A lockdown ghost story with a philosophical twist in the tale – Laura Waddell

We may start seeing ghosts, or life through rose-tinted glasses, if we fill in gaps in our knowledge by trying to explain the inexplicable, writes Laura Waddell

The gothic environment of Glasgow University encouraged Laura Waddell’s questing imagination (Picture: Robert Perry)
The gothic environment of Glasgow University encouraged Laura Waddell’s questing imagination (Picture: Robert Perry)

Regular readers will recall a highlight of my lockdown experience was reading War and Peace, measured out a little each day, as part of a free online readalong hosted by literary magazine A Public Space. It gave me routine. It gave me comfort.

The project has moved on now to a series of shorter books, beginning with Henry James’ eerie novella The Turn of the Screw, accompanied by notes from writer Garth Greenwell. As before, all are welcome to join in with the online chat or watch it from afar. Life can get in the way. I am a couple of days behind schedule so have been lurking silently.

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The first time I read The Turn of the Screw, I was a first-year English literature student, running to catch up on the classics and mining for cheap books in the ramshackle, musty, cat-populated nirvana that is Glasgow’s antiquarian bookshop Voltaire & Rousseau. Those famous – or infamous – bookstacks have gotten progressively more squinty in the years since my first forays into the maze.

They lean and tremble like miniature towers of Pisa, growing ever bigger as the floor space around them closes up. Good luck to anyone now trying to winch out anything with an appealing spine from the bottom layer. Those who do ought to tell someone where they are going in advance, in case of avalanche.

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At the time of my first read, James’ unsettling Victorian thriller was just right for shyly traipsing around gothic old university buildings; not quite the same time period architecturally but all of it old and austere to me, exploring dusty nooks and crannies with the sense that at any moment, some booming voice, disembodied but authoritative, might ask me to leave. Who knew what was around the next corner? I wanted, with some apprehension, to find out. I crept staircases and peeped around open doors.

The place was haunted by the steps of all who’d come before – the intimidating academic trailblazers I was meant to plod after, somehow – and like the Governess in the book, who goes to a big old house to look after two children, I was awed by its grandeur and scale, while nervous of my own undertaking of studying the literature of writers no less grand. Anything awe-inspiring, in the true sense of the word, can go either way. In anything bigger than ourselves glints the promise of transcendance and potential for malevolence. And, sometimes, we want to be spooked.

Affection and tenderness

“I remember the whole beginning as a series of flights and drops, a little see-saw of the right throbs and the wrong,” begins the Governness, as she travels to the grand old house for her employment.

Although the set-up is a little odd – she is instructed never to contact the master, her employer, and to deal with every query relating to the children herself, no matter what it might be – she reflects on the household’s reputation, “the lucky fact that no discomfortable legend, no perturbation of scullions, had ever, within one’s memory, attached to the kind of place.”

When the Governess meets the two children who are to be in her care, she is “dazzled” by their “loveliness”. She had expected her day to day work to be like “grey prose” – and what a wonderful description – but instead, she is lit up with affection and tenderness.

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The effect of the children surpasses even the house, which pleases her with its large, impressive rooms and lush, summer-lit lawn. Their beauty and innocent countenance is described excessively, in the imagery of angels and cherubs. Contracted mainly to look after the little girl, it is the boy, the elder of the two, who is an unexpected charge.

Expelled from his school for negative impact on the other boys, he has been sent home earlier than the summer holidays, when she was to expect him. But could a creature so delightful have done anything wrong? The Governness cannot imagine it, and considers the headmaster with disgust. It was the educational environment, she thinks, that was too coarse for such a boy. Soon, she believes herself there not only to watch over and teach them, but to protect and defend their inherent, almost otherworldly, innocence.

A ghostly presence

But what is that in the tower? One pleasant night, in the gardens, the Governess turns to see the figure of a man in the highest section of the house, among the battlements, giving her a “bold hard stare”.

“I can hear again, as I write, the intense hush in which the sounds of the evening dropped. The rooks stopped cawing in the golden sky and the friendly hour lost for the unspeakable minute all its voice.” Soon after there is a second apparition, at the window looking in. Has he come for her, or is he looking for the children? And is their role among these spiritual sights as innocent as first believed? Question marks now hang where halos once did.

Solitude can turn us all a little mad. This reading of the book comes as lockdown is beginning to ease up. It has been a lot of time indoors. I have not, this time, been walking an aged building but my own mind. It too has odd corridors and caverns, twists and turns.

And, more and more often, I have been thinking of delusion at a societal and individual level. How people, myself included, come to form beliefs about themselves and the world around. How easy it is for perspective to be skewed, unreliable, and off-kilter.

A common human experience is filling gaps in our knowledge; explaining away the unknown and unknowable, padding the space with whatever comes to hand. We impose our desires, seeing situations as we’d like them or which affirm our existing beliefs, rather than their more mundane reality. We can all be prone to seeing the “grey prose” of our lives through rose-tinted glasses, or conjuring phantoms where there are none.

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