The Corruption of Innocence as Communicated through Benjamin Britten’s opera: The Turn of the Screw
by Simone Oliver
Benjamin Britten’s reworking of The Turn of the Screw took four months to complete, and was commissioned and first performed by the English Opera Company, opening at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice in 1954. The Turn of the Screw is Britten’s third opera for chamber orchestra, and exhibits the extensive solos and duets he preferred to emphasize the intimacy of what was already a chamber orchestra. Britten was originally interested in the work because it dealt with one of the main themes of his works, the corruption of innocence. The biggest issue faced at the onset of the production is the same one considered by the majority of the criticisms on the work, was the Governess insane? Britten, aided by his librettist, Myfanwy Piper, decided to go with the most supernatural of the interpretations, basing his work off of the foundation of true ‘visitors’ and an extraordinarily perceptive governess. While it could be argued that the vocalizations of the ‘visitors’ change the novels meaning, the ghosts still do not interact with the living. The only direct communication between Quint, Jessel, and the living is found in Quint’s encouragement of Miles to steal the envelope.
Music can be understood in three different ways: formal, referential, or kinetic and syntactic. The formal understanding is only what is written, the relationships between notes and the composer’s written formula for the music. Britten almost exaggerates the formal meaning of his piece by composing it serially, making every interval important. Kinetic and syntactic understanding relies upon the performance of the piece, the stress involved in the orchestra’s performance, and the conductor’s interpretation of the meaning of the piece. When music is understood referentially, the composer has to count on the audience’s relationship with older phrases and themes, such as the ¾ times association with waltzes, and the patriotism associated with marches. (Corse 162) The difference between an operatic piece and a orchestral one becomes notable here. Rather than have to depend on upon the audience’s interpretation of a nonverbal medium, orchestral music, he can rely upon the meanings communicated through the lyrics his librettist puts together. The majority of the libretto follows the storyline of the book, although he differs in the role of the ‘visitors’ by giving them actual action and lines. The tone of the book is preserved however, because of they do not interact with the other characters, with the exception of Quint’s encouragement of Miles.
Throughout the entire opera, the key constantly changes, meaning that the audience cannot relax to the point of comfort, much like the readers experience of the book. Ascending in movements of fourths, and descending by fifths, the movement prevents any resolution or repetition. (Smith) This results in the communication of the relationship between the characters, as well as the tension inherent in the storyline. The steadily darkening tone of the opera reflects the further corruption of the children.
The opera begins in A major and steadily ascends coinciding with each variation change according to the twelve-tone system throughout the first act, and ending on A flat major. The second act picks up on A flat and descends in the inverted order, to end on A major. Not only does the entire piece balance around the break between acts, certain characteristics are attached to keys. For example, in both acts the use of the F Major variance accompanies discussions in the school room, while C Major is used in both discussions between the Governess and Miss Grose’s about Miles. Many keys and motifs become associated with the visitors or ill-intentions, and become more frequently used throughout the piece to reflect the conflict.
Britten’s entire composition is written in one of the most traditional forms of classical music, theme and variation. This greatly helps him to communicate the idea of corruption, because each variation gets progressively darker. He repeats the same theme thirteen times, with variations changing at the scene breaks and discoveries, easing the awkwardness of scene changes. The theme and variation, however, is composed through serialism. By using only twelve tones, Britten allows himself twenty four combinations in with which to compose, and further limits himself by his rigid movement between keys, changing key at every variation. The variations was composed to coincide with scene changes, giving the key in which the scene occurs an identifiable effect on the mood therein. Furthermore, he emphasizes the unsettlingness of the entire affair by preventing any resolutions; all key changes end in discord. Throughout the course of the piece, the seventeen themes and motifs, based off of thirds, fourths or fifths, are restricted by the key designated by their variation. The motifs and themes areassociated with important characters or ideas, like Flora’s naivety, or Quint’s sexuality. Although he never left the twelve tone system, he did not rely upon it systematically, and composed the music for both melodic and harmonious ideals, putting the composition in a position of less importance than the plot.
