption and collapse.

The novel begins by recounting Maud Ruthyn's memories of a reclusive adolescence with her moody, Swedenborgian father, Austin Ruthyn, in rural England where he has retreated from the world to nurse his bruised family pride. Near death, he writes his will, hires the “finishing” governess Madame de la Rougierre to educate Maud, and asks Maud to agree to a great but unspecified future sacrifice. Soon after Madame is fired for ransacking Austin's study, he dies. Despite the pleas of Maud's beloved middle-aged cousin Lady Monica Knollys, Maud accepts her until now undefined sacrifice: she is to live with her mysterious Uncle Silas for three years until she comes of age. If she dies before twenty-one, all of her father's lavish fortune goes to Silas. In the second half of the novel, the willfully naive Maud is gradually forced to acknowledge her morphine-addicted, pseudo-pious uncle's contrivances to steal her inheritance. Maud's increasing unease with the decaying Bartram-Haugh and her degenerate uncle escalates to terror when Madame de la Rougierre reappears, and Maud realizes her governess has been Silas's agent all along. The governess's overt position as the agent of Maud's Uncle Silas, hired to discipline, deceive, and coerce Maud into serving the family interests, most powerfully argues for a reassessment of governesses' roles in the dissemination of knowledge, the nature of that knowledge, and its uses in the novel as well as in the private spaces of Victorian upper- and middle-class culture.

In the novel, the governess's undefinable and hence disruptive status is dramatized in the difference between the immediate antagonism and competition female characters feel toward the governess, on the one hand, and Austin Ruthyn's confidence in (or obliviousness to) his employee, on the other. The suspicions of the female characters surface with Madame's first appearance at the Ruthyn estate, Knowl, the name of which is, significantly, an abbreviated form of the governess's supposed mission.40 Maud first sees her future governess from a window so that the governess is positioned as a literal outsider from the moment of her appearance. Peering into the evening darkness, Maud spies “an odd figure—a very tall woman in grey draperies, nearly white under the moon, courtesying extraordinarily low, and rather fantastically … the grey woman began gobbling and cackling shrilly … and gesticulating oddly with her long hands and arms” (p. 16). Once Maud learns the stranger is her governess, she appeals to her reader, “Every girl at my age knows how much is involved in such an advent” (p. 17). As both the short stories and the Victorian journalists do, Maud translates the character's blatant French stereotype into codes of class, asking the butler to chase what she believes to be a beggar off the property.

As foreshadowed by “good” servants' loyal behavior in Le Fanu's previous stories, class protectionism is exerted in Uncle Silas from both ends of the social spectrum, that is, by the servants as well as by their mistress and her upper class ally, her cousin Monica Knollys. Once Madame is installed, the housekeeper, Mrs. Rusk, objects to “Madame de la Rougepot” (p. 29) vehemently, displacing class antagonism onto national difference, both of which are filtered through the reductive villainy of a fairy tale: “I hate them Frenchwomen; they're not natural, I think … She eats like a wolf, she does, the great raw-boned hannimal … I felt a'most like little Red Riding-Hood—I did, Miss … I wonder why honest English girls won't answer the gentry for governesses, instead of them gaping, scheming, wicked furriners?” (pp. 17-18). Like Maud's more aesthetically rendered indictment, this simultaneous invocation of a predator (presumably belonging to nature) in disguise, whose object is to consume yet another (grand)daughter, characterizes Madame's exclusion from categories existing within the household: as a governess, Madame is neither lady nor maid. But the female characters are also protecting the negligible power they have acquired through existing hierarchical networks within the home, based on the intersecting identities of gender and class. Mrs. Rusk has been Maud's caretaker as well as that of the house, with all the abstract possibilities of the term, in the absence of a wife and mother. Her ties to Maud ensure her standing with Austin; Maud's affection insures Austin's pleasure, and the two together assure Mrs. Rusk of employment.

As Mrs. Rusk's invocation of a literary genre, the fairy tale, suggests, the struggles over domestic forms of power, all subject, quite literally, to the law of the father, play out through the female characters' competing narratives of and with the governess. For much of the novel Maud—as a minor, a child, and a female—has little agency despite her ultimate narrative control of the story. Because Madame lies with abandon, an act that can be labeled power-mongering or self-defense, she always wins contests for interpretation of events when she is challenged by other female characters. For example, when Mrs. Rusk reports the governess's excessive drinking to her employer, he accepts Madame's defense of her “medicinal” use of alcohol over the claims of his long-time, but lower class, housekeeper. More significantly, when Maud's cousin Lady Monica Knollys, a respected, upper-class, adult, female family member, warns Austin of Madame's treachery, the governess's lies rout even a woman whose class and familial clout should insure her authority.

