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LeGard UoS (2000)
The Unreliable Narrators: Guardians or Villains?
'"Ah! Nelly has played traitor [...] Nelly is my hidden enemy"' (Brontë, 1992, pp.93-94).
Nelly Dean's situation, writes Fraser, 'strikingly resembles that of the governess in The Turn of the Screw ' (1965, p.223). Certainly, the representation of the absent mother demands that the governess and Nelly Dean function as mother-figures to the novels' respective children. Indeed, both Brontë and James depict individuals 'in situations where they are confronted by various kinds of wickedness and must act resolutely against them for the good of others' (Fraser, 1965, p.224). Nelly Dean and the governess, however, are what Wayne C. Booth terms unreliable narrators (1961, pp.158-159) and, as a consequence, this has led to various interpretations pertaining to their actions. Arguably, the notion that Nelly is a positive and robust figure, who tries to do all she can in order to help the families, is influenced by Charlotte Brontë's sympathetic approach to her in the Preface: 'For a specimen of true benevolence and homely fidelity, look at the character of Nelly Dean' (Brontë, 1978, XXXIV). Most critics emphasize the stability of the figure of Ellen Dean throughout Wuthering Heights. Van Ghent stresses her function as one who verifies with great reliability the objectivity of the extraordinary events occurring within the novel (1953, p.155). Similarly, Robert C. McKibben asserts that for the length of Brontë's 'work of supreme and astonishing genius' (Kettle, 1951, pp.150-151), Nelly remains 'the calm in the eye of the hurricane. Secure and unassailable in her limited universe....' (1960, pp.168-169) Conversely, James Hafley declares that 'Ellen Dean is the villain of the piece, one of the consummate villains in English literature' (1958, p.199). The critical treatment afforded James's governess is notorious. Edel avers that 'it is the governess herself who haunts the children' (1969, p.195). Similarly, E. Duncan Aswell maintains that it is 'she herself who is the intruding ghost at Bly' (1968, p.49). However, although both the mother-figures exert influence upon the children and affect their lives, neither Ellen Dean nor the governess possesses immoral inclinations to injure or wrongly govern their respective wards. Indeed, Brontë and James represent the consequences, which may result from the abandonment of children to unsuitable – and arguably inexperienced – guardians, whose primary concern is not the welfare of their charges. Nelly Dean's 'truly feminine nature satisfies itself in nurturing all the children in the book in turn', avers Q. D. Leavis (1969, p.28). However, although hardly 'tragically helpless, an Othello, in Nelly's hands' (Hafley, 1958, p.201), Heathcliff is not initially a recipient of the housekeeper's maternal nurture. Nelly abandons Heathcliff – whom she refers to as "it" – 'on the landing of the stairs, hoping it might be gone on the morrow' (p.26), and her violent pinches 'moved him only to draw in a breath and open his eyes, as if he had hurt himself by accident and nobody was to blame' (p.26).
W. T. LeGard UoS (2000) Arguing that Nelly plots to gain control over the two estates, Hafley declares that Ellen Dean thus perceives Heathcliff as 'a threat to her position' (1958, p.202). Certainly, Nelly considers herself a member of the Earnshaw family, 'with all of the responsibilities and privileges which that entails' (Shunami, 1973, p.454). Indeed, she dines and participates in games with the Earnshaw children and, like them, receives gifts from their father. However, Nelly's initial hatred of the 'dirty, ragged, blackhaired child' (p.25) arises from fear – 'I was frightened', she tells Lockwood (ibid.) – and her desire to be incorporated into the familial circle of the Earnshaws. Thus, her initial allegiance is to the young master: 'Hindley hated him: and to say the truth I did the same' (p.26). Nelly's "truly feminine nature" surfaces, however, once she is required to take on 'the cares of a woman' (p.26), and Heathcliff, in Nelly's mind, is thus transformed from a 'gipsy brat' (p.25) into a 'lamb' (p.27). Following the birth of Hareton Earnshaw, the housekeeper's 'first bonny little nursling' (p.44), Nelly is required to nurse the child, '"to feed it with sugar and milk, and take care of it day and night [...] it will be all yours when there is no missis!"' (ibid.) Nelly's sensibility is revealed, as the realization that the situation is not in the prime interest of Hareton forms in her mind. Seated in the kitchen, rocking her 'little lamb' (p.54) upon her knee, Nelly hums a song, beginning: 'It was far in the night, and the bairnies grat / The mither beneath the mools heard that' (p.54). As Q. D. Leavis points out, the ballad expresses the belief that in folklore a prematurely dead mother is unable to rest in her grave, but returns to help her child in its time of need (1969, p.28). Thus, the rendition of the folk song is indicative of the sensibility of Nelly's compassionate mind. Certainly, many of Nelly's interventions during the period of Catherine's childhood are benevolent. Musing upon Mr Earnshaw's 'dread lest he should suffer neglect' (p.38), she endeavours to enliven Heathcliff on Christmas Eve: '"tell me whether you don't think yourself handsome? I'll tell you, I do. You're fit for a prince in disguise"' (p.40). Nelly's subsequent remark, that were she in Heathcliff's place, she '"would frame high notions"' of her birth (p.40), is perceived by Hafley as providing a revelation of Nelly's true desire: 'Nelly has built a romantic dream for herself' (1958, p.204). However, far from setting about realizing her dream 'with an unscrupulousness that puts Heathcliff's to shame' (ibid.), the undercurrent of meaning in