Britten removes the initial awkwardness of adjusting to serialism by continuing to write tonally. As he opens the introduction he emphasizes fourths by using tetrachords, chords with two of their four notes forming a fourth, instead of the hexachord, which would have accented the sixths, as seen in the rest of the piece. This emphasis helps establish the twelve-tonality, which begins on C instead of A, making it the central tone in both acts. As the opera moves through both variances and scenes, the themes reflect the action on stage, as well as the characters involved. The theme, Mrs. Grose’s theme, and Miles’s Confession all have motifs composed on 5ths, while Quint, the Governess’s Shock, Flora’s Lullaby, and the Malo song are all composed on three note cells, appearing random in comparison to the other themes and motifs. Some of the other motifs are composed on 4ths, and two of them, the Lake theme and Miss Jessel’s, are characterized by tempo or instrumentation, rather than composition.
Although The Turn of the Screw has a common overarching mood, the tone has subtle differences between characters. Quint, for instance is connected with immorality, sensuality, and uncomfortable feelings, all of which are heavily reflected in the music. In comparison, Miss Jessel’s part is far more conventional, both more tonal and less aggressive, as well as being less threatening, in keeping with her role as Quint’s corrupted, and is only identifiable by the added emphasis of the cymbal. Flora and Miles both sing simplistic tunes in keeping with the supposed innocence of their parts, although their early folk tunes and play-songs soon turn into more demented and questionable tunes, becoming more discordant as the opera progresses. The Governess’s main motif is that of consternation and nervousness in keeping with her character, although it frequently echoes the disharmonies found in Miles, Quint, Miss Jessel, and even Flora’s parts for emphasis. Mrs Grose’s part remains simplistic, the most harmonious, and serves as a grounds to further emphasize the discord found in the other parts by contrast. In one notable scene, Miles plays piano, shaping a discordant underlying tune with one hand coupled with a traditional scale with the other. Afterwards, Mrs Grose sings her praises in a variation of the traditional tune, while the Governess sings her worries on a variant of the discordant melody. Other key changes are linked to the libretto, as is the case with the Malo song, sung by Miles, states that he’d ‘rather be in an apple tree/than in adversity’. Additionally, Flora’s lullaby also holds odd mature themes, out of keeping with her character, and evidence of her corruption.
Britten did rely upon referentialism from his audience for more than evidence of innocence, however. Quint’s motif features popular elements from music connected to morally corrupt characters, sensually compromised, or the promiscuous; both children sing traditional folk songs connected with innocence as well as variations on such. The references even go as far as the libretto, with Miss Jessel and Quint singing selected lines from Yeats “The Second Coming”, in particular those lines to do with the ‘ceremony of [innocence’s drowning].’ (Teyssandier) In addition, their part is actually a variant of ‘diabolus in musica’, a traditional form commonly used to communicate great evil, or ill intentions. Although he became used to the pentatonic scale’s use due to his prolonged stay in the East, in the ears of his audience it was unsettling. Armed with this knowledge, Britten composed both Miss Jessel and Quint’s parts relying upon the pentatonic scale, in clear contrast to the operas twelve tone system. These haunting elements become identifiable in the children’s parts as well, as the opera continues. Easily identifiable motifs include Quint’s, characterized by the use of one of the ancestors of the piano, the celeste, evident in the beginning before his appearance when he is mentioned, and in all of his manifestations, and the Governess’s doubt, which opens after the prologue of the opera.
The uneven division of scenes is also dictated by James’s novel, and is a stark contrast against Britten’s other works. Britten mixes recurring themes into the music, repeating them in concert with particular characters or emotions. The incessant music lends the entire opera an air of continual change, one of the ideas most associated with theme-and-variation, and emphasizes the ‘arbitrariness’ of the ending found in James’s novella (Corse 162). Rather than discovering what was happening or returning for Flora, the book simply ends after Miles’s forced confession and death. The confession isn’t even an admission of the truth, because it can be interpreted numerable ways. In a way it serves as evidence of Miles corruption, and the opera closes on another rendition of the eerie Malo song.
Britten shows the corruption of innocence quite clearly throughout this opera, and is aided by the methods he chose. His use of serialism easily communicates the structure of the story line, as well as its repeating elements, while his use of theme and variation communicate the continuous change. Both Flora and Miles continue to act as children throughout the opera, although Miles at least ends it in an emotional upheaval. The Governess’s naivety continues throughout the opera, and she becomes more determined to end whatever is going on. Quint and Miss Jessel’s unnamed relationship with the children further illustrates the children’s corruption, as they grow closer and more insistent throughout the opera. Britten successfully communicated his theme throughout the piece.
Boosey & Hawke. "Britten, Benjamin : The Turn of the Screw." Benjamin Britten - The Turn of the Screw - Opera. Boosey & Hawke, n.d. Web. 26 Apr. 2013. <http://www.boosey.com/pages/opera/moredetails.asp?musicid=4880>.
