Mike Flanagan's Netflix series, The Haunting of Bly Manor, is based off a novella by Henry James, The Turn of the Screw, that was written in 1989, but when does the series take place?
Flanagan largely draws from James' novella for the bulk of Bly Manor's story, but he also utilizes other works by James to fill out the details and flesh out the story. Though not a sequel to his first outing in the series, The Haunting of Hill House, which was based on the Shirley Jackson story, audiences will be pleased to see the return of several cast members, specifically Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Henry Thomas, Kate Siegel, and Victoria Pedretti as Dani Clayton, the governess who is tasked with caring for two peculiar children at the titular manor. After being hired by Henry Wingrave (Thomas), she becomes the live-in caregiver, and quickly starts to notice that there are many mysterious happenings at Bly Manor, both with the children and throughout the manor's winding halls.
Similarly to the other 2020 adaptation of The Turn of the Screw, Floria Sigismondi's The Turning, Flanagan updates the setting of Bly Manor to the late 1980s — 1987, to be exact. This is where the primary events of the story, Dani's involvement with the manor, takes place. However, there are events that occur before Dani's arrival, either earlier the same year or a few years prior, to set up the background. Another interesting plot device is Flanagan's use of a narrator (Carla Gugino), who tells Dani's story to a group of wedding party guests, as well as the bride and groom. These events, which frame the larger story, take place 20 years later, in 2007. A third setting—one that was kept very much under wraps—was employed late in the season.
The majority of The Haunting of Bly Manor episode 8 takes place "toward the middle of the 17th century". While encompassing an entire episode, the reason for taking audiences into the 1600s, roughly 300 years before the primary story is set, is to establish the background of a very important character — the Lady in the Lake. Though audiences are familiar with the Lady in the Lake, as she's directly responsible for the deaths of many who haunt Bly Manor earlier on in the show, her connection to the manor is explored in episode 8, "The Romance of Certain Old Clothes". She is revealed to be a young woman named Viola (Kate Siegel), who was raised in Bly Manor. After her father's passing, knowing that she couldn't own property—and, as such, would lose control of the manor—she chose to marry, to ensure the property was passed to her husband.
However, after giving birth to a daughter, Viola fell ill. Her stubbornness kept her alive for years, and she became dark and bitter due to her sickness. Eventually her sister, Perdita, smothered her to death. Perdita and Viola, despite being close initially, developed some bad blood between them due to Viola's husband taking a romantic interest in Perdita, which developed slowly over the course of Viola's illness. After Viola's death, her spirit ended up staying trapped in the manor—again, due to sheer willpower and a desire not to ever be separated from her home. Over time, her memories and sense of self and purpose faded, but she stayed in a continuous loop through the same path in the manor and back outside, to the lake.
Each setting works well together to explore the three stories—all of which are directly connected to women—in The Haunting of Bly Manor. The 1600s-based setting is set around Viola, the 1987 setting is focused on Dani, and the 2007 setting revolves around the narrator, who is revealed to be Jamie (Amelia Eve) in the series' bittersweet, heart-wrenching conclusion. Though juggling multiple timelines is no small undertaking, the fact that the story is primarily set in 1987, only shifting periodically to the narrator or segueing into the past during episode 8, helps the narrative remain linear and uncomplicated throughout.