What Maisie Knew / Henry James

What Maisie Knew, published in 1897, has attained a high critical standing in the Jamesian canon. It is also a fairly short book, making it a manageable read for the novice seeking an introduction to James’ work. It certainly has a premise that draws the reader into the story. Beale and Ida Farange are divorced, and their only child, young Maisie, is being used as a pawn to express their extreme hatred for each other. They share joint custody of Maisie, each getting her for a six month period.

The twist here is that her parents are selfish and immoral, caring little for their child other than to yank her back and forth simply because they know it annoys the other. For the most part, no matter who has current custody, neither Beale and Ida partake in Maisie’s daily life. Instead, she is left in the care of governesses who provide her the love and attention the child needs. Her parents remain mostly off stage throughout the novel, and the few times they do make an appearance, their self-centeredness is highlighted.

The second twist in the story centers around the people who her parents marry after their divorce. Beale marries a former governess of Maisie, Miss Overmore. Ida marries Sir Claude, a man who takes an instant interest in Maisie’s welfare. In time, her stepparents find themselves cheated on by Beale and Ida, but both both remain attached to the child. Even before separating from their spouses, Sir Claude and the new Mrs. Farange begin an affair. In the meanwhile, Maisie is abandoned entirely and left in the care of a new governess, a frumpy Mrs. Wix, who becomes totally devoted to her charge.

In the novel’s concluding chapters, custody of the now older Maisie (nowhere in the story is her age given) is again being fought over. However, this time the battle is between her stepparents and the formable Mrs. Wix. The author presents the story from Maisie’s perspective. While the adults around her act irresponsibly, the child is left to puzzle out who she can trust to provide the guidance needed to lead her into adulthood. There is dark humor certainly to found in What Maisie Knew, but the tone of this novel remains mostly serious. The story seems to be James’ criticism of members of high society abandoning their responsibility to raise their children. He does so with keen character observations as seen through the innocent eyes of a precocious Maisie. While his prose can be dense at times, the interesting storyline is masterfully presented.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: