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".
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.