Nelly's words merely reveals her natural desire to possess a child of her own and to belong to a family, for, as Gideon Shunami notes: 'Nelly has no private life of her own and, in contrast to Catherine, no romantic involvement or prospects for a family' (1973, p.454). In one of the principal scenes in Wuthering Heights, Nelly conceals from Catherine the particularity that Heathcliff has overheard the confession Catherine has made to her: '"It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now; so he shall never know how I love him"' (p.57). Nelly's behaviour here, writes Shunami, 'results from her latent feeling that she can manage her mistress' life better than her mistress' (1973, p.455). Indeed, in her enforced role as a mother-figure, Nelly acts with well-meaning intentions, both in the way she "catechises" Catherine (p.55), and in her decision to remain initially silent. Arguably, the consequences of her speaking would have proved severe for Catherine, who admits to being worried with regard to Edgar (p.55), and this bears out Fraser's assertion that for Nelly to have spoken 'would have been to indulge in a graver piece of gambling with other people's lives' (1965, pp.232-233).
W. T. LeGard UoS (2000)
Following Catherine's death, Nelly's interventions arise from an almost maternal concern for Cathy. She once again attaches herself to a child, and 'Nelly, for all practical purposes, becomes Cathy's adopted mother' (Shunami, 1973, p.458). Nelly is the only one who is aware of her ward's visit to the Heights and her subsequent meeting with Hareton, and she implores Cathy not to reveal it to Edgar: 'I insisted most on the fact, that if she revealed my negligence of his orders, he would perhaps be so angry, that I should have to leave, and Cathy couldn't bear that prospect: she pledged her word, and kept it' (p.144). Although Fraser points out that Nelly possesses a 'broad dominant concern' for Cathy (1965, p.230), Nelly is primarily interested in retaining her position at the Grange, for, as Harrison maintains, the lower class were clearly distinguished by a 'fairly high degree of insecurity' in their employment (1988, p.33). When Cathy insists upon visiting Linton for a second time, Nelly declares: 'What use were anger and protestations against her silly credulity [...] I couldn't bear to witness her sorrow: to see her pale, dejected countenance, and heavy eyes; and I yielded' (p.171). '[T]his rings as false as any such explanations she attempts in the course of the novel', asserts Hafley (1958, p.211). Nelly's '"strenuous objections"', he continues, 'aren't sufficiently strenuous to govern Cathy as the girl ought to be governed' (ibid.). Indeed, although Nelly 'becomes Cathy's guardian, attempting to fill the role of concerned mother' (Shunami, 1973, p.458), she possesses little authority over Cathy precisely because she is not her mother. Ellen Dean endeavours to shape the children's lives within her own limited ability and authorial role. Confronted by various patterns of wickedness, she acts subjectively, in a manner she perceives as true. Further, determined to belong to a family and to retain her position of employment, Nelly is confined by various desires, and is thus 'quite as much the "trapped spectator" as any of James's characters' (Fraser, 1965, p.226). Pertaining principally to the authenticity of the apparitions, and despite her position as a "trapped spectator", James's governess is perceived by many commentators as an unreliable narrator. To ensure the reader is 'released from weak specifications' (James, 1908, p.123), The Turn of the Screw represents the corrupting evil in an undefined manner. James endeavours to retain the indefiniteness of the governess's personality; except only briefly in the Prologue, the governess is never perceived from the outside. She alone provides the information from which the essential facts concerning her personality and the occurrences at Bly can be deduced. Thus, Aswell infers that the governess 'creates the activities of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel out of her imagination' (1968, p.49) and, although they disagree concerning some of the particulars, Harold C. Goddard (1957), H. Robert Huntley (1977), and John Lydenberg (1957) are all firmly united in the conviction that the governess is an unreliable narrator. However, such was not James's intention. In the Preface, he refers to the governess's 'particular credible statement of such strange matters' (James, 1908, p.121). Further, in correspondence with H. G. Wells, James maintains that he deliberately keeps the governess 'impersonal save for the most obvious and indispensable little note of neatness, firmness, and courage' and he attempts to 'rule out subjective complications of her own' (ibid. p.120). Despite these avowed intentions, however, writes Alexander E. Jones, 'James was too interested in subtle shades of character to keep the governess impersonal' (1959, p.119). Certainly, the governess is endowed with additional traits
