The Turn of the Screw was originally published as a serialized novel in Collier's Weekly. Robert J. Collier, whose father had founded the magazine, had just become editor. At the time, James was already a well-known author, having already published The Europeans, Daisy Miller, Washington Square, and The Bostonians. Collier was hoping to increase his magazine's circulation and revenue and to improve its reputation by publishing the works of a serious, well-known author like James. James himself had just signed a long-term lease on a house in Sussex and needed the extra income to facilitate moving from his residence in London. Thus, James agreed to Collier's proposal that he write a twelve-part ghost story in 1897.
James finished The Turn of the Screw in November 1897, and the story was published in Collier's between January and April of 1898. The text of the story consisted of a prologue and twelve chapters in both the serialized publication and later book versions. In Collier's, the story was further divided into five "parts" and published in twelve installments.
James's agreement to publish his story in Collier's was done with the understanding that he would publish a book version as well. Heinemann in England and Macmillan in New York both published book versions of The Turn of the Screw, the text identical except that they lacked the five "parts" markings, in the fall of 1898. In 1908, James published his complete works in what is now known as "The New York Edition." The Turn of the Screw appeared in Volume 16, along with another novella, The Aspern Papers, and two short stories, "The Liar" and "The Two Faces."
The Turn of the Screw is a novella, which means that it is long story, shorter than a traditional novel but focusing on actions of greater scope than the short story. In James's 1908 publication of The Turn of the Screw, he made a very few emendations to his text - most of which are minor semantic and punctuation changes. One noteworthy thing that James changed in this edition is Flora's age. In the 1898 publication, Flora is six-years-old; in 1908, she becomes eight. This may simply have resulted from James's realization, after the first publication, that Flora speaks and acts as if she is older than six.
James wrote The Turn of the Screw at a time during which belief in ghosts and spirituality was very prevalent in England and America. The spirituality craze had begun in 1848 when the two young Fox sisters in New York heard unexplained rappings in their bedroom. They were able to ask questions and receive answers in raps from what they - and the many people who became aware of their case - believed was a dead person. That same year, a book about the "science" of ghosts, The Night Side of Nature; or, Ghosts and Ghost Seers, by Catherine Crowe was published and became very popular.
The Society for Psychical Research, of which James's brother and father were members, was founded in 1882. It was an offshoot of the Cambridge Ghost Club, founded in 1851 at Trinity College at Cambridge University - where the prologue's Douglas was a student. Reading The Turn of the Screw, it is important to remember that despite twentieth-century skepticism towards ghosts and the paranormal, many educated nineteenth-century readers did believe in ghosts and spirituality.
On significant reason for the rise in spirituality's popularity in nineteenth-century is widespread disillusionment with traditional religion. Unable to believe in the all-powerful and benevolent Deity preached by the Christian church, many intellectuals of the day turned away from Christianity. James himself was acquainted with the Concord school of transcendentalists, including Ralph Waldo Emerson. Because of the loss of Christian faith, traditionally a comfort to those who had lost loved ones or who faced death themselves, many people searched for a new way of understanding and accepting death. Spirituality was not limited to the scholarly studies of William James; many of its adherents sought solace in the possibility of communicating with dead family members and loved ones at seances - in reassuring themselves that there was an Other Side.
James, however, emphasizes in the Preface to his 1908 edition that Peter Quint and Miss Jessel are not ghosts as that term had come to be understood by the turn of the century. These ghosts, he says, now the subjects of laboratory study, cannot stir "the dear old sacred terror" as old-time ghost stories could. Modern ghosts make "poor subjects," and his ghosts, therefore, would be agents of evil - "goblins, elves, imps, demons as loosely constructed as those of the old trials for witchcraft."
The content of James book comes from "real-life" ghostly encounters about which he had heard. In the preface, James speaks of being one of a group on a winter afternoon in an old country house - very much like the narrator of his prologue - when his host recalled the fragment of a tale told to him as a young man by a lady. She did not have the whole story but could only tell him that it dealt with "a couple of small children in an out-of-the-way place, to whom the spirits of certain bad' servants, dead in the employ of the house, were believed to have appeared with the design of getting hold' of them." James said he remembered the story as a worthwhile subject to be built upon when the proposal from Collier's came.
