I have for a while been interested in late Victorian gothic horror. At an early age I relished the story of Jekyll and Hyde (1886), the horrid split between the gentile and collective, pleasant side of the man and the cunning madness of the evil side. Also, with a keen interest in ghosts I obsessed over the nearby Borley Rectory (the once ‘most haunted house in England) and the investigations of Harry Price, although perhaps sheepishly pursued more photographic ‘evidence’ to validate my intrigue than I should have realised. Reading The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) by Charlotte Perkins-Gilmore at school tickled further my interest in this subtle form of horror which could evidently (or especially as I now might say) permeate the lives of the grand mansion-types, making for a nice encapsulation of the term ‘gothic’ for me.
I think that because of the unsophisticated young mind and fascination with and inclination toward the supernatural, the old manifestations of ghouls and demons (which were also entertained by the Demon Headmaster and R.L. Stein’s Goosebumps) generated a horror that was undeterred by modern technology, scientific evidence and the gross modern manifestations of ‘evil’ one see’s on T.V. and the psycho-killer. We learn where the true ‘evil’ lies in the world when get older. But in this artistic world, being psychotic isn’t scary… that person still conforms to the world’s natural order, and eventually reason and science. It is the suspension of these things which generates a certain type of gothic horror that infects the mind and is most effective when the mind does most the work itself. This all of course is considering that the prose is accessible and understandable; as inferred, the less said the better. So I approached Turn of The Screw with such anticipation.
It is a tough piece of work to get through – the convoluted writing style of Henry James is to use the old English vernacular, ghastly. For me there is much at fault with this style of literature, the kind where it takes about 100 pages to say what ought to have been said in 10, a far cry from the benign and agreeable prose of Dickens. The thought did not escape me that the rules George Orwell laid out for good English in ‘Politics and the English Language’ (1946) were a reaction to such writing as this (not that the rules were ‘commandments’ as such, but guidelines to how one should write. Clarity of language equates to clarity in political dialogue and thinking). In fact, it is hardly believable that Orwell was writing his work, including this, only about 30-50 years after James. And so I will subject Turn of the Screw to the scrutiny of Orwell’s critique and see how it is left up.
- Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
This rule is not so horribly violated as some in Turn of the Screw. ‘I dare say!’ is used far too frequently, ‘by slip of the tongue’, ‘of the dammed’, ‘queer business’, ‘more or less’ all make appearances but don’t greatly offend.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
The novella is riddled with examples of this: ‘sequestration’ instead of a simple ‘separation’, the ludicrous ‘preternaturally’ when ‘unusually’ would suffice, ‘perambulations’ ahead of ‘inspection’. Sentences like ‘in the renouncement of one pretension’ clutter up the entire book and don’t make for an easy translation.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, cut it out.
Again, James falls foul of this crime too many times, notably with the long conjunctions which dominate the early chapters or instalments of the novella. Examples: ‘it sufficiently struck out that, by tacit little tricks in which even more than myself he carried out the care for my dignity , I had had to appeal to him to let me off straining to meet him on the ground of his true capacity’. An absurd jungle of words which barely carry any meaning – not only could words be cut out but entire sentences or passages…’headache inducing’ is the idea which comes to mind.
- Never use the passive when you can use the active.
These are harder to determine and it would take a close reading to discover these faults in Turn of the Screw. ‘“With them?” Oh on this the poor woman promptly joined me!’ is a common type of switch between speech and an internal monologue which makes for exhausting reading.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
Jargon is of course harder to find in a short novel such as this, but strangely words like ‘fabulous’ are used to mean strange or unreal, which may just be the Victorian context but inspection of James’ contemporaries will show how different the writing could be at the same time. Same with ‘gaoler’ to mean in jail and James uses ‘mot’, the French equivalent of the ‘word’, packing in further hidden meaning to an unintelligible sentence.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
This doesn’t really apply for James as it does say the political speaker, although break the rules, he certainly does!
Although Orwell meant for these ‘elementary’ rules to mainly be observed by those using ‘language as an instrument for expressing’ and not so much literature, I think it can be useful for text as well. Authors hold the artistic licence to write whatever and however they like. But especially for a gothic horror novel such as this it remains important to use simple words and phrasing (to sharp and sinister effect) to truly penetrate the clear mind. I look forward to my next novel of this kind and hope the lucidity for which I am looking exists.