For centuries, letters have been an important method of communication; whether it is an official document or a love letter. There are several important things a letter can do; it can provide instruction, pass on information or allow someone to express themselves more freely. In both ‘The Turn of the Screw’ and ‘A Handful of Dust’ it can be argued that letters play a significant role in the action of the novels. There are several incidents where a simple handwritten note can change the atmosphere of the text; for example, when Brenda writes Tony a letter of farewell in ‘A Handful of Dust’.
There are also numerous situations which incorporate the writing of a letter or, more importantly, the recipient’s reaction to it. The letters in the texts take a variety of different forms; some are personal letters or notes; like those exchanged between Brenda and Tony in ‘A Handful of Dust’. There is an official letter from Miles’s school in ‘The Turn of the Screw’ and, a slightly more modern alternative, telegrams are sent from Beaver to Brenda in ‘A Handful of Dust’.
Developed thought in relation to the significance of letters in both these texts helps the reader to understand how they have an impact on what is actually happening; often, the consequences of a particular letter may seem unimportant at the time but could be viewed as noteworthy a few chapters later; this is certainly the case when Beaver sends a telegram to Tony telling him he plans to visit Hetton that weekend in ‘A Handful of Dust’.
Episodes such as the end of ‘The Turn of the Screw’; where the letter written by the Governess is used as a ploy to encourage Miles to reveal the truth about his expulsion, illustrate how a letter can also have an immediate impact.
The parts of ‘The Turn of the Screw’ which lead directly back to the influence of a letter are; the letter sent to obtain the manuscript of the story, the letter Governess receives from her master containing a letter from Miles’s school, the whereabouts of the children’s letters to their uncle, the incident with Miss Jessel, the governess’s decision to write to Master and the resulting confession from Miles when this letter goes missing. The introduction to ‘The Turn of the Screw’ could often be overlooked by a reader.
However, it contains the first reference to a letter in the text and it is one of some importance. Henry James writes, ‘I knew the next day that a letter containing a key had, by the first post, gone off to his London apartments. ‘ (1); the letter is a request that the manuscript of the actual story be sent to his home in the country. This is significant because it points out that the story has been written by the governess herself and this can call into question to reliability of what she says throughout the text.
Another issue this raises is the nature of the relationship between Douglas and the governess and comparisons could be drawn between this and her relationship with her former young male charge, Miles. The first letter the governess receives after her arrival at Bly, the family estate in the country, is significant as it informs her of Miles’s expulsion from school. At first, the governess recognises the writing as that of her employer and is thrilled at the thought of correspondence from him.
However he simply writes, “This, I recognize, is from the head-master, and the head-master’s an awful bore. Read him, please; deal with him; but mind you don’t report. Not a word. I’m off! “(2). The letter, therefore, has a double impact. Firstly, it forces the reader to ask why the child has been expelled and they are left with a preconception of Miles as a naughty child which contrasts with his polite nature throughout the text. Secondly, it clearly defines the involvement the master wishes to have with the governess and his country estate: none.
The clear lack of mutual feeling between the governess and the master reminds the reader that the governess’s aspirations of becoming the master’s wife are seriously misguided and it could even be argued that this calls her mental state into question. The resulting situation in which she hands the letter to Mrs Grose to read highlights the governess’s position in society. She is more educated than a housekeeper but yet is forced to work. Essentially at the time she was in a sort of “class-limbo” and this is perhaps why she is determined to marry someone like the master, who is above her social station.
There is an incident in Chapter 15, where the governess finds the ghost of Miss Jessel writing a letter at her desk in the schoolroom. Although there are no details of what was actually written in the letter; this episode is still of some significance in the novel. The governess notes that the person she initially believed to be a housemaid seemed to have ‘applied herself to the considerable effort of a letter to her sweetheart. ‘ (3) The point that can be derived from this assumption is that the governess sees herself sitting in that very desk writing a love letter to her master.
It is something that she had been considering ever since the ghosts began to appear and Miles started to demand to be returned to school. The second notable element of this encounter is how the governess’s feelings of pity towards the woman before her change when she discovers that it is her ‘vile predecessor’ (3). These feelings of resentment towards Miss Jessel could stem from a number of sources; her relationship with the children before the governess arrived, her love with Quint or, perhaps most importantly, the fact that she can see so much of Miss Jessel’s experience in herself.
It is significant that the governess sits at the same desk a few weeks later to write to the object of her own affections, the master. The governess does not want to meet a fate similar to that of Miss Jessel’s; therefore the image of this woman before her is frightening to her. The question of whether the governess can really see these ‘ghosts’ she describes is unanswerable but whether this incident was imagined or real, it is still a significant episode relating somewhat to the use of letters in the text. The climax of the governess’s account also has a letter involved.
