#6degrees of separation from Henry James to W. Somerset Maugham

As it’s the beginning of the month it’s time for a new ‘Six Degree’ challenge from Kate, at booksaremyfavouriteandbest. I love taking part, but having decided I’ll only join in if I’ve read the set text, I usually find I’m too far behind with my reading. So thank you for going back to the classics, Kate. This month’s starting point is, The Turn of The Screw, by Henry James.

For a long time I avoided reading this one. I hadn’t liked the film or radio versions I’d caught. I assumed it was ‘just’ a pot boiler.

I should have known better. After all, even if this was writing prompted by a desire for the fee, the author was Henry James. Luckily, a couple of years ago I needed to read the novella for a class I was setting up. I soon revised my opinion.

I think of this sort of story as an attractive box that when opened, proves to have another attractive box inside. This one is not just smaller, it is a slightly different shape.

Many stories stop at two layers, but Henry James puts another box inside that. His narrator recounts a story that he heard from a friend, who heard it from the person who experienced it. Where does truth start and end? Can we ever know?

This is a form I love, so I’m going to try and create my links using stories that have other stories embedded in them. And, as we’ve started with a novella, I’m opting to follow a short-form route.

So, my first link is to Joseph Conrad, who was also a master of this kind of misdirection. He used this technique several times. I’m picking his short story, The Tale, for my first link. It begins with two lovers meeting in an unlit room, during war-time. The woman asks the man to tell her a story. He used to have, she tells him, ‘…a sort of art – in the days – the days before the war.’ The story he tells her is a dark exploration of human nature and actions.

Human nature is also at the centre of Charlotte Mew’s story-within-a-story, A White Night. It’s a psychological horror story, written in 1903. Or is this one too all a big lie?

Similar questions arise in Nuns at Luncheon, when Aldous Huxley presents us with a distracting story teller who seems to dominate the tale she tells.

Her long earrings swung and rattled – corpses hanging in chains…

Mr Mulliner, the storyteller P.G. Wodehouse chooses to use in The Reverent Wooing of Archibald, on the other hand, is clearly speaking with authority.

People who enjoyed a merely superficial acquaintance with my nephew Archibald (said Mr Mulliner) were accustomed to set him down as just an ordinary pinheaded young man. It was only when they came to know him better that they discovered their mistake. Then they realized that his pinheadedness, so far from being ordinary, was exceptional.’

Mr Mulliner, the teller who lifts the lid on that second box, disappears while the outside narrator repeats his story. As does Pugh, the story-teller in John Buchan’s 1928 story, The Loathly Opposite. This fifth link in my chain is a beautifully delivered narrative, about the consequences of war and espionage, that didn’t go where I expected. Reading it gave me a new perspective on an author I’d not been used to thinking of as literary.

Laura, the teller of stories in the sixth link of my chain, remains fully on view. Indeed, we share dinner with her and the external narrator of, A String of Beads. It’s a beautifully brief story, delivered almost entirely through dialogue, and once more, we sit in judgement of the participants. Do we share their positions or condemn them?

I can link this 1943 W. Somerset Maugham story back to The Turn of The Screw. Firstly, because both have a woman sharing or confiding a story with a man, and secondly, because a governess is central to both plots. This means I could describe my chain as a short necklace. Or, since it’s one novella and six short stories, maybe a bracelet.

Though perhaps that would spoil the ‘separation’ aspect of the challenge.

31 thoughts on “#6degrees of separation from Henry James to W. Somerset Maugham

  1. Oh what a lovely response to this challenge! It’s like a winning hand in Happy Families with *all* the cards sharing a connection, or as you say a string of similar beads or gems strung together on the one cord. And you remind me that short stories are so overlooked in favour of weighty narratives. Excellent post, thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Turn of the Screw is an amazing story. I ended up with two copies in my library and then when I went to give one copy to my daughter she said I had already given her a copy. I once saw a performance put on by Theatre Calgary that was excellent. So much so I couldn´t sleep for a week after seeing it. I love how the other stories mentioned connected so well. I must read A String of Beads.

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  3. And what a beautiful bracelet indeed! Although I haven’t heard of this book challenge before … what I do enjoy Cath is the way you in which write about the books you read … and this is what keeps me coming back for more! Autumnal blessings, Deborah.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Such a beautiful bracelet! You linked these stories seamlessly Cath, I loved this post. These characters, Laura, Mr Mulliner, the two lovers, they all seem to be present in the same world, the same story. Fascinating!

    Also, thank you so much for introducing me to the ‘Six Degree’ challenge, will try to participate the next time.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I never heard of the old “six degrees of separation” thing being applied to books and stories, but I like it! Funny, when we were kids, my friends and I would try to challenge each other by naming two movie stars and making the other person connect them in as few movies as possible. Of course that was long before “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” was a thing. Sadly, we didn’t give the concept such a catchy name …

    Liked by 1 person

    • This really is such a fun challenge, James.
      According to Wikipedia, the six degrees thing predates Kevin Bacon by quite a long time. A Hungarian author called Frigyes Karinthy wrote about it in a short story called Chains, published in 1929! One of these days I’m going to track down a translation and have a read of it.


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