The Innocents

The Innocents ★★★★★

Part of Hoop-Tober

“But they haven’t been good, merely easy to live with.”

Beware the well-read virgin. So the saying goes. The imagination will be well lubricated by the endless tomes over which she has pored. She will know of the world, but will not be a part of it—what is worse, she will see this as a virtue rather than a liability. Hers will be a conviction that treats faith as the evidence of things unseen, an unseemly melding of hope and conclusion and fancy into an irrefutable approximation of truth. She will insist upon nothing but the best from people, and will assume nothing but the worst.

Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr, in a tour de force performance) is the quintessence of unsullied virginity. She is a woman of a certain age, daughter of a country parson, having lived her entire life in the English countryside, educated and thoughtful but too suspicious of human nature to be first-class marriage material. And if a woman is not marriage material at the height of the Victorian era, what is she to do? Look for a suitable position, of course. One need not look too far, one’s genitalia having consigned suitability to the fields of nursing, teaching, and childcare. Fortunately for Miss Giddens, a fitting post has recently been vacated.

Miles (Martin Stephens) and Flora (Pamela Franklin) require a governess, you see. Their uncle (Michael Redgrave), a London gentleman with neither the time nor the inclination to care for his orphaned niece and nephew, demands only one characteristic of his employee: she must take full charge of the children and trouble him with absolutely nothing. While one might think such a man hardhearted and callous, Miss Giddens’ perspicacity is limited by her belief in its limitlessness. Where another might see unctuousness and cruelty, Miss Giddens sees a man entrusting her with an all-important task, and it stirs something in her loins—something about which she has only read (and always in the most euphemistic of terms). She adores children, and she will care for them as though her world depended upon it.

Like her Victorian mores, Miss Giddens pays lip-service to moderation while never countenancing it. After all, well begun is but half done. To truly do her job, she must tirelessly preserve the innocence of Bly, the country estate at which little Miles and Flora live, and of the children themselves. Innocence—defined chiefly as the denial of fundamental human urges in favor of an imagined-but-impossible wholesomeness—is never better embodied than by a child, from whom it flows most naturally. As anyone who has ever dealt with children can attest, they are the picture of purity. They never misbehave, never throw tantrums, never act mercurially or capriciously, never find pleasure in the lewd or scatalogical, and most of all, they never, ever lie.

But to be vigilant in the preservation and perpetuation of innocence is to focus one’s imagination on its sullying, on the sordid and wicked and sinister. Her father often preached about the evils of sin, and she heeded his lessons, tamping down her urges, though she admits to getting carried away. It happened to her in London with the children’s uncle, so persuasive and charming was he in his desire to shuttle off the little urchins to somewhere and someone not in close proximity. She is used to utilizing her imagination to conjure up the darkest of ill deeds, all the better to be on the lookout for their manifestation. Fortunately, no one has ever seen what one wished to see simply because one wished to see it.

She only cares about the children, you see. She loves them, loves them more than anything. There is nothing disturbing about being devoted to children at the expense of interaction with adult concerns, nothing dangerously stunted about that approach. She simply aligns herself with purity—thus her relentless and morbid concern with contamination. It is so hard to maintain the boundary between the clean and unclean. The vivid white roses decay and their petals fall as you touch them. The cherubic statues in the garden conceal black insects. One must be a constant sentinel, for the world threatens always to fall into disrepair and disrepute. It is only through one’s own goodness and rightness that good and right may prevail.

Miss Giddens is not the only imaginative one on Bly’s grounds, though that adjective would never be applied to the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose (Megs Jenkins), a simple, old-fashioned soul whose preferred method for coping with tribulation is to brush it away with her duster. Stuff and nonsense, she says. But recently expelled Miles is quite creative, especially with his vocabulary, or so says his former headmaster. Miles is creepily mature—or perhaps he is just copying behavior he has seen in others as children do, others like Peter Quint (Peter Wyngarde), the darkly handsome former valet who passed away suddenly. Flora is also creative, playing make believe and shrieking in delight at a spider eating a moth. Flora was so close to Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop), the former governess, who died so tragically. Flora, so creepily pert and doll-like, intuited that Miles would soon be coming home before his expulsion letter ever arrived—or perhaps she just has a child’s lack of comprehension of time.

The children whisper day and night, always giggling to themselves. What stories are they sharing? Are they simply being naughty in their childish way? Are they stoking their imaginations with stories and fairy tales and wild interpretations of glimpsed adult misdeeds as is children’s wont? Or have they been corrupted by the figures seen around the grounds, seen through windows and on the roof and in the reeds. Figures seen only by Miss Giddens, but figures who must be there. She is imaginative but not impaired. You believe her, don’t you? You must! She is a right-thinking, Christian woman from a good home. Quint and Miss Jessel—they are the evil ones, lurking about the house, possessing the children, carrying on their sordid affair through these...these innocents. Oh, it pains her to think of such prurient things, of the foul words and fouler deeds to which these children have been exposed, of the impropriety being thrown in their young faces. Anyone who would insist upon foisting such unwholesomeness on the children must be monstrous, a terrible tormentor of two young souls. Who would do such a thing? Who indeed.

There is only one way to save the children. They must be forced to confront the evil specters haunting them at every turn. Only by facing down the demons may they truly be free. It is at the heart of Miss Giddens’ teaching—only through relentless vigilance against iniquity, only by constantly having on one’s mind the terrible misdeeds that could hide behind any seemingly lovely person, may one truly be confident in one’s own lack of corruption. Poor Mrs. Grose, so unimaginative, so dull. What is she to tell the children’s uncle, she asks. Why, the truth, of course! The truth is, after all, only one objective thing, and Miss Giddens has shared it with Mrs. Grose. She thinks a body can only judge themselves, but no, Miss Giddens knows better. Hers is a purity that can be imposed on others. Hers is a judgment born not of judgmentalism but of truth. She must help people, help them even if they refuse, help them even if it hurts them sometimes. But she would never truly hurt them. She wants only to save the children, not destroy them! Like all good parsons’ daughters, she clings to the Gospel’s assurance that the truth will set them free. And like all good parsons’ daughters, she glosses over such freedom’s prerequisite—knowledge of the truth—as being coterminous with her beliefs. After all, she can't simply have imagined it....

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