In addition to the ghost stories of which James himself wrote and spoke of being aware, a number of critics have proposed additional literary and real-life influences on the subject matter in The Turn of the Screw. These include works of nineteenth-century English fiction, including Dickens's Oliver Twist, Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, and Mrs. Gaskell's "The Old Nurse's Story," as well as other literature, including Henry Fielding's Amelia and Goethe's "Erlkönig." Other influences include a nineteenth-century medical text which discusses governesses, suggested by critic William J. Scheick, Freud's patient "Miss Lucy R.," suggested by Oscar Cargill, and a medical book about temporal lobe epilepsy, suggested by J. Purdon Martin.
In his 1908 preface, James also speaks of complaints that his governess is not "sufficiently characterised.'" He argues that no good writing comes of tackling all difficulties but that good writing instead results from focusing on a limited number of elements - in his case, the ghosts and the implication of evil. It seems surprising, then, that so much of the criticism and discussion surrounding the book since its publication centered around the governess and her consciousness.
Before James's time, most fiction was written from the author's point-of-view. S/he described the characters' actions and told the reader their significance and meaning. The fiction of Dickens and of the Brontës, for example, follows this model. James's contribution to fiction included his work on point-of-view. Many of James's works are characterized by a central intelligence - that is, a character through whose eyes the reader sees the story. The reader, therefore, responds not as an objective viewer but as a participant in the story. Reading The Turn of the Screw from the point-of-view of the governess, the reader has a limited knowledge and perception of the events occurring at Bly and must trust - perhaps to his or her peril - the judgment of the governess.
Another significant aspect of James's novel is his use of the confidant character. The use of the confidant precedes far back into literature. In a novel in which we have limited access to the main character's mind - as we will until the establishment of stream-of-consciousness technique in the twentieth-century - the confidant character gives us an extra chance to see what the main character is thinking. Thus, we learn about the governess's thoughts and assumptions through her conversations with her confidant, Mrs. Grose. Here, as with point-of-view, James challenges the reader. We cannot be certain that the governess tells the truth to her confidant, nor can we be sure that Mrs. Grose does not have her own agenda in listening to the governess's thoughts.
In the decades following the publication of The Turn of the Screw, it was generally accepted that the governess was a benevolent character, fighting against evil ghosts to protect Flora and Miles. In 1919, Henry Beers mentioned that he had always thought the governess to be mad but little thought was given to the comment. Swarthmore English professor Harold Goddard wrote an essay arguing the same point around 1920, but it was not published until his daughter found it after his death in 1957. The true originator of the theory, therefore, is Edna Kenton, who published an essay in 1924, suggesting the story is more about the governess's troubled mind than about the ghosts and children. However, Edmund Wilson's 1934 essay "The Ambiguity of Henry James" has been the most influential of all. Drawing heavily on Freudian theory, Wilson argues that the governess's sexual repression leads her to neurotically imagine and interpret the ghosts.
In nearly all writing since Wilson's landmark essay, critics have been forced to decide whether the governess is mad or if there are ghosts. Those arguing for the ghosts emphasize that James, in his 1908 preface, called the book a "fairy-tale pure and simple" and that none of his other ghost stories are considered hallucinations. Feminist critics have recently picked up this thread, suggesting that the assumption the governess is a sexual hysteric, imagining the ghosts, would not have been made were the narrator a man. Such readings see the framing of the story by what is presumably - though not explicitly - a male narrator, and by the definitely male Douglas, who undercut the governess's authority but emphasizing his inexperience and youth as expressing distrust in the female narrator.
More recently, postmodernism has led critics toward a less combatant approach toward The Turn of the Screw. Many critics have taken to accepting the ambiguity in James's writing and acknowledging that nearly every incident can be interpreted to prove the governess is mad and to prove that there are ghosts. In making this statement, critics draw attention away from this irresolvable controversy and towards the language James uses to create this much-read and much-interpreted text.