First published in serial form in 1897, What Maisie Knew is a heartbreaking story of the impact of divorce on a young and sensitive child and a commentary on upper middle class Victorian society and its morality or lack thereof. Right off the bat, I admit that I find Henry James’ dense and digressive style of writing very off-putting. The only reason I made my way through the labyrinth is because I know his stories are interesting and insightful. I am not the kind of reader who skims through a difficult sentence; I will read it again and again till I get its import. With all due respect to the author, sometimes his circumlocutious prose has terrible syntax and does not make sense grammatically. Take any of his contemporaries- Edith Wharton, D. H. Lawrence, Oscar Wilde or Sinclair Lewis to name a few. Their language is lyrical without being bombastic and a pleasure to read! I only trudged through What Maisie Knew as I found the story fascinating.
Beale and Ida Farange are getting divorced and get shared custody of their six year old daughter Maisie. A judge rules that she spend six months with her mother and six with her father. She is like a shuttlecock tossed between them and made a pawn in their disputes. Each parent sends her to the other with little messages. Her father tells her to tell her mother that she is a ‘horrid, nasty pig.’ The parents are both involved in adulterous liasions and make her their confidante. She is caught in between the mud slinging and in their adult world of adultery. She learns to play dumb as a coping mechanism. At first each parent denies her access to the other and later both parents try to dump her on the other. They must be among the worst if not the worst parents in fiction!
“What was clear to any spectator was that the only link binding her to either parent was this lamentable fact of her being a ready vessel of bitterness, a deep little porcelain cup in which biting acids could be mixed. They had wanted her not for any good they could do her, but for the harm they could, with her unconscious aid, do each other.”
Beale marries Maisie’s governess Miss Overmore and Ida marries Sir Claude. But in a soap opera kind of twist, her step parents end up falling for each other. She is shuttled back and forth between the different adults of her life and caught in their web of sexual intrigue, deceit and drama. Her two step parents are only slightly better than her own parents. With all the different partners and changing last names, it is no surprise that:
“She therefore recognised the hour that in troubled glimpses she had long foreseen, the hour when—the phrase for it came back to her from Mrs. Beale—with two fathers, two mothers and two homes, six protections in all, she shouldn’t know “wherever” to go.”
The only person who is a loyal and constant presence in her life is her stodgy governess Mrs. Wix who has lost her own daughter and thinks of Maisie as her replacement. But even Mrs. Wix is not much different from the other conniving adults who use Maisie to further their own interests. At first, the innocence of the child acts as a foil to the vileness of the adults. Gradually, she gets corrupted by all the adult machinations she has been exposed to and has a precociousness that is quite disturbing for her age. Her childhood is stolen away from her.
Everyone stakes their claim on Maisie but she gravitates toward Mrs. Wix and her mother’s second husband Sir Claude who is involved with her father’s second wife, Miss Overmore, now Mrs. Beale. She is happy to have brought them together and encourages their affair. Sir Claude loves Maisie but he is a weak man completely besotted with Mrs. Beale. And Mrs. Wix has a huge crush on Sir Claude herself and uses Maisie to get closer to him. Oh, what a tangled web!
I was so moved by the plight of the child that I almost forgot she was fictional and wished to lift her from the pages of the book and give her a hug. She is abused mentally, emotionally and verbally. Her father calls her a donkey and a monster to her face. Miss Overmore calls her a hypocrite and a wretch. Her mother Ida accuses her of being ‘a dreadful, dismal, deplorable little thing’ and ‘a precious idiot, a little horror’. Once when she returns home after a long absence, Ida doesn’t see her for three whole days. Besides, she is isolated from other children and her education is abandoned.
Eventually her father and mother abandon her too and leave for America and South Africa, respectively. At first her father says he is willing to take her along with him to America but the poor child is perceptive enough to sense that he does not mean it and she declines his offer and decides to go to France with Sir Claude.
The choice of France for the denouement is interesting. They are away from the restrictive English society, and Maisie, on the cusp of adolescence, blossoms there to full maturity. She feels at home in Boulogne and has an awakening and discovers who she is. She also sees Sir Claude for who he is. She recognizes his fear of Mrs. Beale and is aware of his lies and ultimately she has the courage to give him an ultimatum.
There are romantic undertones in Sir Claude’s relationship with Maisie. To me the strange nature of their relationship became apparent in the last few chapters. James is fascinated with the subject of sexual repression and development in children and in Maisy’s precocity, we see seeds of The Turn of the Screw which was published a year later. Maisie had always put Sir Claude on a pedestal since she was a little girl as he treated her with a lot of kindness. Maisie’s exact age is left in the dark but she is probably a teenager or close to being one by the end of the novel. Though nothing explicit is said, there are lots of hints dropped like the way they almost leave for Paris together and how their closeness arouses the jealousy of the other two women. His body language becomes different towards her. One wonders if he is aware of the erotic tension and tries to defuse it by missing the train to Paris on purpose, needless to say, an honorable action on his part.
Maisie has to do what no child should be forced to do; she has to pick her guardian. She makes her choice after some deliberation but the ending left me in tears. It was probably the best outcome for Maisie and possibly influenced by an epiphany she had from the sight of the statue of the Madonna or the ‘high gilt Virgin’ in Boulogne. I feel that not one among her potential guardians was fit to take care of her! So I suppose any ending would have left me in tears. At first I thought that Sir Claude and Mrs. Beale were the most suited in spite of their adulterous liaison which was a scandal at the time. I thought they had the child’s best interests but Mrs. Beale turned out to be quite manipulative and selfish. I also didn’t think Mrs. Wix, the voice of Victorian morality was fit to be her guardian. She has bouts of anger and she uses Maisie as her confidante and accuses her of having no moral compass disregarding the fact that she is a child who has no idea of the restrictions separating men and women in Victorian society.
You wonder if Maisie will survive her childhood. She is amazingly resilient but this kind of toxicity catches up with you. I was struck by these powerful lines that appear early in the novel:
“She found in her mind a collection of images and echoes to which meanings were attachable—images and echoes kept for her in the childish dusk, the dim closet, the high drawers, like games she wasn’t big enough to play…A wonderful assortment of objects of this kind she was to discover there later”
The stuff children are not able to understand or process when they are little is stored in the subconscious and surfaces laters in life- in their worldview, in their behavior and in the relationships they have with others. Our childhood leaves an indelible mark on our adulthood.
I love the way that in spite of the narration being in the third person, James is able to put himself in the mind of a very young girl. There is a gap between what Maisie sees and comprehends and what we deduce as readers. This is a brilliant tour de force as the readers understand what Maisie doesn’t know. What Maisie Knew is a disturbing and disheartening story with an unusual plot. You wonder how many Maisies have lived and continue living in the real world! Alas! If only they had Child Protective Services back then!