W. T. LeGard UoS (2000) to those listed by James, some of which are admirable. She possesses intelligence, a devotion to duty, and an acute sensibility, which is in contrast to the stolidity of Mrs Grose. 'The more we examine the governess' account', declares Lydenberg, 'the more we feel that she is very much, and very tragically, a person with will and passion of her own' (1957, p.39). Indeed, it is principally these qualities possessed by the governess, of wilfulness and passion, which unintentionally exacerbate the corruption of 'the hapless children' (James, 1908, p.120). 'I was there to protect and defend the little creatures in the world the most bereaved and the most lovable', proclaims the governess (p.42). Certainly, the difficulties she encounters are compounded by the suspicion that was levelled against Victorian governesses: Frightful instances have been discovered in which she, to whom the care of the young has been entrusted, instead of guarding their minds in innocence and purity, has become their corrupter – she has been the first to lead and to initiate sin, to suggest and carry on intrigues, and finally to be the instrument of destroying the peace of families. (Broughton & Symes, 1997, p.181) The governess's primary concern, however, is not the children. Indeed, she appears determined not to miss the 'magnificent chance' (p.42) to exhibit her dedication so that it may 'more publicly appear' (p.26) 'in the right quarter' (p.42) - that of the master. As Edel points out, the governess 'puts on a bold show of courage, always thinking that her heroism will win the approval of her handsome employer, who is constantly in her thoughts' (1969, p.194). Further, in attempting to protect the children from the machinations of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, the governess experiences 'joy in the extraordinary flight of heroism the occasion demanded' (p.42). Striding the gardens and hallways of Bly, she almost wishes to observe the apparitions so that she can be applauded for her heroic devotion: 'There was many a corner round which I expected to come upon Quint, and many a situation that, in a merely sinister way, would have favoured the appearance of Miss Jessel' (p.73). Thus, as opposed to offering guardianship and affection towards Flora and Miles, 'to the reader it often seems that her real concern is with herself' (Lydenberg, 1957, p.45). In her desire, however, to please the children's uncle, who is 'such a figure as had never risen, save in a dream or an old novel' (p.11), the governess becomes enchanted and charmed by her little charges. Indeed, she smothers them in demonstrations of her love: 'There were moments when, by an irresistible impulse, I found myself catching them up and pressing them to my heart' (p.55), and: 'I threw myself upon him and in the tenderness of my pity I embraced him. "Dear little Miles, dear little Miles –!"' (p.90) These actions are not expressions of a relaxed and spontaneous love, however, and they must appear to the children as compulsive and frightening. In her inexperience the governess is unable to comprehend this notion, and asserts that Miles and Flora are 'extravagantly and preternaturally fond' of her (p.56). Beneath the governess's displays of tenderness lies her determination to possess the children, to succeed 'where many another girl might have failed' (p.42), and, arguably, it is this idée fixe which leads to accusations that the governess is an unreliable narrator, and, moreover, to the governess's predilection to place words into the mouth of Mrs Grose:
W. T. LeGard UoS (2000)
She visibly tried to hold herself. "But he is handsome?" I saw the way to help her. "Remarkably!" (James, 1994, p.37) Furthermore, 'in her own immature understanding of how children behave' (Edel, 1969, p.194), the governess expects Flora and Miles to confide everything to her, and she incessantly bombards them with questions which they either cannot or will not answer. Thus, in hounding the children and displaying her affection in such a manner, the governess unintentionally succeeds in breaking their collective will in the climatic scenes. Jones postulates that by the conclusion of the tale, 'Flora has been removed from the corrupting atmosphere of Bly' (1959, p.122). However, at a crucial juncture, when Flora is arguably in need of adult assistance the most, the governess abandons her as 'hideously hard' (p.101). Flora, therefore, is transformed, by a combination of the apparitions' evil influence and the governess's obsessionalism – '"I'm rather easily carried away"' (p.17) – from 'a creature so charming' (p.15) into a 'vulgar pert little girl' (p.101) who employs 'appalling language' (p.107). Goddard compares Flora's outbursts of profanity to Hareton Earnshaw's 'string of curses' (Brontë, 1992, p.79) (1957). However, Hareton frequently and openly adopts the frightful language he has learnt from '"Devil daddy"' (Brontë, 1992, p.79), while Flora sustains the illusion of innocence until she is driven to expel the outburst by the governess: '"Take me away, take me away – oh, take me away from her!"' (p.101) In the tale's final scene, Miles is portrayed as a prisoner vainly endeavouring to escape the governess's exigent smothering presence. The 'divine' (p.23) little boy finally reveals the name the governess so desperately wishes to hear: '"Peter Quint – you devil!"' (p.121) As opposed to addressing the governess here (Edel, 1969, p.196), Miles's exclamation is aimed at both Peter Quint and the governess, for, although the boy has at this time been corrupted by Quint, the governess, although unintentionally, precipitates this corruption, and 'alone with the quiet day' (p.121), with the dead child in her arms, innocence dies. Certainly, both Nelly Dean and the governess vainly endeavour to possess a child of their own. Moreover, they attempt to assist their charges, and, arguably, Nelly Dean's influence upon the children proves less dramatic than the governess's. The guardians are merely deluded, however, in their shared belief that their actions and interventions are beneficial to the children. Whether or not one accepts their status as unreliable narrators, there remains little doubt that Wuthering Heights and The Turn of the Screw represent and reflect 'the shared delusions and aberrance of people in positions of authority over children during a whole era, and the irreversible damage they inflicted' (Banerjee, 1997, p.542). References Allott, Miriam (1961) 'Mrs. Gaskell's "the old nurse's story": a link between "wuthering heights" and "the turn of the screw"', Notes and Queries, 8, pp.101-102.
