A ghost!? in The Innocents (1961). Keep an eye out for a recreation of this shot in The Haunting of Bly Manor
On October 9th, Netflix released The Haunting of Bly Manor, a followup to last year’s The Haunting of Hill House. Whereas Hill House was inspired by one of my favorite books by Shirley Jackson (I’ve written about my love of her here), Bly Manor is loosely based on another one of my all-time faves—The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. In the story, a governess takes a job at a remote manor house and is gradually driven mad as she tries to unravel the mystery of the governess who held the job before her (Miss Jessel), the wicked gardener (Peter Quint) who was her lover, and if the ghosts of these two people are having a corrupting influence on the children under her care, Flora and Miles. (Mild spoilers ahead for The Haunting of Bly Manor and The Turn of the Screw in general, but I have tried not to ruin the ending of any of them. As a result, my analysis is rather surface level, I suppose).
James’s 1898 novella takes place in an interesting context for the history of childhood, which lends itself to the ambiguity at the heart of the story: has the governess gone mad, are the ghosts real, are the children messing with her, or is it some combination of the above?
A Very Brief Overview of The Innocent Ideal of the Child
In James’s time, views of childhood had shifted significantly and childhood became increasingly commodified. For centuries, children were viewed as miniature adults who were not entitled to additional protection from the state. In contrast to today’s view of children as innocents, some Evangelicals during the 19th century viewed children as inherently immoral, in need of strict discipline to save their souls. The very notion of children as a protected category of person emerged during the 19th Century as Victorian ideals about domesticity took hold. In the latter half of the century, social reforms began protecting children’s rights to education, safety, and leisure. Child labor laws, juvenile justice reforms, and other such legislation went into effect, codifying the growing cultural view that childhood was separate from adulthood and was a time meant to be spent in innocent play. With the rise of this view of childhood, children also became increasingly targeted by capitalism. In tandem with the growth of the mass-production of consumer products, more and more items hit the market aimed at children. And, children were also increasingly consumed by adults as the subjects of entertainment. (This is a very brief overview, for more depth, see the works in the suggested reading below).
And yet, there was a dark side to the codification of childhood innocence. In Child-Loving: The Erotic Child and Victorian Culture, James Kincaid argues that by emphasizing childhood and the innocence of children so much, Victorian culture drew attention to the child in a way that was pedophilic. That argument seems pretty extreme, but consider one of the most famous Victorian children—Alice of Alice in Wonderland. Alice is based on a real little girl who author Lewis Carroll had what seems like a very inappropriate interest in. The argument follows that as we continue to idealize childhood, we open children up to exploitation because we have made them perversely desirable. Conversely, it can be argued that in solidifying this idea that children are innocent (as in unknowing, pure, and good) we oversimplify what real children can be, forgetting that children can also be mean, manipulative, and other not-so-sweet aspects of human people. If you’ve ever had a child treat you in a less than angelic fashion, you know that children can be naughty in a way that does not line up with this notion that they are an innocent ideal.
Childhood Innocence in The Turn of the Screw
In The Turn of the Screw, Henry James plays with this tension between the knowingness of children and their innocence. The governess struggles to understand if Miles is malicious in his treatment of her or if he is just being a young boy (or, perhaps, these two are not mutually exclusive). Similarly, at first, she views Flora as a beautiful angel, who is innocent of any bad behavior and is in need of protection from the dangers at Bly. As her mental state deteriorates, the governess starts to view the children’s good behavior as a manipulative charade, with Flora under the influence of her brother or the ghosts. As she starts to see Flora’s role in the mystery, she asserts that when she behaves badly, Flora is not even a child:
“She’s not alone, and at such times she’s not a child; she’s an old, old woman.”
In doing so, the governess separates Flora’s childhood—her innocence—from the bad behavior. She compartmentalizes them irrationally.
In Miles’s case, the governess’s waffling perspective on innocence is especially pronounced. When Miles is sent home from school, she finds him as beautiful and charming as she does Flora, and concludes, essentially, that he was too pure for school, anyway:
“My conclusion bloomed there with the real rose-flush of his innocence: he was only too fine and fair for the little horrid unclean school-world, and he had paid a price for it.”
As Miles continues to alternately flirt with and frighten the governess, she starts to suspect that he is not the angel she believed him to be. But, she blames his badness on the influence of Peter Quint. Miles even tells the governess he can be bad—he warns her to imagine what he could really do if he wanted—but she has a hard time imagining that he could be bad because he is a beautiful child. In the end, she turns the situation into a zero-sum premise in which either the ghosts are real and corrupting the children or the children are innocent and she is mad:
“It was for the instant confounding and bottomless, for if he were innocent what then on earth was I?”
The ambiguity of James’s story insinuates that drawing these stark boundaries around the children’s behavior does not make much sense.
Film Adaptations of The Turn of the Screw
Because of the juicy ambiguity of James’s novella, its Gothic setting, and the relative simplicity of its cast and plot, The Turn of the Screw is ripe for cinematic adaptation. Many different films and miniseries have been made based on the original story and I’d like to look at a few versions and if/how they preserve James’s take on the children.