The Haunting of Bly Manor’s Henry James References, Explained

By | October 10, 2020

[Warning: The following contains spoilers for The Haunting of Bly Manor. Read at your own risk!]

For The Haunting of Hill House, creator Mike Flanagan drew inspiration from Shirley Jackson’s novel of the same name. But for Season 2 of the Netflix horror anthology, The Haunting of Bly Manor, Flanagan remixed and reimagined several works of Henry James. You can see nods to the Victorian author in the themes Bly Manor explores, including loss of innocence; longing for a life never lived; and the relationship between identity, consciousness, and memory. The names of Henry Thomas and Amelia Eve’s Bly Manor characters, Henry and Jamie, also keep up The Haunting tradition of Flanagan naming characters after that season’s inspiring author, like he did with Elizabeth Reaser‘s Shirley Crain in Hill House. Plus, each of Bly Manor‘s nine episodes is titled after one of James’ stories. While for a few of these  — such as “The Pupil,” “The Two Faces,” and “The Way it Came” — the references never go much further than the episode title, other stories influenced the terrors and tragedies of Bly Manor in inventive and provocative ways. 

Read on for our full explainer on nine Henry James stories that inspired The Haunting of Bly Manor.


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The Turn of the Screw

This 1898 gothic horror provides the basic premise for Bly Manor, telling the story of a young governess who takes a job overseeing two young orphans at a remote, and possibly haunted, estate. Characters including Dani Clayton (Victoria Pedretti), Hannah Grose (T’Nia Miller), Peter Quint (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), Rebecca Jessel (Tahirah Sharif), and Henry (Henry Thomas), Miles (Benjamin Ainsworth), and Flora Wingrave (Amelie Smith) all originated in this novella — although most were depicted quite differently in the show.

Bly Manor answered several of the lingering questions from The Turn of the Screw, such as why Miles is expelled from school, why the children’s uncle is so disinterested in them, how Quint and Jessel die, and whether the ghosts are real or all in the governess’ head. Fans of the book will also recognize Flanagan’s clever spins on memorable moments from the ghost story, including Miles fainting after seeing Peter’s ghost in Episode 2 as a nod to the book’s bleak ending where Miles faints and dies. 

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In addition, the inclusion of the narrator (Carla Gugino), eventually revealed to be an older version of Jamie, has its origins in The Turn of the Screw. In the book, the tale of the governess is reshared to a group of guests gathered at a manor for Christmas by someone who had loved the doomed caretaker, much like how Jamie shares the story of Dani to the guests gathered for Flora’s wedding.

Though the show pays homage to several memorable moments in The Turn of the Screw, it also features several references to the book’s most famous film adaptation, The Innocents. Most notably, the song “O Willow Waly,” which plays throughout the season, is drawn from the movie. A handful of other moments — including Dani walking the final stretch to Bly, Miles giving her flowers, the chilling game of hide and seek, and the murdered pigeon — are also nods to the film. Dani Clayton’s last name is even a tribute to The Innocents‘ director, Jack Clayton.

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The Jolly Corner

In The Turn of the Screw, we know little about Miles and Flora’s absentee uncle, but Flanagan built out the character by blending him with the narrator of one of James’ best ghost stories, The Jolly Corner. In this short story, an American who had been living in Europe returns to New York, where he becomes haunted by the monstrous man he would have been had he stayed. In Bly Manor, Henry Wingrave is also haunted by his ghostly double, but this time the evil alter ego is a manifestation of his guilt over his Dominic (Matthew Holness) and Charlotte’s (Alex Essoe) deaths. Both stories deal greatly with the subject’s shame and the power of choices, and both have relatively happy endings, with Henry and the unnamed narrator facing their doppelgängers and finding validation that this ghastly double isn’t who they truly are.

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The Romance of Certain Old Clothes

The Haunting of Bly Manor‘s eighth episode is an adaptation of this short story and serves as the origin story for Bly’s ghostly curse. Just like in the show, it centers around sisters Viola and Perdita Willoughby, whose sibling rivalry is exacerbated when one of the sisters marries Arthur Lloyd — although in the book it’s Perdita who marries Arthur, not Viola. Details including the women living at Bly, Viola’s (Kate Siegel) six-year sickness, and her becoming the Lady in the Lake were invented for the series, but the story’s climax — in which the ghost of the dead sister murders the other for opening the trunk despite her wishes — is pure Henry James.

