In 1902, towards the end of his long career and while he was working on The Wings Of The Dove, Henry James began gathering a collection of short stories which he called The Better Sort.
He had begun a story to be included in this volume, The Beautiful Child, but quickly abandoned it and left it unfinished. What was in that story and why did James abandon it so soon?
Children feature prominently in James's best-known and possibly creepiest tale, The Turn Of The Screw. It is narrated by the young governess of a wealthy guardian's two children, who gradually becomes convinced that the ghosts of two previous employees have returned to corrupt her charges. James provokes us to wonder if the governess is mad, or if the children really are being haunted.
In her latest novel, Emma Tennant combines the fragment of lost story and the suggestions of ghosts and the corruption of children in James's novella to tell a skin-prickling tale. The original of The Beautiful Child concerned a couple who had no children, but who commissioned a portrait painter to conjure one up for them.
To get to the bottom of James's abandonment of his story, Tennant uses three narrators, plus James himself: one from the present, the irascible Professor Jan Sutherland, caught up in a gathering at Lamb House, Henry James's last residence; and two from the past, James's secretaries, Mary Weld and Theodora Bosanquet. The latter, his final secretary, has left a memoir in which she states she is being visited by James's ghost and receiving instructions from him.
Tennant doesn't spare her readers as she weaves between the multiple narratives, building up layers of confusion but always offers us a teasing, guiding light through the darkness.
She also exposes what conservatives love about James and spikes it thoroughly: "I had considered myself to be safe with Henry James. I would not stand lost in any wasteland- with the urbane, ever-considerate lord of Lamb House, I would be protected from the modern-" says Sutherland.
This is not simply an updated tale or a tribute to The Master. It is also a strike for modernism, the modernism in James, a rallying call for the challenging and the difficult that lie behind the cosy terror of a ghost story.