Though we don't know exactly when Bly was built, both the 17th and 18th century saw a revival of the Classical modes of architecture favoured by the Greeks and Romans of antiquity. The former saw the advent of Jacobean architecture, which combined the formality of classical modes with the fanciful ornamentation of the Elizabethan era. This was succeeded by the English Baroque style, a heavily-embellished version of classicism associated primarily with Christopher Wren. From 1720 to 1840, Georgian architects increasingly rejected the scrolls, lozenges and other fussy adornments in favour of greater simplicity and purity. Figures such as Robert Adam, James Wyatt and John Wood drew heavily upon the Greek style, the Roman being increasingly seen as a degenerate form. During the 19th century, though classicism continued to be important, the new materials and methods of the Industrial Revolution meant that architecture, for the first time in centuries, once more embraced new innovations rather than relying on the models of the past.
Until around the 1960s, hats were de rigeur for men. Not only did they serve a practical function in protecting their wearers from the elements, they were also bound into patterns of social etiquette: with a hat, respect for customs could be expressed. It was doffed as a mark of reverence for a lady or a social superior, removed before entering a church, and held to the heart during the national anthem. Peter Quint’s bare-headedness so offends the governess because it demonstrates an indifference towards such proprieties.
Hats began to fall out of fashion with the rise of the automobile: when one no longer travelled on foot, there was no need to protect oneself from the vagaries of the weather. The shift towards comfort and practicality in dress and away from formality also played a role.
The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) by Ann Radcliffe is often held up as the archetypal Gothic novel, and it was extremely popular during the 19th century. The plot concerns the misfortunes which befall its heroine, the orphaned Emily St. Aubert, who is imprisoned in the remote and gloomy castle of Udolpho by her villainous uncle, the scheming Montoni. Udolpho’s secret passageways, crumbling turrets and supernatural terrors all colour the governess’s impressions of Bly. The Mysteries of Udolpho is best-known today for the spoofing it receives at the hands of Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey (a.1817).
An allusion to Bertha Mason in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847). Like the narrator of The Turn of the Screw, Jane Eyre is a governess in a remote house. Having been troubled by mysterious apparitions and unexplained noises, she is horrified to discover that these emanate from the first wife of her employer and fiancé, Mr. Rochester. She learns that her betrothed was coerced into marrying Bertha for money, found she was slipping into a violent form of insanity and had her locked away in the attic of Thornfield Manor. After this revelation, Jane runs away. When she later returns, she finds the manor reduced to blackened ruins and discovers that Bertha, having set the house ablaze, has committed suicide by leaping from the roof. Rochester, seriously injured and blinded in the fire, is now dependent upon Jane; with the power balance thus reversed, she finally consents to marry him. This union between humble governess and dashing master is no doubt a key reason for the governess's identification with the novel.
Below is an excerpt from the 1934 film version of Jane Eyre, featuring Claire Du Brey as Bertha Mason. Bertha’s own story was later told by Jean Rhys in Wide Sargasso Sea (1966).
This was indeed a marvel for a governess. At the time of the 1841 census, some 32,403 women were employed in this capacity. It was not, however, a role many aspired to. The governess’ life was one of isolation, sexual repression and humiliation. Though plenty formed positive relationships with the children in their care, this was far assured. According to Philip Allingham's The Figure of the Governess:
The governess's charges would often torment her by refusing to do their lessons, throwing her work-bag into the fire, or forcing her to take them out to the garden to play with them, knowing full well that her lonely meal was getting cold. The larger children might even assault their governess, and the more ambitious boys might try to harass her sexually.
Read the whole essay here.
The anecdote in question is recorded by Charles Lamb in his essay "Christ's Hospital Five and Thirty Years Ago". On learning that his former headmaster James Boyer, a man who certainly did not believe in sparing the rod, was on his deathbed, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge responded "Poor J.B. ! — may all his faults be forgiven; and may he be wafted to bliss by little cherub boys, all head and wings, with no bottoms to reproach his sublunary infirmities".
sublunary (literally, "below the moon") means "of or relating to the Earth"
Read Lamb's essay here.
This is a possible clue as to how the narrator ended up in her current situation. According to an 1848 article by Lady Eastlake published in the Quarterly Review, errant behaviour on the part of fathers was a dominant reason for young women becoming governesses. She writes:
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.
During the Victorian era, red hair was viewed with almost as much repugnance as sex, vice and those who worked in trade. The colour was thought to signify ferocity, excessive passion, cruelty and treachery, and any ginger-headed character appearing in a novel could immediately be understood to be a ne'er-do-well.
Read an 1851 article outlining the assumptions held about "every possessor of the obnoxious shade" here.
In the popular imagination, actors were as far removed from the Victorian ideals of propriety and respectability as it was possible to be. The decadent lifestyle assumed to be characteristic of the profession flew in the face of the austere standards that prevailed elsewhere, and the theatre was seen as a hive of sophistry and immorality.
As the Victorian actor, playwright and theatrical manager-director Robert Courtneidge observed in his memoirs (I was an Actor once, 1930), "Contrasted with types of honourable men in business or the various professions, the dissolute actor stood out in bold relief as characteristic of his fellows". This degeneracy was often seen as specifically sexual in nature, a prejudice which ties in with Mrs Grose's descriptions of Quint as having been "much too free".
This bizarre name is probably based on Peer Gynt, the eponymous hero of an 1867 play by Henrik Ibsen. Loosely derived from a fairytale, the fantastical plot features the mad proprietor of an insane asylum who believes Peer to be the fount of supreme wisdom, and a button-moulder who wants to melt down his soul along with other faulty goods. Though the devil, appearing late on, declares that Peer cannot be damned to hell, his behaviour is far from exemplary and he spends much time engaged in drunken debauches, as well as dabbling in the slave trade.
Critics have speculated that Henry James drew his portrait of Peter Quint from George Bernard Shaw, a professional rival of James who was at that time preparing a production of Peer Gynt for the stage. The critic and playwright was an enthusiastic champion of the play, forecasting that "Peer Gynt will finally smash anti-Ibsenism in Europe, because Peer is everybody's hero. He has the same effect on the imagination that Hamlet, Faust, and Mozart's Don Juan have had" (Dramatic Opinions and Essays, vol. 2, p. 96). With his curly red hair and piercing stare, Shaw could easily have been the physical model for Peter Quint.
We can get a sense of the form ghosts took in the Victorian imagination by looking at the art of the period. An 1825 illustration of the 16th century magician John Dee raising a ghost shows a white lady who, though deathly pale, is quite as substantial as the living figures. Théodore Chassériau’s depiction of the ghost of Banquo in Macbeth, meanwhile, shows a pale and luminous being surrounded by an aura of unearthly light. So-called spirit photography, in which charlatans such as William H. Mumler and William Hope doctored prints so that faint images of departed loved ones appeared behind the sitter, was also big business at the time. The apparitions in these pictures are faint and translucent, much as they are imagined today.
This is a reference to Romans 3.25, which describes the atonement of human sin through the sacrifice of Christ, "whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins".
It is an allusion that undermines the governess's overt message: by envisioning herself as Jesus dying to atone for others' wrongdoings, she reveals a subconscious suspicion that the children are not the blemishless creatures she claims.
For the Victorian observer, the latter interpretation would have conformed to general assumptions regarding the mental stability of governesses. According to Millicent Bell, "Contemporary records indicate that in the 1840s... governesses accounted for the single largest category of female patients in English asylums for the insane" (Meaning in Henry James, p. 225).
The Sea of Azov is an extension of the Black Sea situated off the southern shores of Russia and Ukraine. It covers an area of 15,000 square miles and its waters, averaging a depth of seven metres, are the shallowest in the world. In ancient times it was known as Lake Maeotis. Although it teems with aquatic life, the Sea freezes over entirely between November and March, and in warmer seasons much of it is reduced to swamp and quagmire. Its westernmost reach, now called Sivash, was referred to as the Putrid Lake by the Ancient Greeks.
Though some critics have seen Flora's act in Freudian terms, interpreting it as a mime of the rudiments of sex, it is hard to ignore the more obvious resonances with the novella’s title. Since this has to do with the role of the author in keying up dramatic tension, Flora’s turning of the wooden screw suggests that she is somehow deliberately driving forward the plot. This is typical of James’s technique of generating paranoia by littering the text with almost subliminal insinuations that each of the characters may be manipulating events in a way that just eludes the reader's understanding. At the back of this, of course, is anxiety about exactly who has authorial control and whether they are using it to manipulate the reader.
Miss Jessel's name contains echoes of Jezebel, the Phoenician princess whose story is told in the Book of Kings. She was notoriously wicked, persecuting prophets and encouraging her people to worship the false god Baal. Her doom, foretold by the prophet Elijah, comes to fruition when Jehu overthrows the house of Ahab and commands that she be tossed from a high window and her corpse left for dogs to eat. The fact that she beautified herself with make-up and finery before her death has led to her reputation as the archetypal 'painted woman', or prostitute.