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  • A Postmodern Turn of The Turn of the Screw
  • Beth A. Boehm

I remember the whole beginning as a little see-saw of the right throbs and the wrong: after responding to the call for papers on “Popular James,” I had at all events a couple of very bad weeks—found all my doubts bristle again, felt indeed sure I had made a mistake. I am not a Jamesian, I confess, but was seduced by the possibility of adding another pair of short novels to the seminar I teach on Victorian/Postmodern Narrative and so sought a book I had somewhere (an advertisement in TLS? a listserv message?) seen a reference to: Miles and Flora: A Sequel to Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. The Turn of the Screw is, after all, one of my favorite novels to teach (undergraduates, fed on a diet of Stephen King and Peter Straub, are always impressed by “my” suggestion that we seek the many clues that might indicate that the ghosts don’t exist, while more advanced students, fed on a diet of Lacan and Derrida, are amazed that recent critics have offered readings not predicated on the governess’s madness). You have to love a text that allows—indeed forces—you to be a virtuoso reader and teacher. Further, the idea of ending the course which begins with a pairing about another Victorian governess—Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea—with the fin-de-siècle novels by James and Hilary Bailey (whose “sequel” was published in 1997, ninety-nine years after The Turn of the Screw) promised a kind of closure that a postmodernist in love with Victorian novels could not resist. But after my local bookseller called to say that he could not find an ISBN number for Miles and Flora, that, in other words, this particular ghost of Henry James did not exist, I began to doubt my own sanity. 1 And when, finally, weeks later, I had the sought-after book in my hands and began to read, I felt again that I had made a mistake. Did this novel offer an interesting postmodern turn to James’s novel? How would it fit in my course? And, most importantly, what on earth could I write about it? In my deepest drop, I even questioned whether Bailey had read The Turn of the Screw.

While there have been, of course, metafictional parodies and pastiches of the novel as long as there have been novels (think only of Shamela or Northanger [End Page 245] Abbey), there is a veritable explosion of such texts during the postmodern period. Many of these are postmodern “Victorian” novels which engage a particular nineteenth-century text: Rhys’s “prequel” to Jane Eyre is the bildungsroman of the first Mrs. Rochester, Kathy Aker’s Great Expectations blatantly “plagiarizes” Dickens’s novel, Emma Tennant’s sequel to Pride and Prejudice, Pemberley, tells the story of the marriage of Elizabeth and Darcy, and Valerie Martin’s Mary Reilly retells Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from the point of view of Stevenson’s “hysterical” maid. Others, like John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus, engage the narrative conventions and genres most commonly employed in the Victorian period (just as Jeannette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry and John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor employ eighteenth-century forms and conventions). Fowles writes a kind of “social realism” reminiscent of Eliot or Hardy (with enough “sensation” to keep things interesting), while Carter combines the conventions of two fin-de-siècle genres: the New Woman novel and the fantasy-adventure genre best illustrated by H. Rider Haggard’s She. All of these contemporary novels are parodic and thus challenge—in different ways and to varying degrees—humanist and capitalist assumptions about originality and ownership. As Linda Hutcheon has suggested, parody is “a value-problematizing, de-naturalizing form of acknowledging the history (and through irony, the politics) of representation” (94). Novels like Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea and Carter’s Nights at the Circus, for instance, explicitly and self-consciously parody nineteenth-century novels and conventions in order to criticize the representation...

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