Henry James: On Obsession

The Turn of the Screw and the Aspern Papers
by Henry James ★★★★

My edition included both short stories, though I found it almost impossible to comment and rate them as one work, since they have little in common save for the theme of obsession. In The Aspern Papers, a young American publisher arrives in Venice with the intention of acquiring some letters left behind by Jeffrey Aspern, a deceased fictional poet of whom he is a devotee. The papers belong to a Miss Bordereau, a very old eccentric American woman, who is rumoured to have been Aspern’s mistress in her youth. Since he knows the old woman jealously guards her treasure and refuses to let anyone see the letters, he takes on an assumed identity and offers the destitute woman a large sum of money to rent rooms in the large palace she inhabits, and slowly builds up a relationship with the lady’s niece, all the while displaying an absurd fixation on the papers.

The Turn of the Screw is about a young woman who is hired as a governess by a very wealthy and handsome man, who presumably seduces her. She is to look after his orphaned nephew and niece at his country home, his only requirement being that she not contact him under any circumstances. The children, Miles and Flora, seem too good to be true; they are beautiful and display angelic behaviour, though there is troubling evidence that things are not as they seem, since a letter has come from Miles’ school to communicate that he has been expelled from his school, but offers no explanation as to why. Soon, the governess becomes convinced that the children are under the spell of the malicious ghosts of two former servants of the house which she has herself seen on several occasions, and she takes it upon herself to save her charges from these evil spirits, all the while not daring confront the children with any of her suspicions.

For some reason, I ended up preferring the first story to the more famous Turn of the Screw. This could be because I found the object of obsession in the Aspern story more relatable, whereas the gothic tale involving the ghosts was obviously not so likely. A very interesting aspect of that story is that one can’t help but question the governess’ sanity and motives throughout, and wonder whether her reticence to confront the children is a sign of the times or of her own wish to keep her delusions intact, which leaves the reader all the more room for interpretation. Altogether a great introduction to Henry James, and one which has further whet my appetite for one of his more substantial novels awaiting it’s turn on my shelves, The Portrait of a Lady.

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