Tales of knowledge conferred by satanic agents are widespread in the western world, appearing in religious texts, folklore and fiction alike.
The Book of Genesis tells of Eve being tempted to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Though this has been forbidden by God, she succumbs to the devilish serpent’s promise that “the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3.5).
In German legend we find Faust, a scholar who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for unlimited knowledge and who is eventually damned for his actions. Famous literary renderings of this myth can be found in the work of Goethe, Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Mann, whilst a similar figure, Pan Twardowski, appears in Polish folklore. A 14th century Dutch play, Mariken van Nieumeghen ("Mary of Nijmegen"), tells of a young woman who enlists a demon, One-Eyed Moenen, to teach her the seven liberal arts. All these stories share the premise that knowledge is what separates mortals from God, and that attempting to gain it signifies a hubristic overstepping of natural human limits that can but lead to damnation.
Read Goethe's Faust below. Marlowe's version can be accessed here.
A plumb line, which consists of a line with a weight on one end, is used by mariners to determine the depth of water.
This metaphorical "depth sounding" forms part of a broad tapestry of nautical imagery: the governess describes confronting Miles as “reaching port”, whilst exercising emotional self-control is “clutching the helm”. Indeed, her early impression of Bly is as “a great drifting ship” of which she is “at the helm”. The governess uses this line of imagery to convince us – and herself – that she is steering events, but the notion of a ship drifting through unknown depths hints that the water symbolizes her own fraught psyche, an element which she is unable to control or chart.
Well-known for its emphasis on etiquette, the Victorian era saw a formal code for table manners established. Eating was seen as a somewhat bestial activity and the refined diner was expected to maintain a genteel distance from such grossness. It was during this period that the use of knives and forks became customary.
For children, dining codes operated in tandem with rules of deference to adults. They had to wait until last to be served, without displaying any eagerness or expectation of receiving a particular dish. Requesting any article of food was considered the worst kind of vulgarity; one had to wait until it was offered. Any discussion of food, whether complimentary or not, was also strictly taboo.
Diners had to keep their elbows tucked discreetly at their sides; eat neither too fast (a sign of gluttony) nor too slowly (a failure of appreciation); refrain from picking their teeth or breathing heavily; and, of course, never speak with their mouths full. An extract from a Victorian cookbook detailing proper table manners can be read here.
Though this may at first appear to allude to a honeymoon, the practice did not become established in its modern form until the end of the 19th century. Rather, it was customary for newly-weds to repair straight to a good local inn after the service had taken place. As the couple were usually accompanied by the entire wedding party, it is interesting that the governess imagines them to be alone and suggests that the type of union she has in mind is forbidden.
The simile, in casting the governess and Miles as nervous virgins, also implies a sexual dimension to their confrontation.
Boxing stances of the 19th century differed from those employed in the modern sport. Whilst today fighters will guard themselves by keeping their arms bent close to their bodies, their forebears kept their arms extended at a little over waist-height with the palms facing upwards. They advanced with small, shuffling motions and attacked with straight punches thrown from a vertical fist, using the bottom three knuckles to connect with the opponent.
Watch footage from a 1894 boxing match:
The experience the governess describes here is symptomatic of what was formerly known as hysteria. This quintessentially female malady was the bane of the 19th century: according to Rachel Maines, doctors found symptoms in 50-75% of all women. These were extraordinarily vague and formed an almost limitless list. Difficulty sleeping, anxiety, tics, sexual arousal, inattention, irritability and faintness were all sufficient to incur a diagnosis.
The origin of the condition was thought to be repressed sexual desire and its prevalence in Victorian society reflects the fact that female lust was itself seen as a pathological aberration. In James's time, it was treated by what was euphemistically referred to as 'pelvic massage', which a doctor would administer either digitally or by using a jet of water or clockwork vibrator. That the medical profession was apparently oblivious to the resemblance of the 'hysterical paroxysm' to orgasm highlights how unthinkable female sexuality was.
With the rise of psychoanalysis, the repression entailed in hysteria was increasingly viewed as the result of a split consciousness. Henry James would have been well-informed on this subject as his older brother, the prominent psychologist William James, wrote extensively about hysteria. His declaration — "if there are devils, if there are supernormal powers, it is through the cracked and fragmented self that they enter" — is highly pertinent in this context and illuminates the way that Henry James presents the supernatural and psychological as co-existing, rather than mutually exclusive, forces. The idea that hysteria is allied with sexual repression, meanwhile, ties in with the governess's sublimation of her attraction to her employer.
Watch an interview with the brilliant Rachel Maines, a historian who has written extensively about hysteria:
It is also worth remembering that James wrote The Turn of the Screw very shortly after Sigmund Freud and Josef Breuer published their seminal Studies on Hysteria in 1895. In particular, the case of 'Lucy R.', a 30-year-old governess of two small children, has such strong parallels with the novella that it may have been a direct inspiration. 'Lucy R.', like James's governess, sublimates an unacceptable love for her employer into that for her young charges, whose mother she subconsciously wishes to replace. There are other smaller details, such as a purloined letter and paranoia about the other servants, which also suggest this study informed James' work.
This is strongly reminiscent of the treatment meted out to Satan in Revelation 20:3. As a punishment for deluding the people and acting as a false prophet, an angel of the Lord hurls him into an abyss where he is to remain in chains for a thousand years.
This suggests that, far from saving Miles, the governess has in fact damned him.
This climactic moment is redolent of the dramatic monologues of Robert Browning, one of the most celebrated poets of the Victorian age. Sensational pieces such as My Last Duchess (1842) and Porphyria's Lover (1836) centre on the doings of crazed protagonists who unwittingly reveal to the reader that they have murdered their beloved in order to be able to possess them completely and eternally. The parallels with the latter in particular, which is narrated by a murderer still locked in an embrace with Porphyria's corpse, are too strong to ignore.
Porphyria worshipp'd me; suprise
Made my heart swell, and still it grew
While I debated what to do.
That moment she was mine, mine, fair,
Perfectly pure and good: I found
A thing to do, and all her hair
In one long yellow string I wound
Three times her little throat around,
And strangled her.
Henry James was not only personally acquainted with Browning but also wrote extensively about his works and even delivered a public address on the centenary of his birthday, so it is unlikely that this echo is entirely accidental. Whilst preserving the governess's version of events, he uses the allusion to Porphyria's Lover to create a counter-narrative in which she is driven by delusion to commit an unspeakable act her conscious mind cannot allow and which she therefore projects onto an imagined other.
Julian Lopez-Morillas gives a suitably deranged rendition of Porphyria's Lover: