Page 54. " the outbreak in him of the little natural man "
Thomas Hobbes
Public DomainThomas Hobbes - Credit: John Michael Wright

The notion of the ‘natural man’ — that is, humanity as it was prior to the influence of society, culture or government — is a key concern within political philosophy. Though many different schools of thought exist, the governess seems to be drawing particularly on that of Thomas Hobbes. Indeed, it was Hobbes’s thinking, particularly as laid out in Leviathan (1651), that formed the foundation for concepts of the state of nature. For him, the natural man, having no knowledge of virtue, was necessarily wicked. His sole motivation was to preserve his own life and, lacking any sense of morality, he would do this through whatever means presented themselves. He was therefore in a constant state of war and his existence was doomed to be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short".


Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Public DomainJean-Jacques Rousseau - Credit: Maurice Quentin de La Tour

Hobbes’s views had many critics, the most prominent of whom was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who argued that the natural man was essentially an animal. Having no concept of good or bad, he was incapable of performing a knowingly wrongful action. Though Rousseau’s arguments held greater sway during the 19th century, it is the earlier Hobbesian model of innate evil that informs the governess's investigations into Miles’s doings.


Page 58. " I remember that the book I had in my hand was Fielding's Amelia "

Henry Fielding (1707-1754) was an English writer celebrated for his rambunctious style and pointed satire. Tom Jones (1749) is the most famous of his works, but he also wrote a large number of plays and poems.

Tom Jones on Book Drum

Amelia (1751) was the fourth and last of his novels. It tells the tale of the eponymous heroine and the various colourful trials which beset her marriage to the dashing Captain William Booth. The couple’s union, already threatened by the disapproval of Amelia’s mother, gets off to a rocky start when Booth is falsely imprisoned for his involvement in a riot. Whilst in prison he is seduced by the passionate Miss Matthews. This sets a precedent, for though he loves his wife, the attractions of libertinage and gambling prove so great a temptation that he continues to ricochet in and out of jail throughout the course of the novel. By contrast, Amelia is the soul of virtue, resisting the advances of the various men who approach her in Booth’s absence. It is her influence that eventually converts him to Christianity and secures the couple’s future happiness. The notion of a steadfast and virtuous heroine who averts evil no doubt appeals to the governess as she considers her own role at Bly.


Page 60. " the villainous back that no hunch could have more disfigured "

The governess may be thinking of Quasimodo, the title figure of Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831). This tragic novel tells of Quasimodo's unrequited love for the beautiful gypsy Esmerelda and his thwarted attempts to save her after she becomes embroiled in a murder plot. After witnessing her execution (and murdering his adoptive father for laughing at the spectacle), he goes to lie with her corpse. Finally achieving the fulfilment of his love in death, he expires beside her. Though he is ultimately a sympathetic figure, the other characters in the novel are repulsed by his physical deformity and regard him as a monster. 


Public DomainQuasimodo - Credit: Antoine Wiertz

Page 61. " as if the question were as irrelevant, or at any rate as impersonal, as Mrs Marcet or nine-times-nine "
Copperplate illustration from Jane Marcet's Conversations on Chemistry
Public DomainCopperplate illustration from Jane Marcet's Conversations on Chemistry

Jane Marcet (1769-1858) was the author of early introductory textbooks for children which covered natural philosophy, political economy, chemistry, botany and religion. They were set out as conversations between two pupils, Caroline and Emily, and their schoolmistress, Mrs Bryant, and they successfully condensed complex ideas into an easily grasped form. Many of her books have been digitized and can be accessed here. Readers will notice that, as was typical for the period, no concessions are made to the youth of the audience in terms of vocabulary or the length of the text.

The Weird Sisters
Public DomainThe Weird Sisters - Credit: Johann Heinrich Füssli






Nine-times-nine, of course, alludes to the multiplication tables which children were expected to learn by rote. However, it also evokes the witches’ speech in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The first of the weird sisters puts a curse on a sailor, declaring, “Weary se'nnights nine times nine | Shall he dwindle, peak and pine: | Though his bark cannot be lost, | Yet it shall be tempest-tost” (Act 1, Scene 3). Thus the supernatural and baneful permeate what otherwise seems to be a reference to the banalities of the schoolroom.  

Page 66. " the old tradition of the criminality of those caretakers of the young who minister to superstitions and fears "

Creative Commons AttributionSuperstition - Credit: Peter Heilmann
The practice of hiring nannies and governesses from lower social echelons brought with it the perceived danger that these less sophisticated women would impress their folk beliefs on their young charges. Such worries surfaced in 17th century literature and were still very much on employers' minds during the 19th century. The governess's reference to this issue highlights her anxiety about her class and social status: for her, a young woman from a rural parish, it is imperative that she should not be aligned with these degraded figures. Her fears also have a practical aspect, as any guardian of the young found to be raising the subject of ghosts or goblins was usually summarily dismissed.  

Page 71. " his derision, his amusement, his contempt for the breakdown of my resignation at being left alone "

The Governess, 1851
Public DomainThe Governess, 1851 - Credit: Rebecca Solomon
The governess’s fears reflect the contempt with which members of her profession were liable to be treated by their male employers. She might dream of Jane Eyre and entertain herself with fantasies in which the master of Bly honours her with an approving look, but the likelihood of this becoming a reality is vanishingly slim. Lady Eastlake writes in an 1848 essay for the Quarterly Review that the governess “is a bore to almost any gentleman, as a tabooed woman, to whom he is interdicted from granting the usual privileges of her sex, and yet who is perpetually crossing his path”. 

Page 72. " All roads lead to Rome "
The remains of the Miliarium Aureum
GNU Free Documentation LicenseThe remains of the Miliarium Aureum - Credit: MM

This phrase has a long history, with its first English usage appearing in Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe (1391). It refers specifically to the Milliarium Aureum, a monument erected by Caesar Augustus in 20 BC in the central Forum of Ancient Rome. It was from this point that all roads were considered to issue and all distances in the Roman Empire were measured relative to it. At the height of Rome’s power, 29 great military highways radiated from this central point.


Page 73. " Goody Gosling's celebrated mot "

Goody is an abbreviation of 'Goodwife' which, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was "a term of civility formerly applied to a woman, usually a married woman, in humble life".

This particular Goody, along with her mot, appears to be James's own creation.

Page 73. " like a theatre after the performance - all strewn with crumpled playbills "

The dominant form of theatre in the earlier part of the 19th century was melodrama. This relied on exaggerated plotting and stock characters to increase the emotional engagement of the spectators, and was usually accompanied by orchestral music. The most popular plays, such as Thomas Holcroft’s A Tale of Mystery (1802) and The Miller and his Men (1813) by Isaac Pocock, ran along gothic lines similar to The Turn of the Screw. The reference once more generates unease about the governess’s role: if Bly is a theatre, is she then a spectator or the director?


The playbills used to advertise upcoming shows were typically extremely wordy and included a full list of parts and actors, as well as details of costume and scenery. An exposition of the theatre’s philosophy or a letter from a well-known actor to the audience was also sometimes featured.

Page 73. " the feeling of the medium in which, that June evening out-of-doors, I had had my first sight of Quint "
A photograph purporting to be of a man with the spirit of his deceased first wife, partially materialized
Public DomainA photograph purporting to be of a man with the spirit of his deceased first wife, partially materialized - Credit: William Hope

This is evocative of late 19th century beliefs concerning the manifestation of spirits. 

Spiritualism — belief in a world populated by spirits of the dead, able to communicate with and enter into the world of the living — was a major phenomenon in the Victorian era. Mediums who claimed to be able to mediate between the two realms attracted great fascination and séances became hugely popular.

Both the medium and the spirit were thought to exude ectoplasm, a kind of energy field which enabled the dead to interact with the living. Descriptions vary wildly, with some reporting a vapour, others a tissue and others a force which could be felt but not seen. The term was first coined by Charles Richet in 1894 and so would have been known to Henry James, if not his governess.