Corse, Sandra. "From Narrative To Music: Benjamin Britten's The Turn Of The Screw." University Of Toronto Quarterly 51.2 (1981): 161. World History Collection. Web. 26 Apr. 2013.
Hubert Teyssandier, « Voices of the Unseen: Benjamin Britten’s Reading of The Turn of the Screw », E-rea [En ligne], 3.2 | 2005, document 4, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2005, consulté le 26 avril 2013. URL : http://erea.revues.org/544 ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.544
Simonian, Cynthia. The Music of Benjamin Britten as Interpretation of Henry James’ Novella, The Turn of the Screw. Diss. University of California at Irvine, 2002. Irvine: UCI Undergraduate Research Journal, n.d. The Music of Benjamin Britten as Interpretation of Henry James’ Novella, The Turn of the Screw. University of California at Irvine. Web. 26 Apr. 2013. <https://scholarworks.iu.edu/dspace/bitstream/handle/2022/3478/WhitesellDoubtAndFailureV13.pdf;jsessionid=9D70612398A0D9F3892A1F1857EBF491?sequence=1>.
Smith, Sara E. "Analysis of the Instrumental Theme and Variations in Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw." Thesis. University of Rochester, 1983. A Study and Analysis of the Instrumental Theme and Variations in Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw. University of Rochester, 14 May 2007. Web. 26 Apr. 2013. <http://hdl.handle.net/1802/3990>.
Whitesell, Lloyd. "Doubt and Failure in Britten's The Turn of the Screw." Indiana Theory Review 13, no. 2 (1992): 41-87. <https://scholarworks.iu.edu/dspace/bitstream/handle/2022/3478/WhitesellDoubtAndFailureV13.pdf;jsessionid=9D70612398A0D9F3892A1F1857EBF491?sequence=1>
For other uses, see Turn of the Screw (disambiguation).
The Turn of the Screw is an 1898 American novella by Henry James that first appeared in serial format in Collier's Weekly magazine (January 27 – April 16, 1898). In October 1898 it appeared in The Two Magics, a book published by Macmillan in New York City and Heinemann in London. Classified as both gothic fiction and a ghost story, the novella focuses on a governess caring for two children at a remote estate who becomes convinced that the grounds are haunted.
In the century following its publication, The Turn of the Screw became a cornerstone text of academics who subscribe to New Criticism. The novella has had differing interpretations, often mutually exclusive. Many critics have tried to determine the exact nature of the evil hinted at by the story. However, others have argued that the brilliance of the novella results from its ability to create an intimate sense of confusion and suspense within the reader.
The novella has been adapted numerous times in film, stage, and television, including a 1950 Broadway play, and the 1961 film The Innocents.
An unnamed narrator listens to Douglas, a friend, read a manuscript written by a former governess whom Douglas claims to have known and who is now dead. The manuscript tells the story of how the young governess is hired by a man who has become responsible for his young nephew and niece after the deaths of their parents. He lives mainly in London but also has a country house, Bly. He is uninterested in raising the children.
The boy, Miles, is attending a boarding school, while his younger sister, Flora, is living at a summer country house in Essex. She is currently being cared for by Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper. Miles and Flora's uncle, the governess' new employer, gives her full charge of the children and explicitly states that she is not to bother him with communications of any sort. The governess travels to her new employer's country house and begins her duties.
Miles soon returns from school for the summer just after a letter arrives from the headmaster stating that he has been expelled. Miles never speaks of the matter, and the governess is hesitant to raise the issue. She fears there is some horrible secret behind the expulsion but is too charmed by the adorable young boy to want to press the issue. Soon thereafter, around the grounds of the estate, the governess begins to see the figures of a man and woman whom she does not recognise. These figures come and go at will without ever being seen or challenged by other members of the household, and they seem to the governess to be supernatural. She learns from Mrs. Grose that the governess' predecessor, Miss Jessel, and another employee, Peter Quint, had had a sexual relationship. Before their deaths, Jessel and Quint spent much of their time with Flora and Miles, and this fact has grim significance for the current governess when she becomes convinced that the two children are secretly aware of the ghosts' presence.