The intermingled sense of the governess's misfortunate fall and guilty desire, inclusion and exclusion, and implicit dependence and demand upon the family condenses in this protected, upper-class female character's canny assessment of the governess's situation. Monica warns Maud, “an unprincipled person, under temptation, is capable of a great deal. But no matter how wicked she may be, you may defy her, simply by assuming her to be so, and acting with caution; she is cunning and selfish, and she'll do nothing desperate” (p. 74). Ironically, the advice she offers Maud could just as easily be advice to any governess regarding her employers:

You must bridle your tongue, mind, and govern your conduct, and command even your features. It is hard to practise reserve; but you must—you must be secret and vigilant. Try and be in appearance just as usual; don't quarrel; tell her nothing, if you do happen to know anything … be always on your guard when with her, and keep your eye upon her everywhere. Observe everything, disclose nothing—.

(P. 73)

The passage implies that the best educated governess is the one who masters subtle forms of intimidation and abuse. Under such circumstances, the foundation of female interaction in the household as well as in the schoolroom is laid on a ground of mutual suspicion and repression. The relation between the governess and the pupil is conditioned by the have and have-notness, the hierarchal and monied exchange of services rather than “natural” respect, admiration, or affection.

Maud is repeatedly confronted with the realization that she is being “educated” not to be feminine but subjugated, or that the two are the same. Brutalizing Maud in private while coddling her charge before Austin and other powerful men, such as the rector and the curate, Madame ultimately throws down the gauntlet to Maud, in her father's name:

“So, for future you are gouvernante and I the cheaile for you to command—is not so?—and you must direct where we shall walk. Tres bien! we shall see; Monsieur Ruthyn he shall know everything. For me I do not care—not at all—I shall be rather pleased, on the contrary. Let him decide. If I shall be responsible for the conduct and the health of Mademoiselle his daughter, it must be that I shall have authority to direct her wat she must do—it must be that she or I shall obey. I ask only witch shall command for the future.”

(P. 78)

Madame's wresting of power from Lady Knollys and the female domestics within the household, as well as her dominion over Maud, points to a curious complex of fears surrounding the governess and the potential power available to her as a consequence of her social anomalousness. First, as in “The Evil Guest” and A Lost Name, the governess usurps the role domestic ideology fashioned maternal: the caretaker, nurturer, character-builder, teacher of children. Second, and contrarily, she simultaneously embodies failure (she has not secured a husband or produced a child) and therefore threatens failure since the very topics she was hired to teach, from etiquette to arithmetic, are designed to construct a marriageable young woman, an objective she herself could not achieve.41 To put this differently, the governess may be hired to replace or supplement the mother, but her own unfulfilled desires would logically be those of the daughter. Consequently, the maternal function would be useful to “the governess” only in an instrumental sense. By winning the attention and rewards of the husband/father, the governess exceeds the status rewards of either “wife” or “daughter” without restrictions against explicit payment for sex or incest that keep family relations in order.

Unbound by these restraints and acting in the name of the father, the “evil” governess depicted in Uncle Silas first displaces the dead mother and all her female surrogates and, then, having unsettled the already irregular organization of the Ruthyn household, takes on the father. We see almost no evidence at all in the novel that Madame teaches Maud conventional subject matter, signifying Austin Ruthyn's inadequacy as a father and an employer. That failure becomes clear, even to him, when he is finally provided with incontrovertible evidence, by Maud, that Madame has been plundering his desk in search of his will, the legal sign not just of the daughter's inheritance but of “the family” as constituted in the materiality of property and belongings.

Madame de la Rougierre reappears in the novel after Austin's death and Maud's removal to Bartram-Haugh, the Ruthyn ancestral home, now falling into disrepair and disrepute due to Silas's selfish absorption in himself, his cosmic sense of the world's injustice, and his seething desire to retaliate against his brother and his brother's issue. As Maud eventually realizes, Silas's fury when she refuses to marry her cousin Dudley escalates into a mad plan to murder Maud and hide her body in order to win her massive inheritance, a reprisal of the scene from “The Murdered Cousin.” Silas's will is to subvert his brother Austin's will, in both senses of the word, and in the novel version of the story, Silas makes the governess an instrument of his will and thus, even more explicitly, an agent of the family's destruction.

If Madame de la Rougierre's vulgarity (associated with her nationality and class) offends, her physical being terrifies her pupil. From the beginning Maud is repulsed by Madame's physical qualities.42 The governess is “tall, masculine, a little ghastly perhaps” with “great bands of black hair, too thick and black perhaps to correspond quite naturally with her bleached and sallow skin, her hollow jaws, and the fine but grim wrinkles traced about her brows and eye-lids” (p. 18). The governess's masculinity is exacerbated by her “unusually large scale, a circumstance which made some of her traits more startling” (p. 18). Later, Maud balks at Madame's malevolent display of her stark baldness, a feature of both her unnaturalness and her perverse gendering.

In Le Fanu's short stories and A Lost Name and Uncle Silas, the governess's sexual ambiguity, aggressiveness, and perversity, all of which are linked to her foreignness, constitute her most formidable weapons in domestic contests for borrowed masculine power. To turn back, again, to the earliest version of the story, “Some Account of the Latter Days of the Hon. Richard Marston, of Dunoran,” we find the androgyny of the governess in Uncle Silas curiously anticipated by what looks in retrospect like the bifurcation of Madame de Rougierre into husband and wife, an element of the plot abandoned in the subsequent story, “The Evil Guest.” In the first version, the developing portrait of the scheming governess is interrupted when her French husband appears, disguised as her brother. His appearance heightens tensions between the governess (who by this point has also become the step-mother) and the daughter of the house. Here, the French governess is a domestic sexual usurper who not only disturbs familial relations herself, but also provides the French male intruder access to her charge, the daughter of the household. This governess, eventually revealed to be a bigamist, gains some sympathy when her husband is blamed for her actions. When he drunkenly attempts to rape the daughter, Rhoda, the new Mrs. Marston even sides with her former pupil against her first husband, if only inadvertently: “You, who were the cause of all—you, who sent me, forsaken, despairing, and alone, into the storms and temptations of the world.”43 Transmuting unconvincingly from deceitfully demure governess, to wily blackmailer, to domestic tyrant, to sensational bigamist, to abused wife, to “fallen woman,”44 this incarnation of the French governess settles into a more coherent and convincing villain in the second version of the story, “The Evil Guest,” as well as in A Lost Name, both of which drop the French husband and leave Mademoiselle responsible for her fate. The earlier, more fragmented version of the story, however, suggests that in addition to Madame de la Rougierre's tendency to torment Maud by means available to a female abuser, in other, more disturbing moments, she also delights in playing the part of a male seducer in drag, a role she absorbs from the earlier version of the story.

These implicit truths come home to Maud when her own blood relative exerts his power, revealing his strategic affiliation with the governess. In an almost surreal scene—as experienced by the terrified Maud—the governess's alliance with “the father” in the person of Uncle Silas becomes a nightmarish confirmation of the powerlessness of the daughter. When Maud tells Silas of her past experiences with her governess, confident that Madame will once again be removed, he asserts his authority through the governess. Maud recalls:

It was quite in vain my reiterating my statement, backing it with the most earnest asseverations. I was beating the air. It did not seem to reach his mind. It was all received with a simper of feeble incredulity.

He patted and smoothed my head—he laughed gently, and shook his, while I insisted; and Madame protested her purity in now tranquil floods of innocent tears, and murmured mild and melancholy prayers for my enlightenment and reformation. I felt as if I should lose my reason.

(Pp. 356-57)

Soon after, Silas gives the governess jurisdiction over Maud's letters, even the key to her boudoir. When he pretends to send Maud to Paris with Madame, he explicitly designates the governess his emissary: “Please to remember that this lady is not your attendant only, but that she has authority to direct every detail respecting your journey … You will, please, then, implicitly to comply with her directions” (p. 388). Under Austin's gentler dominion, Madame's manipulations were more implicit than open threat. The nature of the governess's “knowledge” is made more explicit in the service of the tyrannical Silas. Twice Maud's cousin Dudley pays Madame to lure Maud into traps that would presumably allow him to rape and therefore marry her, but she escapes. From the outside world of sex and commerce, Madame has learned another trade, that of a very different kind of “madam.” As I have noted, various critics locate connections in fictional and non-fictional texts between the governess and other circulating images of “working women,” such as factory laborers, servants, and prostitutes.45 This condensation occurs in Uncle Silas when Maud discusses Madame with the landlady of a hotel in London. The passage references pornographic jokes that depend on analogies between houses of God and houses of prostitution. The landlady, an acquaintance of Madame's, says that “she had at one time driven a kind of trade, no doubt profitable enough, in escorting young ladies to establishments on the Continent” (p. 391). While the reader understands the landlady's implication that these establishments were brothels, Maud naively assumes Madame has represented her “as a young person destined for the holy vocation of the veil” (p. 391). Given popular fears that French governesses would “pervert” their charges to “Papism,” the slipperiness between assumptions—nunnery and brothel—may be calculated to invoke sensational correspondence as well as comic disjuncture.

The strong suggestion that Madame may have been a procuress in the past and may even be plying her trade again, literally or metaphorically, in her dealings with Maud invites comparison with another genre of governess “fiction” seldom discussed in conventional Victorian literary circles, the pornographic tales of flagellating governesses. Ian Gibson points out that in 1782 Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Confessions introduced readers outside the private circles where pornography circulated to the potential pleasures of spanking. Rousseau confesses his pleasure in flagellation began when he was whipped by a foster mother while he was still a small child. A purveyor of pornography, George Cannon, makes the connection: “Those women who give most satisfaction to the amateurs of discipline are called governesses, because they have by experience acquired a tact and a modus operandi which the generality do not possess.”46 Probably the more explicit association of the governess with flagellation pornography during the nineteenth century is documented in one of the world's largest libraries of pre-twentieth-century erotica, collected and described in a detailed index by Henry Spencer Ashbee.47 While the pornographic governess is often represented as a sadistic operative who violates her female charges for the pleasure of her male employer, similar images of the governess also appeared in more public forms of discourse. For example, during the 1860s, newspapers and journals routinely reported on the House of Commons's investigations into claims that girls were beaten in school.48 In response, a number of women's magazines invited discussion of the appropriateness of corporal punishment for girls, including The Queen, The Family Herald, and The English Woman's Domestic Magazine (1867-70). Kathyrn Hughes, James Kincaid, and others have argued that the spate of letters in these journals that were allegedly written by mothers, governesses, and teachers about spanking in schools or home classrooms, even the advice columns on spanking, may well have been tongue-in-cheek fabrications by consumers of flagellation pornography.49

