The Turn of the Screw has ghosts. The first one appears not long after the new governess has settled in and begun teaching the beautiful and perfect orphans.
She is taking an afternoon stroll. Nature is vibrating. The governess—who has been hired by the children's uncle after their parents' death—sees a strange man on a tower. The man looks straight at her. She immediately senses that something is not right about him.
Later, the governess is told by the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, that the man she saw on the tower was Peter Quint. But Quint is not alive. He used to be one of the estate's servants until he slipped, fell, and died in a drunken stupor. The governess saw his ghost. He has returned from the other side. Grose is sure of it.
But the governess wonders what is wrong with Quint. Why did he look so evil to her?
"Quint," explains Grose, in one of the greatest passages in all of English literature, "was too free."
The governess asks: "Too free with my boy?" She is referring to Miles, one of the two children she has been hired to teach and protect. The other child is Flora, Miles's sister.
"Too free with everyone!" Grose says.
Can you feel those words? Do you see what she is saying? Not everyone picks up on it when they get to this passage in the novella, which was published in 1898 by Henry James, the American novelist (1843–1916) known for extremely long sentences with clauses nestled into clauses. Glaze over for a moment and you miss the core of the story. Basically, Quint, the ghost, used to be the brute cock of the estate. He was fucking the former governess, who is also dead (she killed herself after he died), and he was raping the children, particularly the boy, Miles.
Henry James, being a Victorian, only suggests this crime, of course—the rape of the rich children. It's there, but it's concealed in James's evocative and convoluted language.
In 1954, the English composer Benjamin Britten (1913–1976) premiered his opera based on the novella. Its music is darkly gorgeous, jolting, manic at times, and often outright scary. In key sequences involving the children, the atonal sounds float like a ghost in a room of mirrors. Anyone familiar with Portishead's tune "Cowboys" will already have a good sense of how this echo-stark opera sounds. The libretto, by Myfanwy Piper (1911–1997), goes out of its way to clarify the situation with the rapist ghost.
In the book, the uncle who hires the governess has one main condition for her taking the job. She must "never trouble him—but never, never: neither appeal nor complain nor write about anything; only meet all questions herself, receive all moneys from his solicitor, take the whole thing over, and let him alone." The fact that the governess agrees to this obviously extreme condition is, in my opinion, the key to the whole work. The uncle doesn't want to hear about the children, the ghost, or what happened. He knows.
Importantly, the opera includes these key passages that I've already quoted: the "never trouble me" instructions from the uncle, and (the darkest line ever) "too free with everyone." Later, the governess sees her dead predecessor at the edge of a lake and realizes this evil spirit is attracted to the girl, Flora. These ghosts do not know how to stop. What they abused in life, they want to abuse again in death. It becomes the governess's mission to protect the orphans from the spectral sex predators.
The Victorian games of suggestion and repression, on evidence throughout the book, were long dead by the time the opera was composed. In the opera, it is clear that Miles and Flora were not only abused but have become possessed by this abuse. The opera even contains a scene of Miles talking to his abuser, the ghost Quint—a scene that doesn't exist in the book.
Curiously, perhaps tellingly, when the book was first published, not everyone agreed that the children had been the victims of sexual abuse. In a 1934 essay titled "The Ambiguity of Henry James," the American critic Edmund Wilson (1895–1972) initiated a controversy that will never die: He said there were no ghosts at the estate. Wilson argued that the story's narrator, the governess, was totally batty. He argued that the young woman badly needed sex. He argued that she saw it everywhere it actually wasn't: the servants, the living, the dead, the beautiful kids, their classroom, the windows, the edge of the lake. According to this reading, the story is literally about needing a screw.
But other readers—including me—believe the governess. She actually saw what she saw: visions of an evil that had no bottom. Her mind is sound, and her attempt to save Flora and Miles is nothing but noble. This is a ghost story and not a case study on a mental disorder.
Because one must take a side in this controversy, any adaptation (film, play, opera) based on the novella must likewise take a side. And what side is Britten's opera on? My side. The real side. The only one that makes sense in the end. The ghosts exist. The governess is right. Some really bad shit went down at this estate—sex crimes. Kids and possibly the first and now dead governess were raped.
Considering this story in the light of #MeToo, audiences will agree with the opera that the crimes are as real as the ghosts. Sexual predators haunt their victims for the rest of their lives. Audiences will also see something else that the original readers of the book may have missed, which is that the London uncle is a big part of the problem. His willful ignorance ("Never trouble me") is itself a form of evil. He is trying to silence a woman who wants to expose the crimes that have occurred.