The Bi-Monthly Review is a twice monthly feature of whatever I happen to be reading. Highly informal. Opinions are my own. Try to enjoy.
This is the type of book that makes me want to write an essay for fun. A story that I couldn’t put down until it was over, and then immediately wanted to read again. I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to read something by Henry James, and I’m actually thankful that I was able to discover this story on my own, and not as required reading back in school.
This short novel follows the story of a young woman from simple means who takes on the role as caregiver of two young orphans in a dated country house. The naive protagonist and isolated setting immediately bring a sense of helplessness to the situation. When the unnamed narrator meets the young children, Flora and Miles, for whom she is to care, things get remarkably more strange. Upon seeing the children, she becomes entranced by their angelic beauty, remarking of Miles, “He was incredibly beautiful… everything but a sort of passion of tenderness for him was swept away by his presence” (21). She seems convinced that the children are pure and innocent, and that it is her duty to preserve these tender qualities and protect them from any force that might jeopardize their innocence. We quickly become aware of an uninvited presence on the estate, and are left to trust the narrator’s judgement as she describes the morbid guests and their intentions.
I found myself sucked into this story immediately. The back cover of my copy says it perfectly, that this is a story “…of haunting atmosphere and unbearable tension.” While I read, I found that my shoulders were tense, my neck was craned awkwardly toward the book, and that I got goosebumps every time I heard an odd noise through the window. Now, to be fair, I have to attribute at least some of this behavior to the fact that I am incredibly paranoid and easily spooked. In fact, I almost didn’t purchase the book at all because the photo on the front cover was so creepy… and when I did finally get the book, I left it in the bag until I was ready to read it. Regardless, the atmosphere that James paints in this story is quite remarkable.
As a first-time reader, I found myself hanging on to every word of the narrator. Everything she saw and sensed, I believed as though I had seen them with my own eyes. After I finished the book, I realized that I had no idea what “really” happened in the story…I only knew what the narrator believed she had seen.
Something that really stood out to me was how the narrator convinced herself that the children were pristine figures that she needed to protect–all before she had sufficient time to get to know them. As it turns out, the children are incredibly cunning–and quite frankly–downright creepy. The governess begins to question their innocence and suspects that they may be more attuned to the strange appearances at the estate than even the narrator. The more the governess tries to protect them, the more the children find cunning ways to trick their caretaker. In the small bits of dialogue that we get from the children, a lot is inferred… at least the governess thinks so.
In fact, the dialogue throughout the story is one aspect of this novel that I found particularly difficult to understand, and would like to look at more closely on a second read-through. This story is more than a century old, and attempting to decode the language and mannerisms was actually a very fun challenge.
Overall, I loved this story, and it’s absolutely encouraged me to read more works by Henry James.
Have you read this story? What did you think?