The titles in Edward Ashbee's collection provide the most explicit evidence of the popularity of governess pornography. While Ashbee's index was not published until 1877 and even then was available only to a few, the sheer volume of governess pornography as well as the recurrent references to “governess” brothels suggests that a man like Le Fanu, who had attended a university and moved in fairly worldly circles, would have known of the genre. The “plots” are tediously repetitive. The Ladies' Tell Tale, or, Decameron of Pleasures (1830) includes “The School Master and Mistress' Tale” in which Bumpish and Widow Plumpit arouse one another when she whips a female student while he watches.50 In The Quintessence of Birch Discipline (1870) Sir Frederick Flaybum solicits aristocratic female students and finances Mrs. Martinet, the “head governess,” in exchange for the pleasure of watching her disciplinary exploits while in The Romance of Chastisement or Revelations of the School and Bedroom (a reprint of The Exhibition of Female Flagellants), the narrator muses, “As a rule, women do not readily resort to rods. Some are too tender-hearted, others too chaste or too timid—but—their scruples overcome and vengeance safe, they know no measure in the cruel sport that, under the name of duty, gives the rein to passion and gratifies two lusts at every lunge.”51 Volume II of Curiosities of Flagellation (1875), Mrs. North's School, features Miss Whippington, who flogs pupils while a hidden paying patron watches from behind a door.52 In The Mysteries of Verbena House (1881), which also includes French and German governesses, the narrator claims that few “flogging schoolmistresses” exist except women set up by “wealthy flagellants” for “performances being witnessed by the amateurs through crevices or peepholes in doors, or from behind curtains, or from some other secure point of espial.”53 This narrator makes explicit the repeated structure of governess flagellation literature: a wealthy man surreptitiously controls the pornographic scene by paying a governess to whip a student so that he can watch.

While Le Fanu's novel may be a far cry from these fairly formulaic accounts of blushing bottoms and panting spectators, the structure of relationships made possible by the organization of upper-class female education underlies both Le Fanu's fictional treatment of the governess and the governess in pornography. On the one hand, the novel's invocation of this distinctly British brand of sexualized transgression against assumed innocents suggests subtle connections between the malevolent governess and the enigmatic Uncle Silas. Both characters are associated with unnervingly sadistic but also uncategorizable eroticism that comments on their social as well as their sexual ambiguity. Their parallel dual sexualities suggest their correspondent natures: Silas's decadent, continental, aristocratic sensibilities; his ghostly, feminized dress, hands, manner, and exotic invalidism; and his opium addiction resonate, if hallucinogenically, with the stereotypical features that associate the governess with vulgar, lower-class masculinity, such as her gawkiness, alcoholism, theatrical exposures of bald head and gnarled bare feet, and her predatory behavior, including pimping. The two characters blur into analogues of one another as entities constructed by Victorian social and economic exclusionary practices—Silas as a dispossessed son and Madame as an untethered middle-class “foreign” woman—and the confusion is articulated in terms of gender in both instances.

On the other hand, Madame de la Rougierre, like her subcultural counterpart, learns a kind of pleasure in torturing and subjugating Maud when she acts as the paid instrument of the male manipulator and spectator, in this case Silas. Like the male masturbator, Silas wants to watch and ultimately to possess the scene in progress. He is singularly successful in maintaining control without participating in the action, in fact while seeming passively, effetely to drift in a lethargy induced by laudanum and self-pity. Moreover, he exerts his desires more successfully when he depends on the female governess than when he enlists his own son as the murderer manqué. The most important revelation following from the comparison of the novel and this pornography, however, results from the light shed on the governess's role. Superficially, the conniving Madame de la Rougierre, an alienated, foreign wage-earner in the household, seems to have been acting of her own agency to torment Maud for her personal satisfaction. However, the comparison reminds us that even a failed, ineffectual, effete male head of household like Silas can pull the strings of all the women in his domain, complicating the question of what kinds of authority women actually possessed whether as educators, maternal figures, or as employees in the nineteenth century. The sensation in the novel increasingly builds not from the governess's abuse of power but from the circuitous but controlling exercise of power emanating from Silas, a force that reproduces itself in the figure of the abusive governess who at once dominates (over the daughter) and is dominated (by the “father”).

