Henry James is known for his intensely psychological character studies. Typically, the action of the story takes second place to the relationships between the
characters. Often the action is quite static, relegating the movement of the story to the psychological development of the people portrayed. We perceive
action by the unveiling and revealing of their thoughts. As is also typical of James, the characters do not all grow at the same rate, and some do not grow at
all. What Maisie Knew is the epitome of James's mastery of mental unfolding and discovery, but unlike his other
novels, our heroine is a child.
James wrote a detailed preface, included in the Dover edition, allowing us to peek into his complex thought process of Maisie's conception. He gives one the notion that she appeared as a personality, then gave him guidelines on who she was and how she must be depicted. James is not known for his humor, but it does pop often up in a very dark and dry form, mostly because we the readers see through the ridiculousness of certain characters that they themselves are not able to perceive. In this case, it is little Maisie who learns to see through the phoniness and pretentiousness of the adults that surround her. In fact, she becomes quite good at it, far excelling any of them except perhaps Mrs. Wix.. And she is surrounded by truly pathetic adults, It is through observing their horrendous behavior that Maisie develops her own set of values.
I also want to mention that Henry James's complex writing style can often be a challenge to read and comprehend. His sentences are long and drawn out, with numerous commas, and, how shall I put this—words just used in an unusual way. Some of his writings, for instance Washington Square, flow along quite easily, but I have to say that Maisie is the most difficult book of his I have read to date. Be forewarned; this one will require some concentration.
One other trait of James is to give us varying levels of information about each character. Typically, a few we know very well—we know what they are about and we know what they think and how they will react. There is very little mystery about them. They are the ones who become our friends. But there are also those who are an enigma, filled with mystery, or sometimes, just plain shallow, colorless people who we don't know much about, nor do we care.
In this case, it is Maisie's parents who are really the sorry excuses for human beings. We get introduced to the family as Maisie is a six-year-old child, and her newly divorced parents are court-ordered to share custody of her for six-month periods. About the only thing we know for sure about them, other than the fact that they are truly selfish, despicable people, is that they have nurtured an intense hatred of each other, and proceed to make Maisie the pawn for encouraging a continuance of that hatred.
The story has very little plot. Maisie gets shuffled back and forth every half-year, and meantime comes into contact with other adults who aren't really very fine examples of humanity either. Ida Farange, Maisie's mother, has hired a governess, Miss Overmore. While Maisie is quite afraid of her mother, she and Miss Overmore soon develop a delightful relationship. Without Ida's knowledge, however, Miss Overmore has exchanged glances with Beale Farange, Maisie's father, when they are out and about. When Maisie's stay at her mother's is over, Miss Overmore is, of course, ordered that she may not attend Maisie for the six months she is with her father. She, however, breaks her promise, and shows up. In fact, after Maisie return to her mother, Miss Overmore continues to live with Beale.
Ida replaces Miss Overmore with the frumpy old Mrs. Wix, who really has very little to offer in the way of teaching, but nonetheless, she and Maisie become fast friends. And ultimately, it is Mrs. Wix who opens Maisie's eyes to the fraudulence and lack of morality of the other adults around her. Maisie returns to her father, to find that Miss Overmore is now her stepmother, and from then on insists on being called Mrs. Beale. Shortly after Maisie's arrival at her father's house, Ida goes abroad, and comes home with Sir Claude as a husband.
But as it turns out, neither Mrs. Beale nor Sir Claude like their new spouses very well, but they do like each other. Maisie, now back at her mother's absolutely loves Sir Claude, and the feeling is mutual. Mrs. Wix is quite taken over by him, too. Out of all the adults, he by far is the most likeable.
Meanwhile, a number of years have passed and Maisie, still shuffled between two totally dysfunctional families, is beginning to open her eyes, and it is she who becomes the wise one. The relationship between Mrs. Beale and Sir Claude grows, and Ida and Beale Farange spend their lives having one affair after another, preferably with partners who also have money to spare, since they have very little.
There is lots of dark humor in this story, written partly to expose the atrocious behavior of the English upper class. Here are a couple amusing quotes. First, we see Maisie trying to sort out who is with whom, going through her parents, their lovers, and her step-parents:
"If it had become now, for that matter, a question of sides, there was at least a certain amount of evidence to where they all were. Maisie of course, in such a delicate position, was on nobody's; but Sir Claude had all the air of being on hers. If therefore, Mrs. Wix was on Sir Claude's, her ladyship on Mr. Perriam's and Mr. Perriam presumably on her ladyship's, this left only Mrs. Beale and Mr. Farange to account for. Mrs. Beale clearly was, like Sir Claude, on Maisie's, and papa, it was to be supposed, on Mrs. Beale's. Here indeed was a slight ambiguity, as papa's being on Mrs. Beale's didn't somehow seem to place him quite on his daughter's. It sounded, as this young lady thought it over, very much like puss-in-the-corner, and she could only wonder if the distribution of parties would lead to a rushing to and fro and a changing of places."
In the next quote, Maisie is much older. She and Mrs. Beale have gone to the Exhibition, and plan to run into Sir Claude. Instead they run into Beale Farange and his hideous new lover, the American Countess, who immediately takes off when she sees Beale's wife. Beale snatches Maisie up and takes her to the elegant home of the Countess, where he half-heartedly tried to convince her to go to America with them. Here is the scene where Beale smokes a cigarette while Maisie thinks:
". . .but if he had an idea at the back of his head she had also one in a recess as deep, and for a time, while they sat together, there was an extraordinary mute passage between her vision of this vision of his, his vision of her vision, and her vision of his vision of her vision. What there was no effective record of indeed was the small strange pathos on the child's part of an innocence so saturated with knowledge and so directed to diplomacy."
While this is not my favorite James book, I am a fan of his, and I'm glad I read it. Another reading, I am sure, would fill in all the stuff I missed the first time around, and it might become one of my favorites. If you like Henry James, then certainly this is a must-read.
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