A Collection of Letters to Mr. Henry James and Mrs. Edith Wharton

Clare Braun

A collection of letters to Mr. Henry James and Mrs. Edith Wharton investigating the uncanny manifestations of repressed and spoken words in their respective novellas, The Turn of the Screw and The Touchstone.

October 30, 2013

Dear Mrs. Edith Wharton,

I have written before, though never to you directly, of your particular ability to frame your characters’ agency as a direct product of their facility (or lack of facility) with language.   Writing of your novel Summer, I noted the ways in which “Royall suppresses [Charity’s] voice by telling her what he wants, literally and metaphorically subjecting her wants and needs to his” (Braun 14).  The main concern for my purposes now is that word “literally”; Royall’s words become literalized into the reality of the novel.  What he says should happen does happen.  Of course, in Summer you investigate the strange incestuous relationship between father and (adoptive) daughter, and in The Touchstone—the subject of my letter to you now—you explore a different (and yet perhaps eerily similar) relationship between man and woman: the relationship of romance, of lovers.

My parenthetical note above in fact takes me by surprise, for my initial experience of The Touchstone was marked not by eeriness or uncannyness, but by righteous feminist indignation.  Glennard, the rather prospectless young man who serves as your protagonist, so clearly denies voice to the women in his life, which within the world of the novella has real consequences for those women, just as Royall’s words have literalized consequences for Charity in Summer.  I shall write you another letter soon to draw attention to the places in The Touchstone where I see this manifesting and literalizing of words happening.  And yet, there is something different, something I increasingly find to be evocative of the uncanny, about the ways in which words are manifested in The Touchstone.  The difference has to do, it seems to me, with the presence and absence of the women’s bodies.  Somehow when you bring bodies into the mix—some markedly absent and some quite present—you open up possibilities for haunting.  And then too there is the fact that in The Touchstone words and voices are not only manifested, but repressed, and then those repressed voices have a way of returning and manifesting anyway, don’t they, and in such unexpected ways!  The bodiless voice echoes back into an almost corporeal threat to Glennard, while the voiceless body, once speaking, turns out to be no less terrifying.

I am unsure as to whether in writing The Touchstone you meant to write a novella distinctly within the genre of the uncanny, and my great respect for you makes me hesitate to so boldly interpret your own work to you directly. However, I think perhaps that by the end of my correspondence I will have put to you in more or less convincing terms that your novella in fact embodies (and I use this term, of course, deliberately) a very definite form of the uncanny in which the repression of women causes them—their bodies, their voices, their materialness, their souls—to return in unfamiliar ways, ways that are, at least to the repressor, frightening, haunting, and uncanny.  I am concurrently engaged in a correspondence with your friend and colleague Mr. Henry James, the fruits of which I will no doubt also share with you, as you may find them edifying.

Yours most sincerely,

C—- B—-

 

October 30, 2013

Dear Mr. James,

While I confess I often have some difficulty in reading your esteemed works—the fault being, quite doubtlessly, entirely my own—I must heartily express my enjoyment of your quite terrifying little novel, The Turn of the Screw.  In his introduction to a 1993 publication of your novella, Mr. Allan Lloyd Smith quotes you—accurately, I hope—as wanting this story to be “a piece of ingenuity pure and simple, of cold artistic calculation, an amusette to catch those not easily caught (the fun of the capture of the merely witless being ever but small), the jaded, the disillusioned, the fastidious” (xxvii).  Well Mr. James, I hope you have had your “fun,” because you have certainly “caught” me.

And yet to puzzle out how you have caught me!  This is a subject, I fear, that would fill up volumes—and has, judging by the amount of criticism your work has garnered—and all without reaching any satisfying conclusions.  Although I take this to have been a good part of your intention.