W. T. LeGard UoS (2000) Allott, Miriam (ed.) (1974) The Brontës: the critical heritage. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. Aswell, Duncan, E. (1968) 'Reflections of a governess: image and distortion in the turn of the screw', Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 23, pp.49-63. Banerjee, Jacqueline, P. (1984) 'Ambivalence and contradictions: the child in Victorian fiction', English Studies, 63, pp.481-494. Banerjee, Jacqueline, P. (1997) 'The legacy of Anne Brontë in Henry James's the turn of the screw', English Studies, 78, pp.532-544. Beidler, Peter, G. (ed.) (1995) Case studies in contemporary criticism: Henry James, the turn of the screw. Boston: Bedford Books of St Martin's Press. Bell, Millicent (1993) 'Class, sex, and the Victorian governess: James's the turn of the screw'. In: Pollak, Vivian R. (ed.) (1993) New essays on daisy miller and the turn of the screw. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Blackburn, Simon (1996) The Oxford dictionary of philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Booth, Wayne, C. (1961) The rhetoric of fiction. Chicago: Chicago University Press. Bradner, Leicester (1933) 'The growth of wuthering heights', Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, 48, pp.129-146. Brontë, Emily (1978) Wuthering heights: with selected poems. London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd. Brontë, Emily (1992) Wuthering heights. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd. Broughton, T. & Symes, R. (eds) (1997) The governess: an anthology. Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing Limited. Brown, Penny (1993) The captured world: the child and childhood in nineteenthcentury women's writing in England. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf. Edel, Leon (1969) 'The little boys'. In: Henry James: the treacherous years, 18951901. London: Rupert Hart-Davies. Edel, Leon (1996) Henry James: a life. London: Harper Collins. Fine, Ronald, E. (1970) 'Lockwood's dreams and the key to wuthering heights', Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 24, pp.16-30. Fraser, John (1965) 'The name of action: Nelly Dean and wuthering heights', Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 20, pp.223-236. Gard, Roger (ed.) (1968) Henry James: the critical heritage. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
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Goddard, Harold, C. (1957) 'A pre-Freudian reading of the turn of the screw', Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 12, pp.35-48. Gose, JR. Elliott, B. (1967) 'Wuthering heights: the heath and the hearth', NineteenthCentury Fiction, 21, pp.1-19. Hafley, James (1958) 'The villain in wuthering heights', Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 13, pp.199-215. Halttunen, Karen (1988) '"Through the cracked and fragmented self": William James and the turn of the screw', American Quarterly, 40, pp.472-490. Harrison, J. F. C. (1988) Early Victorian Britain: 1832-51. 4th ed. Glasgow: Fontana Press. Huntley, H. Robert (1977) 'James' the turn of the screw: its "fine machinery"', American Imago, 34, pp.224-237. Jacobs, N. M. (1986) 'Gender and layered narrative in "wuthering heights"'. In: Stoneman, Patsy (ed.) (1993) New casebooks: wuthering heights. London: The Macmillan Press Ltd. James, Henry (1908) 'The preface to Henry James's 1908 edition of the turn of the screw'. In: Beidler, Peter, G. (ed.) (1995) Case studies in contemporary criticism: Henry James, the turn of the screw. Boston: Bedford Books of St Martin's Press. James, Henry (1974) The bodley head, Henry James, volume XI: daisy miller, the turn of the screw. London: The Bodley Head Limited. James, Henry (1994) The turn of the screw. London: Penguin Books Ltd. Jones, Alexander, E. (1959) 'Point of view in the turn of the screw'', Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, 74, pp.112-122. Kettle, Arnold (1951) An introduction to the English novel, volume I: to George Eliot. London: Hutchinson's University Library.
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