The Turn of the Screw
Originally published in 1898 by Macmillan, The Turn of the Screw is a novella that might or might not be a ghost story. The plot, as described by a third party narrator, follows the experiences of a... More > governess at a country estate in Essex whose task it is to look after two small children the parents of which have recently died. The governess begins to see a man and a woman around the estate, neither of whom she recognises, though she suspects that they are apparitions of the previous governess, Miss Jessel and her lover Peter Quint.
The Turn of the Screw is famed for its ambiguity, enabling the reader to interpret the story in more than one way, perhaps seeing Jessel and Quint as ghost, or maybe believing that the governess is actually insane. James' abilities as a writer make this possible but they also give a sense of his perceptiveness for character development and using character to shape reader's impressions.< Less
What Maisie Knew
Originally serialised in the New Review in 1897 before being published in book form later that year, What Maisie Knew details the fate of a young daughter, Maisie of the title, as she is flung back... More > and forth between divorced parents who care very little about what might be good for her. The narrative follows Maisie's impressions as her parent, Beale and Ida Farange, are divorced, find new partners, passing her back and forth twice a year and change her governess.
In its subject matter, What Maisie Knew, is a furious indictment of English society as James saw it, particularly the abdication of parental responsibilities. While life in late Victorian England might seem tame by today's standards, James saw it otherwise and the novel is testament to a society moved by greed and selfishness.< Less
The Wings of the Dove
Originally published in 1902 by Scribners, The Wings of the Dove tells the story of Milly Theale, an American heiress suffering from a terminal disease and how those two properties – riches and... More > an imminent demise – influence those who are close to her. The 'close' friends are an unmarried couple, Kate Croy and Merton Densher, the latter a former suitor of Milly, the former a schemer who seeks to obtain some or all of the Theale inheritance.
The character of Milly Theale is based on the real life cousin of James, Minny Temple, who died of tuberculosis in 1870. Similarities in the name and in the circumstances make this association plain enough, but James was also happy to admit it, stating that the book was in part an effort to preserve her memory in the way he knew best.< Less
The Tragic Muse
Originally serialised in the Atlantic Monthly between 1889 and 1890, before being published in book form later in the year, The Tragic Muse was James' last full novel before his doomed foray into... More > writing for the stage. The plot also hinges on dramatic leanings, with Miriam Rooth, a young and by all accounts extremely raw actress, providing the love interest for one of the other leads in Peter Sherringham, a high flyer in the British Diplomatic Service. Other characters include, Nick Dormer, a politician who'd prefer to be an artist and his partner Julia Darrow who prefers him in the House of Commons.
There are in fact at least fifty named characters in The Tragic Muse and a plot to carry them through, making the novel an oddity in the James portfolio. In truth it reads more like a typically Victorian novel from authors like Dickens or Thackaray, rather than the pared down character studies that James would perfect towards the end of his career.< Less