Nevertheless, I am compelled to write to you about the ways in which your governess’s words become manifested into the reality of her world, as I think this blurring of the boundaries between word and deed is one of the significant sources of your novella’s uncanny effect.  (You may be also interested to know that I recently wrote to your sometimes protégé, Mrs. Wharton, of a similar phenomenon in her writings, although I have yet to decide if she uses this materializing or literalizing of word to similar uncanny effect as you.  You, I am quite sure, would have an opinion to offer on this subject, but I am not hopeful of this letter’s receiving an answer; one of the many reasons—though not the chief one—for this being the great heights of your own literary star in relation to my own lowly one.)

So if I may put my point to you directly, the things your governess says become true.  And it happens, I venture to say, in that order; she does not say things that are already true.  Her act of saying them makes them true.  Take, for instance, how the governess “[makes] up [her] mind” that Flora, the younger of her frightening little charges, “has gone out” (92).  The governess knows this with no right to such certainty, just as she knows and “[declares]” that Flora is “with her,” the ghost of the late Ms. Jessel, our governess’s frightening predecessor (92).  And then your governess has “an intimate conviction that, wherever Flora might be, she was not near home,” and then she knows Flora is by the lake, and then she knows Flora has taken the boat, and she possesses these knowledges without any apparent right to their certainty (94, 96).  If you gave us only the power of her conviction it would be easy enough for us to dismiss her knowledge as the sureties of an insane woman.  But here is where you catch us: her convictions do have power because they come true.  The governess and the housekeeper—and the witness born by the presence of the housekeeper forces us to believe the truth of what the governess sees—do find “the boat to be where [the governess] had supposed it,” and Flora and Ms. Jessel also turn out to be right where the governess conjured them (96).  And the way you phrase this, Mr. James!  You don’t write, “where I had supposed [the boat] to be.”  You write simply, “where I had supposed it,” the syntax of which seems to suggest that she has supposed it into being

The governess’s words come true time and time again.  She declares that Flora is “not a child: she’s an old, old woman,” and the housekeeper again bears witness to the manifesting of this pronouncement, saying only a few pages later that Flora is now “every inch of her, quite old” (95, 103).  The examples I could give you of this manifestation of the governess’s words are too numerous for the parameters of this epistle; I am confident you are aware of all of them.  I bring these to your attention here only as proof of your novella’s ambiguity.  We cannot confirm that our narrator sees ghosts.  And yet we cannot deny that the things she says come true.  This tension, even for your most “jaded,” “disillusioned,” and “fastidious” readers, is unresolvable.

I imagine I consider myself a fairly rational person.  But as I sat beginning this letter to you, just minutes ago, a car alarm began to sound—much as I know it is an anachronism to refer of such things in a letter to you.  “Shhh!” I hushed it, not expecting, of course, for anything to come of my exclamation; I wished merely to express my annoyance with the sound and the distraction it represented.  And yet the alarm was silenced, no sooner than the sound had left my mouth.

With all sincerity,

C—- B—-

 

October 31, 2013

Dear Mrs. Wharton,

I promised you a letter describing how your Glennard denies voice to the women in his life—Margaret, the lover he spurns, and Alexa, the lover he marries—through the materializing of his words, or rather, as I will explain, the materializing of his gaze; I hope you find this note satisfactory to that effect.  I realize I should more accurately have said that Glennard denies his women both voice and body. (Do you chafe if I call them “his”? I do, but I’m not sure if you will; I term them thusly anyway because so much of his trouble seems to come back to whether or not these women are possessable or are instead real and complete people—and you do, my dear Mrs. Wharton, write your women with such sympathy that even when your narratives deny them roundness or fullness of character, I always know that their lack is precisely because they have been denied this existence, by their male observers or the masculine narratives that define their circumstances.  But I have let my political and philosophical leanings get away from me here; I will return more closely to your own work presently.)

Glennard, I venture to say, denies Alexa a voice and denies Margaret a body.  You place us largely within his subjectivity within your narration, so it is through his eyes that we see Alexa having “the kind of beauty that comes of a happy accord of face and spirit” (11-12).  It seems, though, that Glennard assumes her beauty comes from an “accord of face and spirit” because he only truly experiences her beauty—her body, her physical, material being—never her spirit.

And how he persists in seeing her materially!  He experiences even her words as framed in physical terms: her gestures “italicize her words” or her “words [resolve] themselves into a smile” (25, 26).  Then too the obstacle that prevents their engagement is one of materiality, for even though Alexa tries “not to cost much,” she does, because “[w]omen are such a burden” (25).  Here Glennard perceives of Alexa in terms of the material both in the financial sense (how much she “costs”) and in the physical sense (she is a “burden,” a physical weight that Glennard must bear); although to be fair these are her own words, capitulating to his perception by subsuming the import of her voice beneath the weight of her body.

All this while he does not understand her “spirit;” he will not or cannot see beyond her “inscrutable composure,” and so he assumes it resembles her physical being (24).  Of course eventually he realizes the fact of his perception, the fact that he has shaped his wife’s being through his gaze.  When he and Alexa have been married for some time, you tell us that “Glennard, of late, was beginning to feel the surface [of Alexa’s countenance] which, a year ago, he had taken for a sheet of clear glass, might, after all, be a mirror reflecting merely his own conception of what lay behind it” (43).  Even here you have begun the work of the uncanny, Mrs. Wharton, as he recognizes that he has been living all this time not with his wife, but with his own perception and construction of her.  In a strange way, then, he has been living with his own double, his own image, and even if that image is of his wife, it comes from within himself in a way that must, to him, feel both naturally familiar and unsettlingly unfamiliar.

But I return to Glennard’s denial of Alexa’s voice.  I am conflating, I realize, Alexa’s voice with her spirit—that which lies beneath the “reflecting” “surface” of the “mirror”—but I do so because as I think you will agree, our voices are the ways in which our interiors are manifested and expressed in the material world.  And Alexa’s voice is so very absent in the beginning of Glennard’s relationship with her, when he has yet to acknowledge the depths which lie below her material “surface.”  When she does speak, Alexa speaks “indifferently” and “compliantly” with “her unruffled smile” (42, 43, 52).  She “[asks]” and “[suggests]” while the other women of their acquaintance “[retort]” and “[declare],” while they “scornfully [correct]” and “[cry]” with “triumphant [airs] of penetration” (47, 48, 53, 54, 55).  In the context of the strength and loudness of these other women’s voices, Alexa’s voice rings especially silent.

You may be interested, Mrs. Wharton, in the observations I recently communicated in my last letter to your compatriot, Mr. James.  Indeed I can’t seem to get away from these observations of characters’ words becoming manifest, as you will recall I wrote of this phenomenon’s presence in your own Summer in my letter dated October 30th.  My point to Mr. James was that his governess in The Turn of the Screw makes things happen through her .imagination and what she says.  Your Glennard, as I have intimated, makes things happen by his perception and what he sees.  His gaze is what becomes literalized in the world of the text.  I think it is no coincidence that most of the dialogue tags I referred to in the preceding paragraph occur in a conversation that directly follows this description of Glennard’s perception: “His wife’s gift of silence seemed to him the most vivid commentary on the clumsiness of speech as a means of intercourse, and his eyes had turned to her in renewed appreciation of this finer faculty” (52).  In short, Glennard makes his wife’s silence by perceiving it—by “[turning]” “his eyes” on her—just as James’s governess finds the boat by “supposing it.”  You have already shown us, of course, that Glennard sees only his wife’s surface; he has been living for a year not with her but with the reflection “of his own conception” of her (43).  And he continues to live with this reflection by seeing her as silent, and in this perception, he makes her actually be so.  Under his gaze, she remains the quiet, “[compliant]” wife, whose “[asking]” and “[suggesting]” are so meek that they are essentially silent (43, 47, 48).

