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© Canadian Review of American Studies/Revue canadienne d’études américaines 31, no. 1, 2001 The Children’s Hour: A Postcolonial Turn of the Screw Robert K. Martin I run the risk, I realize, of sounding like Persse McGarrigle, the hapless young scholar from Limerick, in David Lodge’s wicked satire of the MLA, Small World. The comically innocent McGarrigle is, you may recall, working on a thesis on Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot—not, however, as the others assume, on the influence of Shakespeare on Eliot but rather on the influence of Eliot on Shakespeare. The novel takes such a project to be inherently funny, a sign of the madness of fashionable scholarship. But Persse’s explanation of his project is not really all that foolish: As he puts it, “we can’t avoid reading Shakespeare through the lens of T.S. Eliot’s poetry” (Lodge 52). While not perhaps certain that we “can’t avoid” such a reading, my paper today argues at least that one can read backwards, that we as readers are as situated in history as an author or a text is. Without claiming that I have solved the mystery of Bly, I want to add one further suggestion of meaning, at least to the metonymic chain, that arises from reading certain texts at the same time as rereading The Turn of the Screw. In this case, there are two intertexts to which I want to call attention, both suggesting a postcolonial reading of James and both linking colonial and sexual dissidence. One of them is Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour (1934), which in turn has two (or perhaps three) intertexts of its own. Hellman based her narrative on a celebrated Scottish case from 1810, in which two women schoolteachers were accused by a pupil of sexual relations, a case ultimately brought to the House of Lords and described in William Roughead’s Bad Companions (1930). Hellman’s text was then rewritten twice—first for a William Wyler film, These Three (1936), the source of which in the Hellman play was “verboten to ballyhoo,” in Variety’s words (qtd. in Russo 63), and second for a well-known film called The Children’s Hour in 1962, once again directed by Wyler and starring Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn. I shall return to The Children’s Hour in a moment, but I want to mention, at least, the second intertext for James’s Turn, Benjamin Britten’s opera of the same name, first performed in 1954. Turn was one of two James texts that Britten transformed into opera, followed by Owen Wingrave , written for television in 1970. Part of the attraction of James’s text for Britten Canadian Review of American Studies 31 (2001) 402 was undoubtedly its strong sense of evil and its portrayal of a sexually threatened and threatening young boy. The two intertexts can thus be seen as symmetrically sexual—Hellman’s emphasis is on the lesbian, while Britten’s is on the male homosexual. Both may send us back to the James text with a more attentive eye for the sexual. In so doing, one is not neglecting the historical for the transhistorical —James’s work of the 1890s comes out of his acquaintance with the leading early British sexologists, especially John Addington Symonds. We need to find a way to recover the discourses of sexuality of this period without falling into the Edmund Wilson trap of blaming it on the (eternal ) spinster. Miles’s death at the end of Turn is linked closely to the deaths that conclude “The Pupil” and “The Author of Beltraffio.” If Britten ’s reading/rewriting of Turn of the Screw calls attention to and dramatizes such fears, it does not invent them; it merely allows us to see them better. The Turn of the Screw was, after all, written at the time of James’s greatest agitation about his sexuality: during these years Alice James dies; Oscar Wilde is condemned to two years of hard labour; James acknowledges the homosexuality of John Addington Symonds, falls in love with Morton Fullerton, and then with Hendrik Andersen. It is inconceivable that these desires and perils...


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