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The Beast in the Jungle

This 1903 novella is what inspired Dani’s tragic ending at the end of Bly Manor. The novella is the tale of James Marcher, a man who believes he is destined for a spectacular, catastrophic fate. And in waiting for this fate to come to fruition, Marcher allows life to pass him by, including never letting himself love his faithful companion, May, since he doesn’t want to subject anyone to his impending doom. But after May dies, Marcher realizes his beast has finally sprung and that his grievous destiny was to realize too late that he should have spent his life living and loving rather than obsessing over his own belief he was destined for something more. In Bly Manor, Flanagan takes these same ideas but gives it a more bittersweet spin, showing Dani still finding love and happiness with Jamie for years, despite her knowledge of her lurking beast, until one day Viola returns and Dani succumbs to her fate to become the Lady in the Lake. 

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The Altar of the Dead

Although Bly’s housekeeper Mrs. Grose originated in Turn of the Screw, the show’s take on this character has more in common with the protagonist from The Altar of the Dead. The 1895 tale follows Stransom, a man who is faithfully devoted to his altar of the dead, which began as a way to honor his late fiancé. Over time, worshipping the dead and honoring their memory becomes more important to Stransom than living life. When Stransom meets a woman who shares his ideals, it seems as though their relationship may progress — particularly after the aunt she had lived with dies, opening up the chance for greater freedom and intimacy between the pair — that is, until he learns that she had previously loved his late friend, who had wronged Stransom so greatly in life that he had refused to light a candle for him. This past grievance blocks Stransom from building this present relationship, and the pair grow apart. The story ends when the two reunite at his altar, where he lights one last candle for himself and dies. It’s easy to see shades of Hannah, as well as her relationship with Owen (Rahul Kohli), in this mournful tale about someone whose will to self-sacrifice and whose past pain blocks their chance to live life. But, like in the show, The Altar of the Dead ends with a reminder of the importance of love and forgiveness, even in the face of death.

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Owen Wingrave

Our beloved cook Owen takes his first name from this short story, and it’s where the Wingrave family gets their last name. Owen Wingrave tells the tale of a young man from a military family who decides to quit his martial education. With his family angered at his so-called dishonorable choice, Owen goes to bravely face the ghosts of his ancestors by sleeping in a haunted room on the family’s estate, only to die in the night. While the Owen in Bly Manor also grapples with balancing family obligations with his personal desires, he is fortunate enough not to suffer a similar fate. 

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The Great Good Place

The dream-hopping the characters experience in Bly Manor is reminiscent of the dream world the protagonist in The Great Good Place visits. (The characters also refer to Bly as a “great good place” several times in the first episode.) In the story, George Dane is a writer who, overwhelmed by the nonstop responsibilities of life, finds himself transported to a fantasy realm that’s free of these burdens. In this serene place, Dane’s consciousness is reborn. Through this experience, he’s able to undergo a reunification process between his inner and outer worlds, so that when Dane wakes up from his dream, he has a newfound sense of peace about life. One can see these ideas about the relationship between consciousness and identity playing out through the ghosts in Bly Manor, whose fate — losing their consciousness, and therefore their identity — is presented as the ultimate horror. In the show, when the characters slip in and out of their dream worlds, which are usually defining memories from their pasts, it’s not nearly as peaceful as in this story. But for some — like Hannah — the experience does pay similar dividends to what Dane experienced, with Hannah able to find peace and unity within herself after the dreams force her to get in contact with her true self and desires.

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Sir Edmund Orme

Dani is already haunted by the ghost of her ex-fiancé, Edmund (Roby Attal), when she arrives at Bly. This backstory is inspired by James’ Sir Edmund Orme, which focuses on a male narrator who falls for Charlotte Marden only to begin seeing the ghost who has long haunted Charlotte’s mother. Both Mrs. Marden and the narrator see the ghost of Edmund Orme, whom the widow had jilted right before they were to be married. As a result, Edmund’s ghost haunts her and anyone who is in love with Charlotte in the hopes doing so will prevent the daughter from repeating her mother’s actions. Edmund’s ghost disappears at the end of the tale, after Charlotte accepts the narrator’s proposal just before her mother’s death. In Bly Manor, Edmund’s ghost also disappears suddenly, this time after Dani stands up to him, finally ready to face him and clear a path for her future with Jamie.

In this short story, Edmund is also described in immediate succession as a “perfect” and “splendid presence,” which might have provided the inspiration for Flora’s favorite phrase, “perfectly splendid.”

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The Portrait of a Lady

The name of Viola’s daughter is taken from one of James’ most famous novels, The Portrait of a Lady, which follows a free-spirited American woman, Isabel Archer, who loses her freedom and finds herself trapped in a grim marriage to a manipulative man. In addition to providing inspiration for the name of Viola’s daughter, one can also see thematic connections between Isabel Archer and Rebecca Jessel, as they’re both two ambitious, intelligent young women whose bright futures become derailed by falling for sinister men who view them as objects to possess.

The Haunting of Bly Manor is streaming on Netflix.