The power of the pornographic context renders “innocence” an impossibility, especially in the play of language. Inevitably, then, the “climax” of the plot titillates readers with the possibility that Maud and Madame might circumvent male authority by acknowledging that it would be in their mutual interest to close the door on the watching, manipulating male figure who controls them both. They tremble on the brink of recognizing how each is differently exploited by the unreservedly villainous grasping for the will and his will that drives Silas. At what Madame knows to be the last possible moment that Maud might escape Silas's labyrinthine plans, the governess tentatively offers Maud an escape. However, so conditioned is Maud by their previous conflicted relations that she can hardly see or hear Madame. She swims through a paragraph of descriptive clauses toward her governess, only to mishear her when Madame asks “could you ever be grateful for a service” and offers to sneak her to Lady Monica Knollys. Unable to accept the question at face value, Maud responds with her own surreptitious, testing remark, pretending to accuse Madame of betraying Silas: “I looked her steadily in the face as I spoke. She returned my gaze with a strange stare and a gape, which haunted me long after; and it seemed as we sat in utter silence that each was rather horribly fascinated by the other's gaze” (p. 393). Both seem to acknowledge they have been manipulated by first Austin, then Silas. Yet in this textual moment, they find a small space in which to “look” at one another, resisting the transfixing power of the male voyeur. Ultimately, however, the institutional antagonism that differentiates “daughter” from “governess” renders trust and cooperation impossible. As Madame says, “And so, you clever cheaile, we two sit here, playing at a game of chess, over this little table, to decide which shall destroy the other—” (p. 393).

In a final twist of irony, Maud's murder is circumvented when the governess, the master's tool, unintentionally dismantles the master's house. The catastrophic foiling of Silas's plans violently registers the instability of categories when a woman gains access to authority marked masculine. Because Silas distrusts the governess, ostensibly due to her drinking, but also due to her gender, he leads her to believe that Maud will be incarcerated in a madhouse rather than murdered, and the governess unwittingly takes Maud's place in life and finally death.

Male characters fail in the novel because in attempting to use a woman to control other women, they can never fully entrust their agent with their own privileges and consequently can never trust her with the power they are forced to concede to her in order to gain their own ends. Any oppressor's insatiable and contradictory need simultaneously to use and exclude the other keeps alive the distrust and therefore threat of betrayal and then collapse of a system dependent upon the internalization and subordination of that ever-oppressed other. In this instance, the collapse comes when Madame realizes that the men—Silas, his son Dudley, even the lowest class of man, a common criminal employed as a servant—have withheld information from “the governess.” In a furious protest of her exclusion from the wealth and privilege of the Ruthyn family and from the plots and plans of men, Madame rants at Maud:

pitite traitresse! Reflect, if you can, how you ‘av always treat Madame. You ‘av attempt to ruin me—you conspire with the bad domestics at Knowl to destroy me; and you expect me here to take a your part! You would never listen to me—you ‘ad no mercy for me—you join to hunt me away from your house like wolf. Well, what you expect to find me now? Bah!

(P. 407)

She adds,

I say you are mad, petite insolente, to suppose I should care for you more than the poor hare it will care for the hound—more than the bird who has escape will love the oiseleur. I do not care. I ought not care. It is your turn to suffer. Lie down on your bed there, and suffer quaitely.

(P. 407)

Yet Madame also turns on her employers. Furious, she drinks the claret intended for Maud and falls into the stupor also intended for Maud so that she, not Maud (nor the substitute female cousin of the short stories), is viciously clubbed to death in her sleep. Maud escapes the house and is ultimately saved by her cousin Monica, though not before she is finally, horrifically “instructed” by Madame's gory example in the violent exigencies of domestic politics. The foreign governess is punished for her alliance with men by being brutally murdered, but she is, quite literally, also substituted for Maud, which suggests that Maud would be subject to this same punishment if she were to challenge the patriarchal system that has instructed and constructed her. The governess may momentarily wield the scepter of the master/patriarch, but ultimately she becomes Everywoman and meets the fate of any woman who defies the will—a word that again works in a neatly doubled sense—of the Victorian patriarch.


  1. The governess has remained a staple of popular culture. Julie Andrews's early film career depended upon governess roles, first as “Mary” in Mary Poppins (dir., Robert Stevenson, 1965) and then as “Maria” in The Sound of Music (dir., Robert Wise, 1965). More recently, the governess's potential access to and exploitation of family secrets has positioned her as an ideal figure of both detection and romance novels. The governess as a pornographic figure is also alive and well. A curiously quaint, soft-porn magazine called The Governess: The Journal of the Alice Kerr-Sutherland Society in Hastings, Sussex, England is published quarterly. One of its features is serialized novels about governess flagellators.

