Monday, May 27, 2013

What Maisie Knew

What Maisie Knew, Henry James

I bought a copy of this book because of a fictional recommendation.  In Penelope Lively's How It All Began, Charlottte, the central character, is re-reading it, and her thoughts made me want to read it too:

Actually it was not so much Henry James that she had wanted as a novel that would feed thoughts about the versatility of fiction, promoted by that conversation with Anton about the need for story. Story, yes, indeed, but the fascination of story is what it can do.  Henry James can tell it through the eyes of a child, and make you, the reader, observe the adult chicanery and betrayals of which the child is unaware.  Charlotte needed to remind herself of the sleight of hand whereby this is done.

I was at a bit of a bookish loose end last week when I read a mini-review of the new film version of this book in The New Yorker, which says it lacks "any approximation of James's wickedly funny voice."  That sent me off to the TBR shelves in search of my copy.

The Maisie of the title is a small child when the story opens, caught in the nasty and protracted divorce of her parents, Beale and Ida Falange.  The judge awards them joint custody, each parent to have the child for six months at a time, turn and turn about.  He has no way of knowing that they have failed at parenting as well as marriage. Both want the child only as a weapon to use against the other parent.  Each tries to make Maisie an ally, to fill her with stories about the other's crimes, to pump her for information to be used against the other.  Maisie very quickly learns to defend herself against this by playing dumb, by refusing to be drawn.  In reality she is very much aware of what is going on, she is bright and observant, and she knows far more than her parents realize.  She knows, though she doesn't understand all the sordid implications of what she knows, of her father's new friends, her mother's constant escorts - while the reader does all too well.  Maisie remains innocent, hungry for love and affection, hopeful and optimistic, smoothing over difficulties and trying to keep the peace.  James managed to create this believeable and fully-realized character, one who grows over the course of his story, without making her a Pollyanna or a plaster saint.

She is however too good for her parents.  Once they realize that she won't be used as a weapon in their battles, they shift tactics.  Rather than trying to keep her from the other, both try instead to dump her on the other.  Both parents have re-married, her father to Maisie's former governess (now known as Mrs Beale), and her mother to the younger Sir Claude.  Neither marriage is happy, though the two step-parents are very fond of their new daughter.  In fact, their mutual affection for Maisie draws them together and into a deeper and dangerous relationship.  Eventually both her natural parents abandon not only their daughter but their second spouses as well.  Maisie is left to her step-parents, but her governess Mrs Wix, is in love with Sir Claude herself, and refuses to leave Maisie with Mrs Beale, whom she considers a bad woman.  Maisie, who loves all three of her protectors, must eventually choose between them.  Whatever choice she makes will be a difficult one, not least because none of the three has any money.

I've mentioned before that I find James's complex language difficult.  With this book, I sometimes had the feeling that I was reading in a foreign language, gathering the sense of the words without necessarily understanding their literal meaning.  At other times it felt like I was wrestling with the text, trying to figure out what exactly James was saying (and I all but gave up on his Preface).  Here again though the story carried me through, all the twists and turns as Maisie moved between her families.  I wanted to know what came next, and that she would be safe, from her unspeakable parents and also from her step-mother.  I never trusted Mrs Beale, and though Maisie believes absolutely in her love, I thought it more a means to an end - to marriage first with Beale and then Sir Claude.

This story reminded of my favorite of Robert B. Parker's Spenser novels, Early Autumn.  In that book he becomes involved with the Giacomins, Mel and Patty, who are using their fifteen-year-old son Paul just like the Falanges did Maisie, first playing keep-away and then tag, you're it.  Though Patty initially hired him, Spenser makes Paul his real client.  He tells Paul that he needs to "Be autonomous, be free of them, depend on yourself. Grow up at fifteen," and then he helps him do that.  That's not an option for Maisie, unfortunately.


  1. I already like your blog, and you, but if I was here for the first time, just the fact that you put Henry and Spenser in the same blog post would make us instant friends. :) I didn't know about the movie (I need to start reading The New Yorker again) but I wouldn't want to miss that 'wickedly funny voice.'

  2. I'm not sure Henry James would appreciate the juxtaposition :) but Spenser is one of the most literary detectives I've ever read. When I lived in Mass, I used to look for him, Susan & Hawk every time I was in Boston.

  3. I know you read The Aspern Papers a while back - how does this compare? I'm finding Aspern much easier to read than any James I've tried before. He makes my head swim.
    This sounds incredibly sad - all I can think is 'poor little Maisie'!

  4. I can still remember feeling surprised at how easy I found The Aspern Papers. I'd say this ia little tougher, but the story is even more gripping. I've only read his shorter works, I'm not sure how I'll do with something longer! The story didn't strike me as sad, though I did worry about Maisie - but she was safe from all the ugliness, and not unhappy or miserable - ironically because in the end she didn't know everything.

  5. You're right about James not being the easiest of reads but when you can come to grips with him he is really satisfying. Have you read 'Portrait of a Lady' which has to be my favourite. And who is this Spencer? Completely unknown to me, I'm afraid.

  6. Alex, exactly - this was a demanding read but very engaging. I have Portrait of a Lady on the TBR shelves. Spenser is the central character in a long series of detective stories written by Robert B. Parker, set in Boston, starting in the early 1970s I think. He is a PI, a tough guy but very-well read and actually a bit of a softie on the inside.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!