It was October 2020. The first pandemic Halloween arrived during a year characterized by isolation and death and struggle, by uprising and sickness and endless permutations of violence and grief. By that time of the year, the small respite summer allowed in temperate climates was fading. It was time to return indoors, to our screens. Anticipating there would be queerness and knowing that there would at least be a scary story, I tuned into The Haunting of Bly Manor, along with so many folks on the Autostraddle team.
I wanted to love it. Some horror fans might complain it’s not scary, and it certainly isn’t in any traditional jumpscare sense. It’s much more interested in the emotional landscapes and interpersonal relationships affected by the haunting, including those of the ghosts. Then, there was the queer storyline, Dani and Jamie’s love story. Who wouldn’t be bowled over by Jamie’s swagger? Who could resist becoming endeared to the way Dani’s stiff backbone belied her adorable exterior? But that ending. It had me reeling. She sacrificed herself and her gay happiness for who? A couple of kids she knew for a few weeks? I left it at that, at the time, but over the years, this ending has relentlessly haunted me. I’ve returned to it, again and again, reliving it, rethinking it, looking for the inconsistencies, the cracks like Hannah Grose does in her plot line where she needs to realize she is dead. I needed to see everything going on in Bly Manor that could possibly lead up to that, yet another Bury Your Gays moment, however delayed, being the ending.
In the text that inspired The Haunting of Bly Manor — The Turn of the Screw by Henry James — we see a young, 21-year-old governess take a job at Bly. Very similarly, she is asked by the childrens’ uncle to take care of everything and not disturb him. Dissimilarly, she’s motivated to take the job in part due to her attraction to the uncle.
Class was extremely important to the plot of The Turn of the Screw, and at the time, its readers would have read plenty in terms of class between the lines, as well. The children are upper class, the servants lower. Governesses, however, land somewhere in the middle, a position even contemporaries recognized as isolating. An unmarried young woman who was educated and of a high enough (at least middle class, but perhaps from a family of more noble lineage that lost their fortune due to economic turmoil) background to be considered worthy of raising upper class or wealthy middle class children outranked the servants but did not have a family or any friends of her own particular social status who resided in the same home as she did. Housekeepers like Mrs. Grose, valets like Peter Quint, they would have been positioned below the governess in the household, which means they’re not necessarily going to get comfortable with her because she’s linked to their employer by class, and the governess can’t trust she’s receiving any kind of honest answers or upward feedback from people like Mrs. Grose, because Mrs. Grose is motivated mostly only to remain on the governess’ good side and to avoid conflict. The relationship between Miss Jessel and Peter Quint in the The Turn of the Screw is therefore inappropriate — not just because of Quint’s rumored nefarious actions, but also because it’s a transgression across class (and a transgression, at the time, of the expected purity of women, especially upper class women). The governess in The Turn of the Screw is an infamous unreliable narrator. At this point, so much has been written, adaptations have been made, and you are entirely allowed to decide whether or not you believe the ghosts in the original text to be real, or the children to be possessed or evil, or the governess to be experiencing mental distress and hallucinations. However, one argument in favor of the interpretation where the haunting of Bly is all in the governess’ head is the known psychological burdens governesses faced at the time.
“Life was full of social and emotional tensions for the governess since she didn’t quite fit anywhere. She was a surrogate mother who had no children of her own, a family member who was sometimes mistaken for a servant. Was she socially equal or inferior to her employers? If the family had only recently stepped up the social scale, perhaps she’d consider herself superior. She was rarely invited to sit down to dinner with her employers, even if they were kind. The servants disliked the governess because they were expected to be deferential towards her, despite the fact that she had to go out to work, just like them. One governess, known only as SSH, recalled how, sitting down to dinner for the first time in a new job, she was overwhelmed by a ‘sense of friendlessness and isolation’ when she noticed herself pointedly served after the ladies of the house.
