Page 77. " Miles's whole title to independence, the rights of his sex and situation "

From feudal times until 1925, the rule of primogeniture ensured that a deceased parent’s wealth, estate and title were passed on to the eldest male child, even in the absence of a will. This was intended to ensure that such assets remained undivided and in the possession of the family. Other male children would receive financial support from the heir, but girls were expected to rely on the dowries they received upon marriage.

Though Miles is currently under the legal guardianship of his uncle, he will (or rather, would) come into possession of his parents' assets and possibly Bly as well upon turning 21, the age of inheritance. The governess, therefore, perceives him to some degree as her incipient master.

Page 80. " Yet it appeared to me that we were all, at Bly, sufficiently sacrificed to make that venial "
Table of the Mortal Sins (detail) (c.1475-80)
Public DomainTable of the Mortal Sins (detail) (c.1475-80) - Credit: Hieronymus Bosch

Venial sins, defined in opposition to mortal sins, are those sins which are considered to be relatively minor and which can be atoned for through temporal punishment, rather than separating the sinner from God and occasioning his or her eternal damnation. There is not a specific list of venial sins; rather, they are defined as those which an individual commits without full consent or knowledge, or which do not fall within the criteria of grave matter. The governess’s remarks suggest that she, as well as the children and Mrs Grose, has already transgressed so far against the law of God as to consign her soul to hell.

The Catholic Encyclopedia’s entry on sin, its causes and effects, and how it is categorized, can be found here.

Page 84. " with the place all swept and garnished "

This is a reference to Matthew 12.44, in which Jesus likens the soul of a man from whom evil has been expelled to a house "empty, swept and garnished". This seems deeply inapposite given that evil continues to loom large at Bly.

The passage marks one of several places in which James covertly hints that Mrs Grose may be complicit with these malign spirits. It is she who presents "the large clean image of the 'put away' – of drawers closed and locked", a fact which suggests that the exterior of simple-minded goodness which the governess invariably reports may conceal a scheming consciousness, given to secrecy and underhand machinations.  

Page 85. " Of the lost. Of the damned "

The torments meted out to the damned principally concern the loss of beatific vision and the irrevocable separation of the soul from all of God’s gifts, particularly happiness and faith. This spiritual suffering is mirrored by visceral agonies. According to the Book of Revelation, these unfortunate souls “shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out without mixture into the cup of his indignation; and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb: And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night” (Revelation 14.10-11).


Page 87. " You're like a troop of cavalry "
Cavalry detail in the Bayeux Tapestry
GNU Free Documentation LicenseCavalry detail in the Bayeux Tapestry - Credit: Dan Koehl

Cavalry, or soldiers fighting on horseback, constitute the third oldest arm of the military. Miles’s choice of simile underscores the idea of the governess entering into deadly combat.

Perhaps it is also significant that his own name means soldier in Latin, suggesting it is he who is pitted against her in battle. 

Page 88. " as appealing as some wistful patient in a children's hospital "
A London Jo - the end of the day
Public DomainA London Jo - the end of the day - Credit: Augustus Edwin Mulready

This imagery draws upon what was, in the 19th century, a new concern for the plight of disadvantaged or sickly children. In contrast to earlier periods, childhood was now romanticized as a special period in life that should be enjoyed for its own sake, and those who were incapable of doing so became the focus of a great deal of philanthropic activity. Art of the period, particularly that of Augustus Edwin Mulready, attests to the vast reserves of sentimental pity the Victorian heart held for suffering youngsters. It was in this context that paediatrics emerged as a specialized branch of medicine.

The first dedicated children's hospital, Hôpital des Enfants Malades (now Necker-Enfants Malades), opened in Paris in 1802. However the governess would not have had any English establishment upon which to base her imaginings as Great Ormond Street, the first British children's hospital, was not founded until 1852.


Hôpital Necker-Enfants Malades
Public DomainHôpital Necker-Enfants Malades - Credit: Luca Borghi
Page 88. " the sister of charity who might have helped to cure him "

Sisters of Charity form part of many religious communities. The first of these, the Daughters of Charity, was founded in 1633 by Vincent de Paul and dedicated itself to the care of the sick poor. Since then, many similar organizations have sprung up across the world. These all-female associations take on a broad range of humanitarian causes, focusing especially on the poor and vulnerable. They are involved in the founding of hospitals, orphanages and educational institutions, and they engage in a good deal of outreach work.

Page 92. " David playing to Saul could never have shown a finer sense of the occasion "
David and Saul
Public DomainDavid and Saul - Credit: Julius Kronberg

This is a reference to an incident recounted in 1 Samuel 16.14-23 in which Saul, the first king of Israel, is beset by an evil spirit sent by God. His servants hatch a plan to cure him by hunting down the most talented harp player in the kingdom. They eventually light upon David, a shepherd of the tribe of Judah. He is duly summoned before Saul and when he plays the evil spirit departs.