Due to what the governess claims to be the ‘supernatural’ goings on at Bly, she makes a decision to write to the master. The significance of the letter in this case is that when Miles is made aware of its existence, he steals it to read. This theft consequently leads to the assumption that he was expelled from school for stealing, perhaps even stealing letters. This accusation of Miles by the governess in Chapter 24 brings about the end of the story. It also brings about the revelation of why Miles was expelled and, of course, results in the death of the child.
Obviously one letter cannot be the sole source of these events but it certainly played a role in instigating the ending of the story. The key moments in ‘A Handful of Dust’ which involve a letter include; the opening scene of Brenda surrounded by letters, telegrams and a letter from John Beaver to Brenda, note and letter exchanges between Brenda and Tony, especially Brenda’s final letter of farewell. These examples contrast somewhat with the examples from ‘The Turn of the Screw’ where there were no exchanges of letters between people.
This text, therefore offers an alternative perspective on the significance of letters in literature. This characteristic of contrast is one which runs throughout the novel; it can be recognised and even emphasized in the letters and notes which are exchanged throughout the book. In chapter two, part one, when we first meet Brenda, she is surrounded by letters. This is of significance because it highlights her status in the social scene as most of the letters contain invitations to events such as the mayor inviting her ‘to open something next month’ (4).
However, when Tony asks if the letters say anything interesting she simply shrugs them off and says no. This indicates that she is perhaps unhappy with her current life and is searching for something more interesting. This becomes apparent when she begins her exciting affair with John Beaver. Another point in relation to Brenda’s response to her letters is that when she says “… Mama wants nanny to send John’s measurements. ” (4) This comment signals Brenda’s lack of maternal affection for her son and this theme recurs when she receives the news of his death.
She also uses his death as an excuse to leave Tony so her apparent lack of feeling towards her son makes that reason for leaving her husband seem rather pathetic. The moment a telegram arrived from John Beaver marks the moment when Brenda became interested in him. Her reaction is to say “That sounds all right” whereas Tony proclaims “Hell! ” (5) This contrast in reactions illustrates the fundamental difference between them; Tony likes his secluded life in Hetton whereas Brenda longs for socializing in London and entertaining.
The second item of correspondence from Beaver in the book is in the form of a letter sent to Brenda at Christmas. This letter raises several issues; firstly it results in Brenda’s disappointment as it is unfinished. His use of language is also of note; the phrases ‘you can imagine my delight… and surprise’ and ‘it really was sweet of you to send me such a charming present’ (6) come across as a bit forced. It sets up a contrast between how Brenda feels about Beaver and how Beaver feels about Brenda and consequently raises questions about the state of their relationship.
An additional aspect in this letter is the way in which he jumps from ‘flattering’ Brenda to talking about his mother emphasizes the control his mother has in his life and this sets up a conflict between Brenda and Beaver’s mother. The letters and notes exchanged between Brenda and Tony play a significant role in the novel. Her brief notes to Tony are filled with excuses for not coming home and they heighten the sense that Brenda has a much more exciting life than her husband.
The fact they have been scribbled down in pencil make them seem like things she just writes to keep him happy and the unnecessary number of ‘kisses’ at the end of her notes make it appear that she is overcompensating for the lack of affection she has been showing him. In addition, the contrast between Tony and Beaver is also highlighted in their letter-writing. Compare the letter Brenda receives from Beaver at Christmas to the letter Tony writes her. His style of writing is completely different and it somewhat reflects his rather dull but affectionate nature.
When he says, ‘thank you a thousand times for all your sweetness’ (7) it is much more sincere than the kind of thank you Brenda got from Beaver. The final letter Brenda writes to Tony is an early 20th Century equivalent of breaking up with someone via text message. The letter, in which she claims that ‘things were going wrong’ (8) and says ‘but I hope afterwards we shall be great friends’ (9), is simply an easy way out. The significance of this letter is that it marks the end of Tony and Brenda and results in Tony’s adventure with Dr Messinger and his entrapment with Mr Todd.
It creates a great sense of sympathy for Tony from the reader and makes Brenda seem to be an even more shallow and unlikeable character. In conclusion, both texts go so way towards demonstrating how letters can be used as a driving force for action or simply a method of conveying hidden feelings. Understandably they are not the most important parts of the novels; however they do have a small role to play and when the letters are looked at closely they can reveal much more than a reader would discover at first glance. For this reason they are significant.