The governess often spent the evenings alone and she was sometimes expected to use the schoolroom as her sitting room. Life could feel very lonely: 19 year old Edith Gates, a governess in Reading in the 1870s, confides to her diary how homesick she feels. 30 years earlier Charlotte Brontë tried to avoid going into her employers’ sitting room in the evenings because she found it awkward to make conversation with people she didn’t know very well.” – Kathryn Hughes, author of The Victorian Governess
In “Letters to a Young Governess on the Principles of Education and Other Subjects Connected with Her Duties” (1840) by Susan Rideout, governesses are given the following advice:
“Consider therefore, before you enter a family, how far you are able to support the solitude into which you must be thrown, in such a situation. It is not now a separation merely from friends and relations to which you are called; it is a seclusion from society altogether, at least from any which sympathizes with you.” – source
The governess in The Turn of the Screw is isolated, alone, in a vulnerable position, paid very little, and left with more responsibility than she’s likely ever faced in her life. She has inappropriate ambitions (her attraction to the uncle) and very little experience with actually taking care of children. She doesn’t treat Mrs. Grose as an equal, but instead often overwhelms her and positions herself above her. And Mrs. Grose doesn’t see the Governess as a friend, either, but rather someone to defer to. The children are certainly company, but they’re also children. The governess also has no prospects beyond this kind of work being what the rest of her life looks like, as many governesses held positions for some years until they were no longer needed, and then they moved onto other employment, a new home, more solitude, low pay, new employers to adjust to, more children who weren’t actually their own, servants who they either wouldn’t or couldn’t befriend. If the stress of her reality led to a breakdown, it wouldn’t exactly be a surprise.
So, then, we take the source text, which in many ways is a study of the specific positioning of a somewhat privileged (educated) but also extremely vulnerable person, and we drag it forward to set it in the modern world, the 1980s, and present this to a 2020s audience. While Dani certainly has more freedom and more options than her Victorian counterparts, there’s something that has stuck with me about the way her queerness factors into her narrative and the way that The Haunting of Bly Manor treats and talks about class and skirts around the ways these things intersect, whether intentionally or accidentally.
Rewatching Victoria Pedretti’s performance in Bly Manor is a distinct pleasure. The first time I watched it, I don’t think I was quite yet spoiled on her lesbian relationship with Jamie, and so I wasn’t looking for the sprinkles of queerness the actor worked into her performance from the get. Upon rewatch, Dani’s queer swagger runs through her performance. She’s femme in a gay way; she strides around with purpose and the self-assurance of someone who knows she has to rely on herself; and she ultimately gets the au pair job because she decides to bro down with the uncle, Henry Wingrave, at a pub and talk to him one-on-one, like an equal. They appear to drop their polite masks and communicate directly (though we’ll learn later that neither of them were entirely honest), and Dani goes off to Bly, successfully hired.
Dani’s an “au pair,” a job title reserved for a young woman who is not from the country of her employment, who provides childcare for a family in a live-in capacity. It’s a sort of update to the governess. Sure, an au pair is maybe someone who wants to work on herself in some way or experience a new country, but much like a Victorian governess is plucked out of any context of family or peers or support, Dani is also isolated from her country, her ex’s family, even if it is by choice.
Henry Wingrave points this out, the fact that to take this job, especially at her age, is unexpected, a giving up of herself.
“What’s the catch?” Henry interrupts Dani.
“I’m sorry.” Dani looks at him, surprised.
“The catch, you’re what? Thirty? Mid-twenties? I wonder… What’s the catch? You’re younger than most who’d apply for this sort of thing. What makes a woman of your age want to give up her life to take care of someone else’s children? A life in America, at that. Full-time as well. It seems odd…to me, to be frank.”
But to Dani, this job holds so much more freedom than the other ways she’s been asked to give up her life. Dani broke up with her now deceased ex-fiancé, a man who was her best friend, because she reached a conclusion many queer women reach — that she loved him as a friend and that to pretend at romantic connection for a lifetime would be a kind of death. He doesn’t understand. He haunts her until her romance begins with Jamie, and Dani finally has the strength to banish him. But I think, too, part of his haunting was that he didn’t understand why it couldn’t be him. Her gayness is perhaps part of the explanation as much as it’s what makes her braver, fuels her ability to stand up for herself and the life she wants to build.