  2. Charlotte Brontë wrote this letter to Emily Brontë from Stonegappe, home of the John Benson Sedgwick family, 8 June 1839, The Brontës, Life and Letters, vol. 1, ed. Clement Shorter (1908; reprint, New York: Haskell House Publishers, 1969), p. 159.

  3. In her biography The Life of Charlotte Brontë (ed. Alan Shelston [New York: Penguin, 1975]), Elizabeth Gaskell says Charlotte Brontë told her this story as evidence to support her sister Anne's account of a governess's life in Agnes Grey, p. 186.

  4. Elizabeth Rigby, Lady Eastlake wrote a famous review of Vanity Fair, Jane Eyre, and the 1847 report of the Governesses' Benevolent Institution. Rigby, The Quarterly Review 84 (1848): pp. 153-85. She applauds Thackeray's novel and attacks “Currer Bell's,” comparing Jane Eyre to Pamela, another social upstart. See also Martineau, “The Governess: Her Health,” Once a Week 3 (1860): 267-72, especially p. 269.

  5. Bowen, “Introduction,” reprinted in Collected Impressions (London: Longmans, 1950, pp. 3-17), p. 15. Originally published in Uncle Silas, by Sheridan Le Fanu (1864; reprint, London: Cresset Press, 1947).

  6. Winifred Gerin was told this story by a grandchild of Mrs. Ingham, Anne Brontë's employer. Mrs. Ingham recalled that she “‘had once employed a very unsuitable governess called Miss Brontë who had actually tied the two children to a table leg in order to get on with her own writing.’” In Gerin, Anne Brontë (1959; reprint, London: Allen Lane, 1976), p. 132.

  7. Uncle Silas, ed. W. J. McCormack (1864; reprint, New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1989), p. 22. All future references will be cited parenthetically in the text.

  8. For background on historical and fictional Victorian governesses, see Katharine West, Chapter of Governesses: A Study of the Governess in English Fiction, 1800-1949 (London: Cohen and West, 1949); M. Jeanne Peterson, “The Victorian Governess: Status Incongruence in Family and Society” (in Suffer and Be Still, ed. Martha Vicinus [Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1972], pp. 3-19); Mary Poovey, “The Anathematized Race: The Governess and Jane Eyre” (in Feminism and Psychoanalysis, eds. Richard Feldstein and Judith Roof [Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1989]), pp. 230-54; Alice Renton, Tyrant or Victim? A History of the British Governess (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1991); and, most recently, Kathryn Hughes, The Victorian Governess (London: Hambledon Press, 1993). Though Jonathan Gathorn-Hardy focuses on the nanny, his categories are usefully expansive in The Rise and Fall of the British Nanny (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1972). All provide extensive bibliographies of Victorian periodical literature on the governess.

  9. In “The Governess: Her Health,” Martineau writes, “When physicians tell us that by far the largest classes of insane women in asylums are the maids-of-all-work and the governesses, we see at once that the two classes may have been affected by the same evil influences,—overwork and underpay,” p. 268. Later in the same essay, she adds “The physicians have something else to tell us, besides the disproportion of insanity in that class. The propensity to drink is occasionally seen among them; and hence, no doubt, much of the insanity,” p. 269. She attributes these problems to the “terrible penalty” of spending a life with children, p. 269, to loneliness, to poor pay and fear of future poverty, and to “enforced celibacy,” p. 271. Also, see Martineau's essay “Female Industry,” Edinburgh Review 109 (1859): 293-336. Mary Maxse argued in “On Governesses” (National Review 37 [1901]: 397-402) that “the discontent” of governesses “goes so deep, and so influences the attitude towards life, that the governess becomes an unhealthy companion” so that “the girl gets her first view of the world through the eyes of a fretful and discontented woman,” p. 400. Elliot M. Schrero (“Exposure in The Turn of the Screw,Modern Philology 78 [February 1981]: 261-74) dismisses popular claims about governesses' madness, citing reports from the Governesses' Benevolent Institution, medical authorities, and an essay (“Modern Life and Insanity,” Macmillan's Magazine 37 [1877]: 130-33) by alienist Daniel Hack Tuke.

  10. Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, pp. 186-87. Hughes and Gathorne-Hardy detail numerous examples of such displays of jealousy or status enforcement within the household.

  11. The Governesses' Benevolent Institution was founded in the 1840s to offer placement service, temporary housing, insurance, and annuities, but it served only a few of the women in need. Queen's College opened in London in 1847 to try and provide better education for governesses. See Wanda Neff, Victorian Working Women: An Historical and Literary Study of Women in British Industries and Professions, 1832-50 (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1929), pp. 174-82, and Kathyrn Hughes's chapter, “A Lady With a Profession” (pp. 177-201) for histories of attempts to professionalize.

  12. The passage from Eleanor Farjeon's A Nursery in the Nineties is quoted in The Victorian Nursery Book by Antony and Peter Miall (New York: Pantheon, 1980), pp. 408-09.

