Britten’s retelling of Henry James’s ghost story

Henry James (John Singer Sargent: charcoal, 1912)

I delivered a paper last weekend at Liverpool Hope University’s ‘Britten in Context’ conference, with the title ‘Dead Sexy: The Turn of the Screw, or Miles Must Die!’. I’ll offer a slightly oblique flavour of it here; the full, controversial written version will follow in due course.

Britten’s 1954 operatic adaptation of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, with a libretto by Myfanwy Piper, takes a diametrically opposed view to Edmund Wilson’s influential interpretation of the literary original. Wilson suggests that the ghosts Quint and Jessell are a product of the sexual hysteria of the governess, who projects the figure of Quint onto the real world because she cannot acknowledge to herself her love for her master (the father of the children Miles and Flora who are under her care). The opera does not allow such an interpretation, because it presents the ghosts as living, moving, singing, visible human characters as really and as vitally present on stage as any other. One of the questions my paper seeks to answer is: why do the ghosts sing?

My answers circle round the myths that the opera upholds, and the place of the figure homo sacer at the heart of them. (I borrow this term from Giorgio Agamben: the Wikipedia entry provides a basically reliable basic description of what he means by it.)

There are several ‘innocent’ children’s songs whose musical language (‘pure’ diatonic, next to the surrounding ‘corrupt’ chromaticism of the adults and the orchestral ambience of Bly) establishes the children in a distinct and opposed world in relation to the adults. One in particular, Miles’s ‘Malo’ song (based on a text that explores different meanings of the Latin word, malo), opens up a childlike melodic line, of a kind that is typical of Britten, and easy for children to sing convincingly, into a totally chromatic space – the space, in fact, of the ghosts and the adults, and their sexually corrupt world. The audience is enabled to maintain through this ‘phenomenal performance’ (a notion of Carolyn Abbate’s) a myth of childish innocence, even at the point that that state of innocence is being corrupted. Why? So that the vital distinction between adult and child, with its complex symbolic associations, can be preserved. It is to preserve the function of ‘the child’ in our discourse that Miles, who steps over the boundary into adult forms of sexual behaviour (sacrificing his status as ‘child’ in the process), must die, smothered to death by the Governess, at the end.

But what is the myth that the ghosts figure in? Well, if Quint and Jessell were simply the fantasy projections of the Governess, we might be free to interpret their monstrosity as just a kind of symbol, an extreme possibility never fully realized in any real human being. But by emphatically presenting them as real human characters, Britten denies that possibility. Quint is real. There really are monsters like Quint lurking by the school gate. We’re not imagining it. And this monster is also homo sacerfor us, bereft of all political rights, hunted down and sometimes killed by vigilantes. And all the while our own ‘normal’ relations to children and women, who are figured as children by patriarchal expectation (with hairless bodies, big eyes, smooth skin, cute behaviour, a willingness to please and defer, etc.), can be hidden behind the greater monstrosity. Quint is in this sense our moral saviour.

I refer to the following items in this short paper. Aside from the Britten scholarship, the literary and philosophical references indicate something of the nature of the paper. When the full version appears there’ll be another entry on this blog.


  • Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer. Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998.
  • Brett, Philip. ‘Britten’s Bad Boys: Male Relations in The Turn of the Screw’. In Music and Sexuality in Britten: Selected Essays, edited by George E. Haggerty, 88–105. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2006.
  • Bridcut, John. Britten’s Children. London: Faber and Faber, 2006.
  • Evans, Peter. The Music of Benjamin Britten. London: Dent, 1979.
  • Goddard, Harold C. ‘A Pre-Freudian Reading of The Turn of the Screw’. Nineteenth-Century Fiction 12, no. 1 (1957): 1–36.
  • Hanson, Ellis. ‘Screwing with Children in Henry James’. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 9, no. 3 (2003): 367–91.
  • Heilman, Robert B. ‘The Freudian Reading of The Turn of the Screw’. Modern Language Notes 62, no. 7 (1947): 433–45.
  • Howard, Patricia. Benjamin Britten, ‘The Turn of the Screw’. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
  • Kenton, Edna. ‘Henry James to the Ruminant Reader: The Turn of the Screw’. The Arts 6 (1924): 245–55.
  • Kincaid, James R. Child-Loving: the Erotic Child and Victorian Culture. New York and London: Routledge, 1992.
  • ——— . Erotic Innocence: the Culture of Child Molesting. Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 1998.
  • Raulff, Ulrich. ‘Interview with Giorgio Agamben’. German Law Journal 5, no. 5 (2004): 609–14.
  • Rupprecht, Philip. Britten’s Musical Language. Music in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
  • Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1990.
  • Wilson, Edmund. ‘The Ambiguity of Henry James’. Hound and Horn 7 (1934): 385–406.
  • ——— . The Triple Thinkers: Ten Essays on Literature. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1938.
  • Žižek, Slavoj. First as Tragedy, Then as Farce. London: Verso, 2009.
  • ——— . The Indivisible Remainder: an Essay on Schelling and Related Matters. London and New York: Verso, 1996.
  • ——— . The Sublime Object of Ideology. 1989. Reprint, London and New York: Verso, 2008.

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