Woven throughout the series are thoughts on care and caretaking and who does that care and caretaking as well as domestic work. Episode four takes us through a heavy exploration of what it looks like to care for someone with dementia. Owen applied for the job at Bly Manor so he could move in with and care for his mother in town. The characters in the series describe the experience of witnessing a loved one progress into dementia as losing someone, bit by bit. This sentiment is echoed again and again throughout descriptions of illness experienced by loved ones in the series, whether it’s dementia or the tuberculosis experienced by the manor’s original matriarch, Viola. When Owen’s mother comes up, Jamie says she hopes someone will just shoot her if she gets dementia, rather than watching her fade away bit by bit. After she says this, Dani locks eyes with Jamie. Her expression is unreadable. Here, the show seems to be acknowledging the labor of caretaking, holding up the work that happens behind closed doors, within homes, up to a more public light.
The characters we spend the most time with all labor in the space of caregiving and the maintenance of a domestic space. Dani cares for the children. Hannah cares for the house and fills in where needed to care for its other inhabitants and owners. Owen labors in a kitchen, feeding the children and the workers. Jamie cares for the grounds of the house. The only “living” people at Bly who aren’t required to labor domestically are the children. Dani makes a point of highlighting this to them by making both Miles and Flora do Hannah and Jamie’s work as punishment. Henry Wingrave, notably, employs Dani, Hannah, Jamie and Owen all so that they can share what would otherwise be his domestic and caregiving labor to do. The setup for this series revolves around the decision to make the labor of raising children, of preparing food and of maintaining a home the labor of paid help, who all each have their own obligations to themselves and to others. It’s not like Henry needs the help because he’s too busy. We see, again and again, that he spends most of his free time drinking or recovering from said drinks. There’s a vacuum in his life left by the labor he doesn’t engage in, that he can pay for, by the fact that he doesn’t interact with the children. Even when work outside of the domestic comes up in conversation between the employees of Bly — as with Jamie’s father, a coal miner — it’s to discuss the consequences faced by workers for undertaking labor that endangers them. Jamie’s father died of lung disease from working in mines.
It’s tempting to see the bonds between the workers at Bly and the care they have for the children as healthy, and in some ways that’s true. Owen, Hannah, Dani, Jamie all care about each other — and the kids, even when Miles is literally not himself, is possessed by the spirit of Henry Wingrave’s former assistant. Of course it’s healthy to care about kids, to care about each other, but as the childrens’ surrogate family, the workers are put in an unfair position where more physical care, more emotional labor, and more exposure to danger is asked of them than their employer has any right to ask. In episode five, we learn more about this assistant, Peter Quint, an updated version of the valet from The Turn of the Screw. In a flashback, when Hannah catches Peter stealing, he responds, “It’s a mistake, isn’t it. Thinking that they’re your family. That this is your house. There’s them, and then there’s us. We’re the help.” We know there’s a reason Hannah feels like the house is hers, like the Wingraves are family, but while Peter’s presented as the villain here, I’m pretty certain he’s not wrong. They are the help, but the show is positioning the only person to call things out as such as this selfish, abusive thief. And he is! But he’s also calling out a very real power dynamic, one that Hannah seems determined to ignore because she feels personally secure in and content with her position and the quiet nobility in a job well done.
Soon, we learn the origin of the haunting of Bly. A wealthy woman, Viola, who once owned the estate, an ancestor of the Wingraves presumably, died there and refuses to let go, drags others, including her own sister, into her web. After a series of events where Peter Quint tries to devise a way to leave the manor in the body of Miles along with Miss Jessel in the body of Flora, Henry Wingrave arrives to attempt to rescue Flora and is incapacitated by the ghost of Viola, who proceeds to attempt to take Flora into the lake, to kill her and trap her at the manor forever.
Dani grew up without a dad and with a neglectful mom, became a teacher, broke up with her fiancė, moved to a new country across an ocean, survived her boyfriend haunting her and got rid of his ghost, met and began to fall in love with a woman, and had the whole rest of her life ahead of her for what might be the first time ever in her thirties — and she gives that up for a rich kid whose estranged father who is much older and who has already lost the love of his life, who could presumably sacrifice himself, is Right There. But he’s rich and a man, you know?
There is a subsuming of the self assumed by our society when it comes to caretaking and the people who are expected to do that caretaking work. That is, if you’re not in a position where you can hire other people to do the caretaking for you, or where you can put it on someone else via some kind of social structure (heterosexual marriage), then you do have to give up some of your autonomy to care for others. To a certain extent, this is a normal aspect of life that anyone with ties to anyone else will experience from both ends. We all care and receive care if we’re doing things right. That’s not a bad thing at all, and it’s what mutual aid practices are built off of. But, due to social and economic positioning, some people — women, people of color and women of color especially, working class people — take on more than their fair share, which leaves less time and energy for themselves, the relationships they want to prioritize, and their health and wellbeing.