  13. Mrs. R.L. Devonshire, “Resident Governess,” The Parent's Review 13 (1902): 833-44, especially p. 836.

  14. Elizabeth Bowen was probably the first to note the “Irishness” of the novel despite the English characters and setting in her 1947 introduction. Julian Moynahan suggests that Le Fanu's interest in his French Hugenot ancestors, who fled to Ireland to escape religious persecution in the seventeenth century, may have made him (and his family) feel doubly isolated (“The Politics of Anglo-Irish Gothic: Maturin, Le Fanu, and ‘The Return of the Repressed,’” Studies in Anglo-Irish Literature, ed. Heinz Kosok [Bonn: Bouvier Verlag Herbert Grundmann, 1982], p. 46). On Le Fanu's work in the context of Anglo-Irish politics, see Marjorie Howes's fascinating essay, “Misalliance and Anglo-Irish Tradition in Le Fanu's Uncle Silas,Nineteenth-Century Literature 47 (1992): 164-86; W. J. McCormack's Sheridan Le Fanu and Victorian Ireland (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), and McCormack's Dissolute Characters: Irish Literary History Through Balzac, Sheridan Le Fanu, Yeats and Bowen (Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press, 1993), especially part 2, “Le Fanu and His Art” (pp. 34-120). Alison Milbank also discusses the gothic houses of Uncle Silas in Daughters of the House: Modes of the Gothic in Victorian Fiction (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992), pp. 158-97.

  15. Whereas Bowen focuses upon Maud's infantilism and naive inability to interpret events she narrates as sources of suspense (pp. 10-11), Howes reads her “self-accusatory narrative of a self-confessed hysteric” as parallel in structure to the Anglo-Gothic's “preoccupation with unreliable, alienated, and empty centers of political power, and its focus on internal sexual corruption” (p. 181). The governess (whom Howes discusses only briefly) dramatizes “the danger that assimilation can work in reverse, from Saxon to Celt” (p. 183). In Sheridan Le Fanu and Victorian Ireland McCormack compares Maud's point of view with “that of the intended victim of the sensational plot” (p. 156).

  16. See “Passage in the Secret Life of an Irish Countess, Being the Fifth Extract from the Legacy of the Late Francis Parnell, P. P. of Drumcoolah,” The Dublin University Magazine (1838): 502-19; “The Murdered Cousin,” The Purcell Papers (London: Richard Bentley, 1880; reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1979); and “The Murdered Cousin,” Ghost Stories and Tales of Mystery (Dublin: James McGlashon, 1851; reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1977). Le Fanu's novels routinely evolved from short stories, which often appeared in more than one version. Usually, the short stories used Ireland as their settings and were published in Ireland, before being expanded, relocated to England, and published as a three-decker novel with a British publishing house. Le Fanu's English publisher Richard Bentley insisted upon the Anglicizing of the fiction because he doubted that English audiences would find “Irish” literature appealing. Wayne Hall discusses this phenomenon in “Le Fanu's House by the Marketplace,” Eire-Ireland 21 (1986): 55-72. McCormack also details changes in the sequences of stories I am discussing in Dissolute Characters (pp. 66-71).

  17. “The Murdered Cousin,” Ghost Stories. p. 105.

  18. “Some Account of the Latter Days of the Hon. Richard Marston, of Dunoran,” The Dublin University Magazine (1848); “The Evil Guest,” Ghost Stories and Tales of Mystery, pp. 136-304. Coincidentally, “Currer Bell's” Jane Eyre is reviewed in this same 1848 volume of The Dublin University Magazine, a kind of vindication of Mary Augusta Ward's note in her 1899 introduction to Jane Eyre (New York: Harper Bros.): “Has it ever been sufficiently recognised that Charlotte Brontë is first and foremost an Irishwoman, that her genius is at bottom a Celtic genius?”, p. xviii. The short story, then novella, developed into A Lost Name, 3 vols. (1868; reprint, London: Richard Bentley, New York: Arno Press, 1977).

  19. “The Evil Guest,” pp. 137-38.

  20. “Richard Marston,” p. 478.

  21. “The Evil Guest,” p. 146.

  22. Ibid., p. 169.

  23. Ibid., p. 246.

  24. Martineau, “The Governess: Her Health,” p. 270.

  25. Jameson, Memoirs and Essays Illustrative of Art, Literature, and Social Morals (1846; reprint, London: Bentley, 1864), p. 259.

  26. Jameson, p. 187.

  27. [Sir George Stephen], The Guide to Service: The Governess (London: C. Knight and Co., 1844), p. 20.

  28. Martineau, “The Governess: Her Health,” p. 269.

  29. Governess' Life (London, 1849): pp. 14-15. See also Hughes, pp. 125-26.

  30. “The Evil Guest,” p. 269.

  31. Hughes, p. 105.

  32. Elizabeth Missing Sewell, Principles of Education, drawn from Nature and Revelation, and applied to female education in the upper classes, vol. 2 (London: Longman, 1865), pp. 239-40.