This reference, which sees the governess play the part of the possessed and Miles of the exorcist, is one of many hints that it is she, and not her young charges, who has fallen foul of diabolical influences.

David before Saul
Public DomainDavid before Saul - Credit: Wenzel Hollar
Page 92. " The true knights we love to read about never push an advantage too far "

The adventures of knights featured prominently in Medieval and Renaissance literature, with Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (a.1471) being the best-known example. This epic work conjures up a world in which honour and valour provide the main support for social cohesion and personal identity. The principles to which the governess refers are typified by Merlin's warning to King Arthur not to do battle with Sir Egglame: “for the knight is weary of fighting and chasing, so that ye shall have no worship to have ado with him” (Bk. I, ch. xxiii).


Page 92. " I started up with a strange sense of having literally slept at my post "

Whilst the tune with which David cheers Saul is a means of casting out demons, Miles's playing has more in common with that of the countless figures in myth and folklore who use music to bewitch others. In Greek mythology, for instance, the sirens' sweet singing so enchants all who hear it that they willingly allow themselves to be drawn to their deaths. In the old legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, meanwhile, the piper musically enchants all the children of the town, luring them into a mountain which magically opens up to engulf them. 

You can read Book XII of Homer's Odyssey, which tells of the sirens, here, and Robert Browning's poetic rendering of the Pied Piper of Hamelin here.

The Odyssey on Book Drum


Ulysses and the Sirens (1891)
Public DomainUlysses and the Sirens (1891) - Credit: John William Waterhouse
Page 94. " We went straight to the lake, as it was called at Bly "
Ornamental lake leading up to a summer house at Bodnant Gardens
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeOrnamental lake leading up to a summer house at Bodnant Gardens - Credit: Joe Dunckley

Ornamental lakes were hugely popular features in grand Victorian gardens. At the beginning of the period, they tended to be highly formal, drawing on the symmetrical, balustraded Italian style. As the impact of industrialization deepened, however, there developed a desire for more natural gardens, a trend pioneered by the Irish gardener and writer William Robinson. From the description, it seems that whoever laid out the lake at Bly was ahead of the times in favouring a comparatively ‘wild’ aesthetic. 

British readers can find near-by Victorian gardens run by the National Trust here.


Bodnant Gardens, begun in 1875, feature several superb ornamental lakes
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeBodnant Gardens, begun in 1875, feature several superb ornamental lakes - Credit: Colin Whiteley


Page 97. " The next thing she did, however, was to stoop straight down and pluck - quite as if it were all she was there for - a big, ugly spray of withered fern "
Offering to Flora (1627)
Public DomainOffering to Flora (1627) - Credit: Juan van der Hamen

Flora’s plucking of this dying plant is an act which subverts her own name. In Roman mythology, Flora is the goddess of flowers and springtime, a figure of gaiety and merriment. Paintings invariably depict her clasping luxuriant blooms or reclining in verdant bowers. The image of her young namesake picking a withered fern suggests a corruption from an ideal state of nature which corroborates the governess’s sinister suspicions. 


Henry James had a weakness for bestowing floral names upon his female characters. An early novella, Daisy Miller (1879), tells of the courtship of the eponymous heroine, whilst Pansy Osmond features in The Portrait of a Lady (1881).   

Dying fern leaf
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeDying fern leaf - Credit: Angela



Page 98. " the quick, smitten glare with which the child's face now received it fairly likened my breach of the silence to the smash of a pane of glass "
The Lady of Shalott
Public DomainThe Lady of Shalott - Credit: William Holman Hunt

This is one of many echoes of Tennyson's poem The Lady of Shalott (1833). The famous ballad tells of a beautiful damsel cloistered on the island of Shalott, where "she weaves by night and day / A magic web with colours gay", an activity paralleled by the governess's habitual knitting and sewing. The Lady sees the world only through a magic mirror; if she should ever look away from it and into the real world it reflects, an ancient curse will be unleashed upon her. In essence, Tennyson is describing the experience of the artist/writer, whose obligation to create a shadowy duplicate of the real world prevents her from directly experiencing it. The Lady violates these proscriptions when she looks out of the window at Sir Lancelot. 


Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack'd from side to side;
"The curse is come upon me," cried
The Lady of Shalott.


Not only does the governess in The Turn of the Screw share much of the Lady's role, at this moment she also partakes of something of her fate. If, as the reader by now strongly suspects, the governess has been weaving a narrative from the stuff of fantasy, we now see her fulfilling a desire to enter into the real world. When she finally speaks the name of Miss Jessel aloud, the collision of the imaginary and the objective results in a crisis of destruction. Just as the cracking of the glass and the vanishing of the weaving represent the annihilation of the Lady's creative constructions in Tennyson's poem, the shattering effect of the governess's words signals the collapse of the fiction which she has built up around the children, perhaps with their collusion.


Alfred Tennyson
Public DomainAlfred Tennyson - Credit: Julia Margaret Cameron