Dani is poised to live life as a childfree queer woman, but the show yanks that future of balanced obligations and labor out of her hands by facing her with an impossible choice: sacrifice herself for an objectively cute and helpless little girl who doesn’t deserve to be killed, or, you know, don’t. She makes a choice many, many people would make in that situation. As the narrator (Jamie) says, notably calling Dani by her position and not her name for the entire story, “The au pair invited Viola into herself…” breaking the spell. It’s like the show can’t just let a young queer femme with a uterus get away with having true autonomy. The narrative puts Dani in a position where she must offer up her body, her life, her world to a kind of possession by a wealthy heiress, the ancestor of the man who employs her, of the girl she saves. Her body and soul are consumed, used, harnessed by this straight, wealthy, British family.
It’s not an exchange. It’s a sacrifice. Still, we get it. It’s heartfelt. Dani cares about kids — but here’s the thing, Henry never acknowledges what she did. There’s never a single scene where he apologizes for putting his workers in that situation, or where he thanks Dani or even attempts to understand what happened. Dani’s sacrifice is never framed as something that shouldn’t be expected of her.
We follow this scene up with yet another insult to the workers at Bly. We know Hannah’s body has been at the bottom of the well this entire time. Who gets the housekeeper’s body out of the well? It’s Owen, the man who was in love with her, and “five men from the village.” If it’s a “man’s job” to get a body out of a well, then Henry certainly wasn’t disqualified. But no, this work isn’t something he needs to participate in, even though it would have shown care for both a woman who considered Bly her home and the children — including his child — her family as well as for Owen, someone who Henry would apparently continue to foster a kind of relationship with (Owen does seem to continue to see Henry and the kids, after all). Henry’s assistant, a man he kept around because he was an enabler, killed Hannah. Henry can’t know it, but it stings to see him take no responsibility whatsoever.
And Dani? This bright, vivacious queer woman who’s already overcome so much and who is incredibly brave, what happens to her? She describes the feeling of having this evil rich bitch inside of her in haunting terms to her lover, Jamie:
“There’s this thing, hidden. This angry, empty, lonely beast. It’s watching me. Matching my movements. It’s just out of sight, but I can feel it. I know it’s there. And it’s waiting. She’s waiting. At some point, she’s gonna take me.”
Jamie, a woman who would rather be shot than fade away bit by bit, who already had to watch her dad die from an occupational hazard, who just found love only to know there’s now a ticking clock, asks Dani if she wants company while she waits, and they embark on the rest of their lives together.
But how much time do they have? By my calculation, they have nine years. At some point in the 1990s, Dani and Jamie visit Owen at his restaurant for a meal. Flora was eight years old when Dani took the job, and Owen reports she’s 17 now and dating. The following sequence in this final episode broke my heart. Dani’s taken up smoking, a subtle nod to the fact she knows she doesn’t have long, however much time she has left.
“So they’re all happy?” Dani asks of Owen, unsmiling.
“Yeah,” Owen says.
Dani responds with just, “Mm.”
“It’s interesting though. The way they talk about Bly.” Owen continues.
“You talked about what happened?” Dani’s eyes light up for a second.
“No, I mean, that’s what’s interesting. They don’t remember anything about it.”
“What?” Jamie interrupts.
“Nothing.” Dani echoes.
Owen goes on, “No. Well, just the kids. Henry still…remembers all of it. But I mentioned Hannah, and Flora asked me who I was talking about.” And as Owen is saying this, Dani’s face is inscrutable, pained, perhaps.
He continues, “It’s been this way a while, turns out.”
Dani speaks: “So…Well, if they don’t remember Hannah, they don’t remember…” and here Dani looks around, confused, like she hadn’t expected this, of all the outcomes. The little girl she sacrificed herself for doesn’t even remember who she is.
Jamie asks: “So, they’ve just forgotten it all?”
Owen goes on to explain how mild the children’s memories of Bly are, how they recognize Hannah’s picture but don’t really know her, how none of the pain or the fear of that time lives in their memories. It’s not said out loud, but it’s presumed they have no memory whatsoever of Dani, that they don’t know anything about the woman who gave up everything to save them.