  33. Charlotte Yonge, Womankind (London: Mazley and Smith, 1876), p. 38. Hughes also quotes Mary Maurice's comment that letting a French governess in the door was to open “a wide flood-gate to frivolity, vanity, and sin,” from Mothers and Governesses (London: John W. Parker, 1847), p. 13.

  34. Hughes, p. 106.

  35. Lady Eastlake, pp. 160-61.

  36. Ibid., p. 180.

  37. Poovey, Peterson, and Hughes offer lengthy speculations about the reasons why governesses were so often associated with prostitutes and other “working women.”

  38. See Hughes on Edinburgh physician William Tait's 1840 investigation, p. 120.

  39. Uncle Silas was serialized in The Dublin University Magazine under varying titles between July and December, 1864. Reprint, Uncle Silas, 3 vols. (London: Richard Bentley, 1864).

  40. As he often did, Le Fanu is also playing with family history. He stayed with his relative Sheridan Knowles in England in 1838 while he considered entering Lincoln's Fields before abandoning law for journalism.

  41. Lady Eastlake notes this irony as early in 1848: “We need the imprudencies, extravagancies, mistakes, or crimes of a certain number of fathers, to sow that seed from which we reap the harvest of governesses. There is no other class of labourers for hire who are thus systematically supplied by the misfortunes of our fellow-creatures,” p. 176. Poovey discusses the paradoxical consequences of hiring a governess who has failed at the career objectives of “womanhood” to train a girl to be a woman, pp. 232-50.

  42. Though numerous critics comment on the governess's masculine or horrific appearance, most treat her role in the novel as gothic ornamentation. Bowen notes her unnerving physicality, pp. 15-16. Milbank says Madame is a “so grotesquely masculine parody of femininity that she resembles a pantomine dame rather than a real woman,” p. 180. Stewart Marsh Ellis, in Wilkie Collins, Le Fanu, and Others (London: Constable, 1931), suggests that Madame may be based on a Swiss governess who terrorized Le Fanu himself, p. 163. See also Michael Begnal, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (Lewisburg: Bucknell Univ. Press, 1971), especially p. 59.

  43. “Richard Marston,” p. 740.

  44. Ibid.

  45. This is a central argument in Poovey's essay.

  46. Quoted in Ian Gibson, The English Vice: Beating, Sex, and Shame in Victorian England and After (London: Duckworth, 1978), p. 237. Gibson has two chapters on the flagellation of children at home and school that also cover flagellant advertisements, accounts of governesses' cruelty based on the memories of their students, and flagellant correspondence columns. Also, see George Ryley Scott, Flagellation: A History of Corporal Punishment in Its Historical, Anthropological, and Sociological Aspects (London: Tallis Press, 1968) and James Kincaid, Child-Loving: The Erotic Child and Victorian Culture (New York: Routledge, 1992), pp. 252-74.

  47. A London publisher issued 250 privately printed copies of Ashbee's Index Librorum Prohibitorum in 1877 (with the pseudonym Pisanus Fraxi). Volume Two, Centuria Librorum Absconditorum, was published in 1879 and Volume Three, Calena Librorum Tacendorum, was published in 1885. The index includes detailed plot summaries of many items. These have been abridged, edited, and reissued by Peter Fryer as Forbidden Books of the Victorians (London: Odyssey Press, 1970). The collection is discussed in Steven Marcus's The Other Victorians: A Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England (New York: New American Library, 1974), in Walter Kendrick's The Secret Museum: Pornography in Modern Culture (New York: Viking, 1987), and in Gibson. The passage I cite comes from the anonymous Venus School Mistress; Or, Birchin Sports and is quoted by Gibson, (p. 236). Unless otherwise indicated, I will hereafter be quoting from Fryer's edition of Ashbee's edition of his summaries of the pornographic texts as my notes will indicate.

  48. For details of several different investigations, see Gibson.

  49. Gibson has an entire chapter on flagellation columns and “real” letters (see pp. 80-82 and pp. 119-232). See also Hughes, pp. 136-38.

  50. The Ladies' Tell Tale or, Decameron of Pleasure. A Recollection of Amourous Tales, as related by a party of young friends to one another (London: May, Wilson, and Spinster, 1830). See Fryer, pp. 116-20.

  51. The Quintessence of Birch Discipline (London, 1870). The book was not actually distributed until 1883. See Fryer, pp. 170-71. The second source, The Romance of Chastisement or Revelations of the School and Bedroom, is discussed in Fryer also (pp. 177-80). The quotation appears in Fryer, p. 177. This work is attributed to St. George H. Stock and was apparently first published in Ireland in 1870.

  52. Curiosities of Flagellation: A Series of Incidents and Facts collected by an Amateur Flagellant, and published in 5 volumes (London, 1875). See Fryer, pp. 83-86.

  53. “Etonensis,” The Mysteries of Verbena House or, Miss Bellasis Birched for Thieving (London, 1882). See Fryer, p. 133.

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