Later, without permission, Flora leaves the house while Miles is playing music for the governess. The governess notices Flora's absence and goes with Mrs. Grose in search of her. They find her in a folly on the shore of the lake, and the governess is convinced that Flora has been talking to the ghost of Miss Jessel. When the governess finally confronts Flora, the girl denies seeing Miss Jessel and demands never to see the governess again. At the governess' suggestion, Mrs. Grose takes Flora away to her uncle, leaving the governess with Miles, who that night at last talks to her about his expulsion; the ghost of Quint appears to the governess at the window. The governess shields Miles, who attempts to see the ghost. The governess tells Miles he is no longer controlled by the ghost and then finds that Miles has died in her arms, and the ghost has gone.
Throughout his career James was attracted to the ghost story. However, he was not fond of literature's stereotypical ghosts. He preferred to create ghosts that were eerie extensions of everyday reality, "the strange and sinister embroidered on the very type of the normal and easy", as he put it in the New York Edition preface to his final ghost story, "The Jolly Corner".
With The Turn of the Screw, many critics have wondered if the "strange and sinister" were only in the governess's mind and not part of reality. The result has been a longstanding critical dispute about the reality of the ghosts and the sanity of the governess. Beyond the dispute, critics have closely examined James's narrative technique for the story. The framing introduction and subsequent first-person narrative by the governess have been studied by theorists of fiction interested in the power of fictional narratives to convince or even manipulate readers.
The imagery of The Turn of the Screw is reminiscent of gothic fiction. The emphasis on old and mysterious buildings throughout the novella reinforces this motif. James also relates the amount of light present in various scenes to the strength of the supernatural or ghostly forces apparently at work. The governess refers directly to The Mysteries of Udolpho and indirectly to Jane Eyre, evoking a comparison of the governess not only to the character of Jane Eyre, but also to the character of Bertha, the madwoman confined in Thornfield.
Literary significance and criticism
Oliver Elton wrote in 1907 that "There is...doubt, raised and kept hanging, whether, after all, the two ghosts who can choose to which persons they will appear, are facts, or delusions of the young governess who tells the story."Edmund Wilson was another of the earlier proponents of the theory questioning the governess's sanity, positing sexual repression as a cause for her experiences. Wilson eventually recanted his opinion after considering the governess's point-by-point description of Quint. Then John Silver pointed out hints in the story that the governess might have gained previous knowledge of Quint's appearance in non-supernatural ways. This induced Wilson to return to his original opinion that the governess was delusional and that the ghosts existed only in her imagination.
William Veeder sees Miles's eventual death as induced by the governess. In a complex psychoanalytic reading, Veeder concludes that the governess expressed her repressed rage toward her father and toward the master of Bly on Miles.
Other critics, however, have strongly defended the governess. They note that James's letters, his New York Edition preface, and his Notebooks contain no definite evidence that The Turn of the Screw was intended as anything other than a straightforward ghost story, and James certainly wrote ghost stories that did not depend on the narrator's imagination. For example, "Owen Wingrave″ includes a ghost that causes its title character's sudden death, although no one actually sees it. James's Notebooks entry indicates that he was inspired originally by a tale he heard from Edward White Benson, the archbishop of Canterbury. There are indications that the story James was told was about an incident in Hinton Ampner, where in 1771 a woman named Mary Ricketts moved from her home after seeing the apparitions of a man and a woman, day and night, staring through the windows, bending over the beds, and making her feel her children were in danger.
In a 2012 commentary in The New Yorker, Brad Leithauser has given his own perspective on the different interpretations of James' novella:
All such attempts to 'solve' the book, however admiringly tendered, unwittingly work toward its diminution[; its] profoundest pleasure lies in the beautifully fussed over way in which James refuses to come down on either side... the book becomes a modest monument to the bold pursuit of ambiguity.
According to Leithauser, the reader is meant to entertain both the proposition that the governess is mad and the proposition that the ghosts really do exist, and consider the dreadful implications of each.
Poet and literary critic Craig Raine, in his essay "Sex in nineteenth-century literature", states quite categorically his belief that Victorian readers would have identified the two ghosts as child molesters.
The Turn of the Screw was first published in the magazine Collier's Weekly, serialised in 12 instalments (27 January – 16 April 1898). The title illustration by John La Farge depicts the governess with her arm around Miles. Episode illustrations were by Eric Pape.
"The next night, by the corner of the hearth, in the best chair … Douglas began to read"
"He did stand there!—But high up, beyond the lawn and at the very top of the tower"
"Holding my candle high, till I came within sight of the tall window"
"He presently produced something that made me drop straight down on the stone slab"
"I must have thrown myself, on my face, on the ground"
In October 1898 the novella appeared with the short story "Covering End" in a volume titled The Two Magics, published by Macmillan in New York City and by Heinemann in London.