Dani, looking like she desperately wants to be remembered, asks, “Do you think Henry will tell them?”
Owen responds, “Would you? I mean, by the signs of it, they’re thriving. I’d say, just let them be.”
Owen says to Jamie and Dani that they all deserve to live their lives with nothing hanging over them, and Dani and Jamie share a look.
Later, at home, Dani is silent. She breaks a dish after seeing Viola’s reflection in the water. It’s happening. The working class queers in this show got nine years before the black lung, the dementia, the cancer, the wasting away from what is, essentially, a workplace injury or an occupational hazard that no one signed up for sets in.
We never learn how Dani feels about the news that the kids don’t remember her, but we can guess. She’s used up and discarded and left to disappear, bit by bit, in Jamie’s care.
“Everyday I feel myself fading away, but I’m still here…”
Then, Dani has a scare. She almost kills Jamie, takes her by the throat in a dream state — or Viola does — so Dani goes back to Bly, to the lake, to be taken. Jamie follows, swims into the lake, and there, down at the bottom, finds that the new lady of the lake is Dani, the only one left inhabiting the abandoned sprawling estate. Dani’s wife is left alone to mourn Dani at the side of the lake, in the wet and the cold.
Now, we understand why Jamie has decided to tell this story at Flora’s wedding rehearsal, to hold a room captive, to make them look at what her wife did. Jamie, in the telling of Dani’s story, slips in an acknowledgment of something she knew Dani wanted, to be known to Flora and Miles, who the camera shows us watching Jamie narrate with rapt attention.
The tell? Jamie wraps up by saying “I’m sorry. I told you [pause] the story wasn’t exactly short.” Hidden in here is the acknowledgment. “I’m sorry. I told you.” Owen sends the party to bed, then gives Jamie a meaningful look. He knows what she did, that she told. And through this “ghost story,” she told Owen the truth, too.
Flora stays behind with Jamie for a moment. Flora seems like she suspects something, a bait and a switch because it doesn’t ultimately appear that way. She’s just afraid of losing her own love, and leans on this elder lesbian to cry about her fears around losing her man. Then, through the show’s gaze, the camera treats us to Jamie watching Flora and an aged Henry Wingrave dance at the wedding. She toasts Owen and a grown Miles from across the room while she stands all alone. She returns to what looks like a hotel room where the sink is full, and she fills the bathtub, hoping to see Dani in the reflections, then settles down into a chair, facing the door, which she cracks, clearly hoping Dani will walk back on through. As the camera pans out, we see a ringed hand on Jamie’s shoulder she doesn’t know is there, a ghostly Dani who she can’t perceive as Sheryl Crow sings “I Shall Believe.” I think the ending is supposed to be romantic, but is it?
Is it romantic, not just to bury a gay but to bury a working class gay in a lake so that a wealthy cishet man and his heirs can forget about her sacrifice entirely, so that her widow can spend the rest of her life alone and in mourning?
If class had never been brought up, if it wasn’t bleeding in through the source material and into lines spoken throughout the series, then this choice might be more romantic, might be less glaring, but it’s not played as such, and I can’t decide if the show entirely knows what it did.
The timing is ODD AS SHIT when we consider what was happening at the time, the first year of the pandemic and the ways in which the rich were and would continue to sacrifice the bodies of working and middle class people while they fled the crisis, took care of their own families, let other people dispose of the bodies, carry the trauma, tend to the sick. In October of 2020, we were watching Dani and Hannah and Owen and Jamie suffer for the actions of their employers, the ruling class, forced to deal with and make impossible choices due to circumstances beyond their control. If the ending had been louder about the injustice, then of course you can tell a story about a queer au pair in the 1980s who, due to a convergence of marginalization due to trauma and queerness and class, cannot live a long happy life. That’s certainly a real story. My issue is that it’s romanticized in a way that washes the Wingraves’ hands, that doesn’t hold them to account. And damn it. This show has ghosts in it. They could have found a way.
Still, it’s in those slips, in those subconscious biases in the media that’s allowed to make it to our screens that we can look at the stories we’re being asked to swallow, what we’re asked to be content with and accept in our lives, and what we’re asked to sacrifice for people who will never thank us.