I do have one final proof of Glennard’s repression of his wife’s spirit.  In chapter five, the first chapter detailing their marriage, Glennard does not refer to Alexa by name even once.  She is only “his wife.”  The one time he ascribes to her a proper name in this chapter he refers to “Miss Trent,” Alexa’s maiden name, a name that does not represent who she is now.  I do not think such a pattern can be oversight on your part, Mrs. Wharton; it must be deliberate.  And names are entwined with identity, so I can only read this omission as further evidence of Glennard’s refusal to see Alexa below her surface, as anything—anyone?—beyond what she is as his wife.  He defines her—he crafts her—in terms of how she relates to him, confining her further to the “mirror reflecting merely his own conception” (43).

This missive grows too long, but I will write again soon, for I have not even gotten near our disembodied Margaret Aubyn yet!

Sincerely,

C—- B—-

 

 

November 1, 2013

Dear Mr. James,

It has come to me, since my last letter, that the governess does not have free rein to just speak things into being, does she?  In the final chapter her ability to narrate her story begins to crumble, as she can articulate “but grossly what took place within me” (117).  And she speaks of “everything” and “something” and gets her dear little Miles to promise to “tell [her] anything,” although of course when he does he says only “I said things,” and just everywhere, Mr. James, not just at the end, your writing is littered with an almost overpowering prevalence of pronouns, so many “it’s” and “she’s” and “he’s” that really everything that has been said is only “tacit” (119, 79, 116, 119, 101).  You give an overwhelming impression that despite everything the governess says—despite the fact that she has gone so far as to write the confessional document your novella purports to contain—there remains through it all something huge and vast that is unsayable.

This impression is cemented in the abruptness of your novella’s ending, when the governess refuses to say explicitly “what it truly was that [she] held” (122).  I wonder if in part her reluctance stems from some awareness—subconscious or otherwise—of the manifesting power of her own words; she does not want to say “Miles’s lifeless body” because she does not want his death to be true.  But I would suggest that her silence at the end is equally indicative of the forces that have actually kept this powerfully-speaking woman quite silent for much of the novella, even though most of the narrative is supposedly written in her own hand!

Your governess is often frank about the difficulty of speaking her mind; “speaking to” the children, she says, “proved quite as much as ever an effort beyond my strength” (70).  Tracing her narrative even farther back, it is clear that she has been operating from the beginning under a silencing force: her employer, who demands that she “neither appeal nor complain nor write about anything” (9).  And of course, Mr. James, you have not put this most unambiguous explanation—especially unambiguous within the context of all the “tacitness” that follows—even within the governess’s words.  This explanation occurs in your novella’s opening frame, another man’s summarizing of another man’s (Douglas’s) summarizing of the governess’s experience.

Oh, how you have called her apparent power of speech into so much question!  Perhaps the governess, in actuality, is as silenced as Alexa!  It seems that even with all she says and makes by her saying—even with her writing of this confessional document in the first place—the governess’s voice is still repressed.  Is it just her master’s edict of silence—his command to not “write about anything”—that represses her voice?  Is this why, even as she writes, she says so much of “something’s” and “everything’s” that she often says nothing?  Or is it her own shame, her shame in transgressing accepted notions of class?  She does “redden to the roots of [her] hair” when she must awkwardly ask “a gentleman [Miles] such a question,” a question impugning his honor, a question she, as his social inferior, has no right to ask (118, 119).  It was certainly a similar sensibility of appropriate class behavior that kept the housekeeper quiet before the governess’s arrival; Peter Quint, as the housekeeper’s social superior, “had everything to say,” while the poor housekeeper could say nothing without shame, even of Quint’s shameful behavior (38).  To mention nothing of the common baseness to which the governess would have to stoop were she to even broach the subject of the supernatural.  Is this the reason also for the governess’s strange moments of “tacit” silence?

Then, too, there is the way in which Miles seems to give the power to speak to the governess.  “Oh, you know, you know!” he says, and “Oh, you know what a boy wants” (86, 87).  And so she increasingly takes on that power of knowing, and the corresponding power of speaking that knowledge into being.  If Miles bestows that power of knowing and speaking, does he then also curtail its limits, either by virtue of his own higher social status or by mimicking in some small doppelgangered way the authority of his uncle?  What is it, finally, that represses the governess’s voice, even as she seems to cause so much powerful ruin with what she does say?