James revised The Turn of the Screw ten years later for his New York Edition. In The Collier's Weekly Version of The Turn of the Screw (2010), the tale is presented in its original serial form with a detailed analysis of the changes James made over the years. Among many other revisions, James changed the children's ages.
Film, stage, and television
The Turn of the Screw has been the subject of numerous adaptations and reworkings in a variety of media, and these reworkings and adaptations have, themselves, been analysed in the academic literature on Henry James and neo-Victorian culture. It was adapted to an opera by Benjamin Britten, which premiered in 1954, and the opera has been filmed on numerous occasions. The novella was adapted as a ballet score (1980) by Luigi Zaninelli, and separately as a ballet (1999) by Will Tucket for the Royal Ballet.Harold Pinter directed The Innocents (1950), a Broadway play which was an adaptation of The Turn of the Screw, and a subsequent eponymous stage play, adapted by Rebecca Lenkiewicz was presented in a co-production with Hammer at the Almeida Theatre, London, in January 2013.
There have been numerous film adaptations of the novel. The critically acclaimed The Innocents (1961), directed by Jack Clayton, and Michael Winner's prequel The Nightcomers (1972) are two particularly notable examples. Other feature film adaptations include Rusty Lemorande's 1992 eponymous adaptation (set in the 1960s); Eloy de la Iglesia's Spanish-language Otra vuelta de tuerca (The Turn of the Screw, 1985);Presence of Mind (1999), directed by Atoni Aloy; In a Dark Place (2006), directed by Donato Rotunno and Walter Lima Jr.'s Brazilian-Portuguese-language Através da Sombra (Through the Shadow, 2016).The Others (2001) is not an adaptation but has some themes in common with James's novella. In February of 2018, Steven Spielberg began filming an adaptation of the novella called The Turning on the Kilruddery Estate in Ireland.
Television films have included a 1959 American adaptation as part of Ford Startime directed by John Frankenheimer and starring Ingrid Bergman; the West German Die sündigen Engel (The Sinful Angel, 1962), a 1974 adaptation directed by Dan Curtis, adapted by William F. Nolan; a French adaptation entitled Le Tour d'écrou (The Turn of the Screw, 1974); a Mexican miniseries entitled Otra vuelta de tuerca (The Turn of the Screw, 1981); a 1982 adaptation directed by Petr Weigl primarily starring Czech actors lip-synching; a 1990 adaptation directed by Graeme Clifford; The Haunting of Helen Walker (1995), directed by Tom McLoughlin; a 1999 adaptation directed by Ben Bolt; a low-budget 2003 version written and directed by Nick Millard; the Italian-language Il mistero del lago (The Mystery of the Lake, 2009); and a 2009 BBC film adapted by Sandy Welch, starring Michelle Dockery and Sue Johnston.
Literary reworkings of The Turn of the Screw identified by James scholar Adeline R. Tintner include The Secret Garden (1911), by Frances Hodgson Burnett; "Poor Girl" (1951), by Elizabeth Taylor; The Peacock Spring (1975), by Rumer Godden; Ghost Story (1975) by Peter Straub; "The Accursed Inhabitants of House Bly" (1994) by Joyce Carol Oates; and Miles and Flora (1997)—a sequel—by Hilary Bailey. Further literary adaptations identified by other authors include Affinity (1999), by Sarah Waters; A Jealous Ghost (2005), by A. N. Wilson; and Florence & Giles (2010), by John Harding. Young adult novels inspired by The Turn of the Screw include The Turning (2012) by Francine Prose and Tighter (2011) by Adele Griffin.
In popular culture
The Turn of the Screw has also influenced television. In December 1968, the ABC daytime drama Dark Shadows featured a storyline based on The Turn of the Screw. In the story, the ghosts of Quentin Collins and Beth Chavez haunted the west wing of Collinwood, possessing the two children living in the mansion. The story led to a year-long story in the year 1897, as Barnabas Collins travelled back in time to prevent Quentin's death and stop the possession. In early episodes of Star Trek: Voyager ("Cathexis", "Learning Curve" and "Persistence of Vision"), Captain Kathryn Janeway is seen on the holodeck acting out scenes from a holonovel which appears to be based on The Turn of the Screw.
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