Guests gather around the fire on Christmas eve and tell ghost stories. One, Douglas, was not so impressed as the others. He says,
"But it's not the first occurence of its charming kind that I know to have been concerned with a child. If the child gives the effect of another turn of the screw, what do you say to two children--?"
"We say, of course," somebody exclaimed, "that two children give two turns! Also that we want to hear about them."
Thus in the first page you find out why this title. The narrator claims he must send for the pages about the two children, written by his sister's governess, and dead for twenty years. He claims she was "awfully clever and nice." The story was of her first experience as a governess, and her encounter with ghosts with a strange connection to her two charges.
Debates continue to this day as to whether there were ghosts, or the woman was mad, this due to the fine craft of Henry James. I was intrigued by this question, leaning toward the crazy angle, and while reading I kept referring to a timeline of the history of psychology, trying to get inside the mind of Henry James. Long long ago, I read some of his brother's work, but never Henry til now. I imagined passionate conversations between brothers on the workings of the mind, Henry choosing explication via fiction, William the straightforward route.
I read this for my library's book group in December. (Yes, that's a long time ago, I've been busy.) Sadly, only a few people could participate just before the holiday. Still, we had a good conversation. It also happened to be the first day this library had free wi-fi available, and I brought my laptop just in case. We read the Everyman edition, which has great notes, and James' own preface to the New York edition. He referred to Bluebeard as the inspiration of the story. We realized we wanted the Bluebeard story, and we were able to find it thanks to the free wi-fi.
We had way too much to discuss in an hour. (I'm working towards a library book group that reads the classics, and in which we would have more time to get to the finer points. We will likely also have professors help facilitate and be ready with their expertise.)
I shared this image of Rafael's "The Madonna of the Goldfinch." The governess invoked it in her description of the little girl:
In spite of this timidity--which the child herself, in the oddest way in the world, had been perfectly frank and brave about, allowing it, without a sign of uncomfortable consciousness, with the deep, sweet serenity indeed of one of Rafael's holy infants, to be discussed, to be imputed to her and to determine us--I felt quite sure she would presently like me.
I was forewarned by a lover of James' work to take the ghosts seriously, as well as sexual repression. She also told me "that Oscar Wilde probably plays a greater role in the background than William James for this story. Oscar Wilde (particularly around the time of the composition of the story) was James' great rival (particularly in regard to James' failed attempt to be a theatrical success)." Also, Henry was a closeted homosexual, and the legalization of homosexuality in Italy, and the trial of Oscar Wilde no doubt influenced Henry's writing at this time.