This extremely short book is only a novella, but it took me some time to get through it because of the density and obscurity of the prose. James is, I think, notorious for writing long sentences, but that’s only part of it. It’s the textural density, the complexity, and, I think, the wilfully archaic (even for the time) formulations, that make it hard work.
It’s a ghost story, though the status of the ghostly presences is disputed, or at least discussed: are they all in the governess’s mind? The bulk of the tale is the first-person narrative of the governess, but it starts with an odd framing sequence of tales being told round a Christmas-eve fireplace. One of the company is reminded of a manuscript he has, and sends for it. The rest is him ‘reading’ from it. And I’m not sure that ‘framing’ is the right term here, because we never return to the reading party. It seems like a device to let James write from the point of view of a woman.
Once you attune yourself to the style, it’s pretty compelling. Chilling in places.