Thursday, September 15, 2011

{review} what maisie knew

Henry James What Maisie Knew (1897)

What Maisie Knew (Penguin Classics) What Maisie Knew (Oxford World's Classics)

I've always wanted to know what it was that Maisie knew.

Maisie is a child caught in the middle of her parents' vicious divorce:
"Poor little monkey!" she at last exclaimed; and the words were an epitaph for the tomb of Maisie's childhood. She was abandoned to her fate. 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 for 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.
Her parents are ordered to share her care, with Maisie to spend six months of the year with each parent. Her parents play every aspect of Maisie's life off against each other, leaving her in a constant state of instability, and with the impression that neither of her parents care much for anyone but themselves. Whenever Maisie thinks that she has found someone with whom to build a stable home ("But it was like being perched on a prancing horse, and she made a movement to hold on to something" [Oh dear, unwitting stable/horse pun there, sorry]), she is almost immediately torn from her temporary peace of mind by one or other of her selfish parents.

...in the carriage, her mother, all kisses, ribbons, eyes, arms, strange sounds and sweet smells, said to her: "And did your beastly papa, my precious angel, send any message to your own loving mamma?" Then it was that she found the words spoken by her beastly papa to be, after all, in her little bewildered ears, from which, at her mother's appeal, they passed, in her clear shrill voice, straight to her little innocent lips. "He said I was to tell you, from him," she faithfully reported, "that you're a nasty horrid pig!" 

Her "periodical uprootings", in which she is parted from her beloved governesses who provide the only constants in her life, are described in terms of brutal dentistry: "Embedded in Mrs. Wix's nature as her tooth had been socketed in her gum, the operation of extracting her would really have been a case for chloroform."

Maisie soon learns to be silent and to observe. Gaining a reputation for dullness serves to protect her from her parents' desire to use her to hurt each other. But her parents also take on new partners - and then new lovers too - and Maisie is forced to establish her own footing with these new step-parents and hangers-on. The world inhabited by the adults is one of gross immorality, where the individual lives to please only him- or herself. (I assume that there is also some sort of Biblical force in the idea of what Maisie 'knows'.)

When Maisie's step-parents - her mother's new husband the charming Sir Claude and her father's beautiful new wife, who was also Maisie's governess - fall for each other they too manipulate the proximity of Maisie to further their relationship. Maisie again becomes "a jolly good pretext... for their game" in which the two people she thought she could trust will again betray her. 

What Maisie Knew is filled with so many instances of heartbreaking cruelty towards its observant but silent young protagonist. Maisie's mother enjoys 'scenes':
"It must be either one thing or the other; if he takes you, you know, he takes you. I've struck my last blow for you; I can follow you no longer from pillar to post. I must live for myself at last, while there's still a handful left of me. I'm very, very ill; I'm very, very tired; I'm very, very determined. There you have it. Make the most of it. Your frock's too filthy; but I came to sacrifice myself." Maisie looked at the peccant places; there were moments when it was a relief to her to drop her eyes even on anything so sordid.
"Peccant places": it is phrases like that which bring me back to Henry James, despite his sentences making my head hurt.

The reader becomes aware that while all of the adult characters in the book claim to be making sacrifices and doing everything in their power for Maisie, it is clear that all are motivated by self-interest, even Maisie's hero the lovely Sir Claude. As Sir Claude's paramour - and Maisie's old governess/stepmother - notes of his actions, he is now,
"Free, first, to divorce his own fiend."
The benefit that, these last days, she had felt she owed a certain person left Maisie a moment so ill-prepared for recognising this lurid label that she hesitated long enough to risk: "Mamma?"
"She isn't your mamma any longer," Mrs. Beale returned. "Sir Claude has paid her money to cease to be." Then as if remembering how little, to the child, a pecuniary transaction must represent: "She lets him off supporting her if he'll let her off supporting you." Mrs. Beale appeared, however, to have done injustice to her daughter's financial grasp.
"And support me himself?" Maisie asked.
"Take the whole bother and burden of you and never let her hear of you again. It's a regular signed contract."
"Why that's lovely of her!" Maisie cried.
"It's not so lovely, my dear, but that he'll get his divorce."
And there is, of course, the final betrayal, with Maisie a poor second to her friend Sir Claude's new love. But Maisie 'knows' a lot by now about life's betrayals and chooses to leave the lovers and make her own way with the only person who has never willingly abandoned her - the old, faithful governess Mrs Wix:
"I didn't look back, did you?"
"Yes. He wasn't there," said Maisie.
"Not on the balcony?"
Maisie waited a moment; then "He wasn't there" she simply said again.
Mrs. Wix also was silent a while. "He went to HER," she finally observed.
"Oh I know!" the child replied.
Mrs. Wix gave a sidelong look. She still had room for wonder at what Maisie knew. 
Poor Maisie, who knows full well that her guardian and erstwhile friend Sir Claude is so wrapped up in his lover that he cannot even afford his child a farewell wave.

Favourite lines: when Maisie is letter-writing, she is described as answering "with an enthusiasm controlled only by orthographical doubts"! On a rare occasion when she pleases her mother, Maisie is wrenched into a hug: "The next moment she was on her mother's breast, where, amid a wilderness of trinkets, she felt as if she had suddenly been thrust, with a smash of glass, into a jeweller's shop-front, but only to be as suddenly ejected..."

Almost everyone in this book was quite unlikeable, but it seemed to work, somehow. I really enjoyed What Maisie Knew - though I suspect that "enjoyed" is a bit perky-sounding for a book filled with so much misery and destruction. The writing saves this from being sheer melodrama.

Rating: 7/10

If you liked this... I wondered if Maisie would grow up into a Jamesian or a Hodgson Burnett type of heroine?

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