What Maisie Didn’t Know

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! 

The Turn of the Screw: A Ghastly Ghost Story

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The first page of The Turn of the Screw originally published in 1898 as a 12 part serialization in Collier’s Weekly.

Who doesn’t enjoy a good ghost story? Whether it’s for the adrenaline rush we experience while reading or listening to scary stories or the curiosity to delve into an unknown and less orderly universe from our own, the human mind has always been intrigued by the otherworldly. And there’s something fascinating about this fascination itself with the world of apparitions. While browsing through the bookshelves at home, I came across The Turn of the Screw, Henry James’ gothic novella belonging to my daughter who had read it for her high school English class. It’s a sinister and chilling ghost story if you could call it one at all. For some critics have even questioned if it really is a ghost story. You won’t find bloodshed or gore or dismembered limbs but it is still gruesome and a spine-tingling horror of a different kind.

Before you rush to get hold of the book, I have to warn you that the writing style is ornate to the point of being ponderous. I am an avid reader familiar with different styles of writing and have read many classics including books written in old English. I love flowery writing (when each word is a flower and all the words are strung together neatly like a garland- you get the picture…) but when the writing is in a rococo style with run-on sentences as long as paragraphs, it makes for a very frustrating read. With all due respect, the author of The Turn of the Screw could have had a better turn of phrase. The maze-like prose made me feel distanced from the characters and robbed me of the fun of reading as I spent too much time trying to make sense of the sentence structure. Besides, it’s a story embedded within a story within another story. An unnamed narrator is narrating a story someone called Douglas read from a manuscript written by someone else. The mise en abyme technique adds to the complexity. But I persisted in spite of the labyrinthine prose and I am glad I did as this story with its ambiguity and potential for layers of interpretation offers a lot of fodder for psychological analysis.

It’s Christmastide and as per the tradition ghost stories are being recounted around a fire to a rapt audience. Someone has finished narrating a ghost story about a child and a man named Douglas says he can top that story with another turn of the screw by narrating a horrific story involving not just one child but two children. He reads out a letter penned by a young governess who was once his sister’s caretaker and whom he liked immensely and who, he claims, liked him too. The story shifts to the point of view of the governess.

The unnamed governess is hired in a remote country estate in Bly to take care of two recently orphaned children who after the death of their parents are under the guardianship of their uncle. The uncle who lives in London is happy to wash his hands of his nephew and niece and explicitly tells the governess not to contact him under any circumstance. She is smitten by the man and agrees to his strange request. Both Miles and Flora are extremely beautiful, angelic and well -mannered children and the

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“He did stand there! -But high up, beyond the lawn and at the very top of the tower.”

governess is enamored by them. They are so exceedingly good and gifted that you can sense something uncanny in the perfection. We eventually learn that the boy has been expelled from his boarding school for “wicked behavior” although it’s not clear what the behavior entailed. The governess starts seeing phantoms prowling on the property. Through the housekeeper Mrs. Grose, she learns that her predecessor, Miss Jessel, drowned herself when she became pregnant by the valet, Peter Quint. The governess gradually believes that the ghosts of these two former employees are attempting to claim her charges. She starts sensing their presence everywhere and she even believes they are communicating with the children. She thinks that these ghosts of the depraved servants are out to harm the children and that she needs to protect them. Later she starts imagining that the children are complicit with the ghosts and not as innocent as she believed them to be as they don’t appear to be the least bit terrified of them. She gets increasingly obsessed and paranoid and the story ends on a shocking note.

The rest of the article contains SPOILERS.

Trigger Warning: Sexual Abuse

It is through the governess’ perspective that we see everything. Many questions arise in the mind of the reader.

Are the ghosts real? Is she really perturbed by what’s happening to the children? Is she a victim of the ghosts along with the children?

Why is she the only one to see ghosts? Are they figments of her imagination? Is her mind playing tricks with her?

If they are no ghosts, is she hallucinating? Is she becoming insane? Does she suffer, in her isolation and loneliness, from a deep neurosis or sexual hysteria brought on by a desire for her employer? Are Quint and Jesel projections of the repressed aspects of her own psyche that she finds loathsome? ( A Freudian interpretation of the tale was first posited by Edmund Wilson in his 1938 essay,  The Ambiguity of Henry James “ a neurotic case of sex repression”).

Why was Miles expelled from school? Was it for homosexual talk or behavior? Is he precocious because he was abused at home by Peter Quint?

Were one or both the children sexually molested by one or both the servants?

Are they sexually abused by the governess?

What role does the housekeeper Mrs. Grose play in the plot? Is she genuinely sympathetic to the plight of the governess or is she manipulating her?

Did the governess commit a crime and get away with it? We know that she subsequently is gainfully employed based on what Douglas tells us in the prelude to the story.

I read the story before reading any of the critical theories put forth (and there are many- Freudian, Jungian, Marxist, Feminist, Modernist, Queer, the list could go on) to come to my own conclusions. I am inclined to believe that the story is an indictment of, or at the least, a commentary on the moralistic and sexually repressed Victorian society of the time. I picked up on many insinuations of sexually inappropriate talk or behavior while I read the story. The theory that the governess may be unconsciously projecting her

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“Holding my candle high, till I came within sight of the tall window.”

own undesirable thoughts upon these ghosts could seem a little far-fetched but we can’t deny that she seems to identify with them. One night she sees the ghost of Miss Jesel sitting on the bottom of the staircase with her head hidden in her hands. Later she is startled when she catches herself sitting in the same place and position. You wonder if she is falling in love with a boy much younger than she is. Miles seems to be seducing the governess at times and she is not immune to his charms. She does not want him to return to school or leave Bly. She may even harbor unsavory feelings towards him as suggested by some passages in the story:

We continued silent while the maid was with us-as silent, it whimsically occurred to me, as some young couple who, on their wedding journey, at the inn, feel shy in the presence of the waiter. He turned round only when the waiter had left us. “Well- so we’re alone!”

But since nothing is stated explicitly it is left to the readers to make what they will of the narrative. Moreover the governess is an unreliable narrator and you have to wonder how neutral Douglas himself is in reading out her story when he once was besotted with her.

The beauty of the text lies in the ambiguity. There are a lot of loose ends and Henry James has deliberately left lacunae for the readers to fill. In the preface to the story, he says that the reader’s “own imagination, his own sympathy and horror will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.” This disquieting story with its understated horror leaves a shudder down the spine as much as or even more than any blood-curdling ghost story as it involves innocent children. Our governess and her intentions have been dissected so much that she herself has become a ghost who continues to haunt the readers through the ages. And if there’s one sobering lesson I have learned from this disturbing story, it is this: NEVER leave children alone with anyone.