A Book and A Painting…Sargent and Henry James.

It’s time to crack open those pumpkins! Just kidding…in L.A. at least, it’s rocking the high 90s, and it was 104 today! But for some reason the stores are full of candy corn and foam spiders. Still, at least I am honoring fall in my own special way. I’m rereading the gothic novel “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James (published 1898…I think!).

James was a realist, but here he takes realism and, well, ‘turns the screw’ on it a bit, heightening realism’s pitch until it teeters dangerously into what some might call psychosis.

It tells the story of a governess who is semi-seduced (this bit, like the rest of the novel, is ambiguous) into taking “full custody and care” of her handsome employees’ charges: a very creepy pair of kids, Miles and Flora. You know that bit in The Shining, with the twins in the corridor? Anyway, this “angelic” couple start to see and hear things (ghosts, of course) but pretend they don’t. The governess is desperate to ‘save their souls’ from the corrupt evil influences that pervade the house, and sets out on a mission to confront this evil. The ending, like the rest of the novel, forces us to question the reliability of the governess’ narrative, as well as the nature of this evil, which is never named by James, but subtly suggested to be of a sexual nature.

James basically took the Victorian notion that children are ‘pure and innocent’ little darlings, and turned this on its head. At the same time he foreshadowed Freud’s writings on “Family Romances,” “Repression,” and “The Uncanny,” by alluding to…well, pretty much all of these things.

He was also friends with John Singer Sargent, whose painting “Daughters of Edward Darley Bolton,” reminds me eerily of the tone and mood of “…Turn of the Screw.”

Sargent Daughters of Edward Darley Bolt

Ostensibly a painting depicting the four children of a rich family, there is something a bit ‘off’ here, isn’t there? The strange doppelganger effect of the two children in the shadows, echoing the doubling of the tall vases both left and right. The shadows themselves. The way the children stare at us, as if guilty. Or…is it we who are guilty? As a viewer, this painting feels designed to make us uncomfortable, just as we feel uncomfortable in our encounters with Miles and Flora in James’ book.

Some people have perhaps read a bit too much into the ambiguity of the painting, suggesting a direct correlation between childhood and corruption/evil, as in “Turn of the Screw.” Rather, I think this painting just makes the point that we don’t always feel comfortable around children, for a variety of reasons. Ever seen a child have a conversation with an invisible friend? Ever seen one kid pummel another kid? Children are ‘tapped into’ a never-ending stream of fantastic and, yes, violent thoughts. Of course, Lewis Carroll knew this only too well, using this knowledge to great effect in “Alice in Wonderland” – who can forget the Queen of Hearts’ cry of, “off with her head”? I think Sargent realizes it too, along with his friend Henry. It’s not that children are corruptible per se, or less innocent than they seem…it’s that they revel in imaginative, scary, uncensored worlds in a shamelessly abandoned way that we cannot ourselves indulge in. Unless, of course, we go mad. And THAT’S why it’s scary.

Now the twins in “The Shining,” are another matter entirely.

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