I can only say that the conclusions I drew in my earlier letter to you, it now seems, are too neat and tidy to be complete.

Sincerely,

C—- B—-

 

 

November 1, 2013

Dear Edith,

Oh, we must speak about Margaret’s lack of body!  For Glennard is drawn to Margaret’s spirit and repulsed by her physicality just as he is drawn to Alexa’s beauty and confounded by her spirit.  His relationship with Margaret once meant, in some ways, a great deal to him: “it served to carry him lightly and easily over what is often a period of insecurity and discouragement” (15).  How easily he could have thought that “she carried him lightly and easily,” but he doesn’t think of Margaret as a “her,” precisely; she is a spirit, a bodiless “it.”  Poor Margaret, while she lived, was not pretty enough for Glennard, and their relationship “missed being love by just such a hair-breadth deflection from the line of beauty as had determined the curve of [her] lips” (15-16).  Indeed, “it was becoming more and more Glennard’s opinion that brains, in a woman, should be merely the obverse of beauty” (17).  What a strange word you have chosen here, Edith!  What precisely do you mean by “obverse”?  I confess I had to look this word up, and the word has contradictory definitions!  Did you mean “opposite”?  “Facing the observer”? “Corresponding to something else as its counterpart”?  The side “intended to be seen“?  As best I can tell, all of these definitions of the word were in use when you wrote it; I can only assume your intention was to convey Glennard’s ambivalence, his inability to reconcile a woman’s “brains” with her (material) “beauty,” for he seems to believe both that women’s brains should be the opposite or counterpart to their beauty and that their beauty should be the manifestation of their brains, the aspect “intended to be seen.”  Anyhow, now that Margaret is dead Glennard does his best to avoid her materiality: he avoids “anything she had touched,” because even the sight of a reminder of her physical presence—the things she “touched”—recalls to him “the strange dual impulse that drew him to her voice but drove him from her hand” (7).

And Margaret’s voice was powerful, wasn’t it?  And it continues to be even after her body is gone!  Manifested still in Glennard’s world through her letters, her words “[spring] out at him,” “[leap] out at him as from an ambush,” and make him feel “as helplessly vulnerable as a man who is lunged at in the dark” (58, 44, 56).  He is almost literally under attack from her words, almost as if the assault of Margaret’s voice (made material in her letters and made further material when Glennard sells them and converts them into his own material gain,) is as real as the events James’s governess speaks into being.

And do you know—of course you know—that this material manifestation of Margaret’s voice directly animates Alexa’s voice?  For after Alexa reads Margaret’s letters, her voice becomes dynamic in much the same way, and in much the same way Glennard feels it as a threatening assault: “like a panting foe; and her answer was a flash that showed the hand on the trigger” (78).  In some effort to preserve Alexa as “the smiling abstraction of a pretty woman,” a woman made “abstract” by her lack of depth, by her material superficiality, Glennard tries to keep her material by focusing on “the necessity of new gowns” (74).  But, oh, how he is haunted, not just by his dead lover, but by his wife, because “[i]t was the fate of Margaret Aubyn’s memory to serve as a foil to Miss Trent’s presence,” an uncanny doubling that he of course brings on himself through his treatment of Margaret as intangible “memory” and Alexa as mere physical “presence” (24).  The body he repressed in lieu of its voice (Margaret’s,) materializes to vivify the voice he repressed in lieu of its body (Alexa’s), and he is haunted by both!

All my best,

C—- B—-

 

 

November 2, 2013

Dearest Edith,

It all becomes so terrifying for Glennard now, doesn’t it?  In his rush to escape “the endless labyrinth of his material difficulties,” he attempts to transform Margaret’s voice into tangible material profit (31).  Margaret’s voice does not merely materialize; he in fact materializes it.  And yet that “material benefit [is] overshadowed,” along with the horror that his own action caused his haunting to materialize, because he realizes that what he sold, what was made into “tangible” profit was not Margaret’s voice, but “his self-esteem” (75).  His self-esteem!  It is his own self that he has sold!

We think—oh, you have made us think, along with your unsuspecting characters—that Glennard and the governess are in charge of their narratives.  Glennard crafts and lives with his own image of his wife; he thinks he has caused his own haunting by his materializing of Margaret’s words.  The governess literally speaks her knowledge into being.  But Margaret’s words, outside of the control Glennard thought he had, take on their own agency when they animate Alexa’s voice, and reveal the terrifying truth that it is not Margaret or Alexa who have been so dreadfully repressed, but himself, the reflection of his own “dry-eyed self-contempt” (114).  And while Glennard is both the subject and the object of his own repression, the governess despite her powerful voice turns out to be just as silenced, incapable of saying the unsayable.  The murky and multiple sources of her own repression, along with the fact that she is, ultimately, the author of her own confession, seem to suggest that she too might be the final perpetrator of her own silencing repression.

But they have both—though neither realizes it until perhaps their fateful ends, though they persist in thinking that they see so clearly—they have both been the objects of repression!  It is the repression itself—not merely the thing that was repressed—that returns at the end!

With affection,

C—- B—-

Works Cited

Braun, Clare. “The Power of Language and Society in Lolita and Summer.”  2012.  Microsoft Word file. Print.

James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw. London: Everyman, 1993. Print.

“obverse, adj. and n.”. OED Online. September 2013. Oxford University Press. 3 November 2013. Web.

Wharton, Edith. The Touchstone. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House Publishing, 2004.  Print.

 

Footnote 1.

The packet containing these letters was discovered in the winter of 2013 in the drawer of a particle board desk that had been donated anonymously to a charity-based second-hand store.  The volunteer who discovered them gave the letters to his supervisor, who showed them to his spouse—an instructor in twentieth century literature and the present author of these notes—who thought the letters, appropriately annotated, might serve as an interesting portrait of the uncanny return of century-old literature.

Footnote 2.

The letter writer is presumably attempting to mimic the respectful and deferential tone that Edith Wharton herself adopted in letters to her own idol and mentor, Henry James.

Footnote 3.

These parenthetical page numbers all appear to correspond to the respective book of the author being addressed in each letter.

Footnote 4.

This likely refers to the fact that the addressee of this letter was in fact deceased when the letter was written.

Footnote 5.

This paragraph, tacked on as it appears, doubtlessly describes an actual incident and was included as a further proof of James’s novella’s lasting uncanny effect on the letter writer.

Footnote 6.

Here the letter writer appears to have forgotten that this letter is addressed to James, whereas the discussion of Alexa occurs in the letters to Wharton.

Footnote 7.

This switch to such a personal salutation seems to mark the letter writer’s increasingly manic obsession with the subject, as the level of familiarity implied is unlikely to have been justified through the correspondence, especially since the letter’s recipient is, like James, deceased.  Indeed, though, as the letters continue, the level of formality correspondingly breaks down.

Footnote 8.

These appear to be definitions taken from the online Oxford English Dictionary.

Footnote 9.

The abrupt ending of this letter, failing as it does to invoke appropriate epistolary niceties, reflects the letter writer’s increasing mania.  The letter writer also appears to have entirely forgotten to continue the correspondence to James.

Footnote 10.

The letter writer here disregards the relatively resolved, if not precisely happy, ending of Wharton’s novella.  Presumably the letter writer has become so compelled to explain the novella’s uncanny nature that this detail has been overlooked.

Footnote 11.

It is unclear here whether the letter writer is referring to Wharton or James, as the following conflation of Glennard and the governess appears to demonstrate that the writer has lost track of which author is being addressed.

Footnote 12:

The letter writer appears to have abandoned this earlier statement from the October 30th letter to Wharton: “my initial experience of The Touchstone was marked not by eeriness or uncannyness.”

Footnote 13.

Again, in this final letter of the correspondence, it is unclear which novella’s end the letter writer is invoking, as this statement appears to apply to the endings of both novellas.