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Sarah Churchwell (Eccles British Library Writer in Residence) explores the different ways we read, using Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw as a forum for discussing the possibilities. Do we read for character, plot, emotion, ideas, realism, escapism? How far should authors’ intentions, or what we think we know about those intentions, shape our ideas about the books they produce?
Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw is famously one of the most ambiguous works in the Anglo-American canon, a ghost story that many argue is about the act of interpretation itself. Like the famous optical illusion that is simultaneously a beautiful young lady and an old crone,The Turn of the Screw can be read simultaneously in diametrically opposed ways – hence James’s image of the screw that keeps turning. Read one way, it is a gothic tale about an innocent young governess trying to protect her young charges from corruption by the evil ghosts of dead servants. Read the other way, it is a psychological thriller about a neurotic or even mad young woman who hallucinates the ghosts, and destroys innocent children through her conviction that she is saving them. Should we argue over which interpretation is “correct”? How would we know – what is the measure of correctness when we are reading? And how does what we know – or think we know – about the author and his intentions, attitudes and values inform our ideas about the book he produced?
Sarah Churchwell is Professor of American Literature and Public Understanding of the Humanities at UEA. She is the author of Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and The Invention of The Great Gatsby, The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe, and her literary journalism has appeared in the Guardian, New Statesman, TLS, New York Times Book Review, and the Spectator, among others. She comments regularly on arts, culture, and politics for UK television and radio, has judged many literary prizes, including the Bailey’s (Orange) Prize for Fiction and the 2014 Man Booker Prize for Fiction. She is the recipient of the Eccles British Library Writer in Residence award for 2015.