Author: Henry James
Pages: Oversize paperback, 272
Published: 2002 (What Maisie Knew was originally published September 17, 1897)
Publisher: Modern Library
Opening Lines: "The litigation had seemed interminable and had in face been complicated; but by the decision on the appeal to the judgement of the divorce-court was confirmed as to the assignment of the child."
"In the aftermath of an acrimonious divorce, young Maisie Farange finds herself shuttled back and forth between her father and mother, both of them amoral and monstrously self-involved. After her parents find new spouses—and after the new spouses find themselves drawn to each other, as much for Maisie's sake as their own—Maisie feels even more misplaced. As she observes the world of adults and their adulteries, and finds herself in the position to decide her own fate, Henry James's rendering of her child's-eye view—his depiction of what precisely Maisie knows—draws the reader into this scathing satire of social mores and insightful meditations on familial dependence."
~ Jacket copy
Thoughts: During my tenure as a student at the university, I read my fair share of 19th century authors. While the 19th century was not my favorite time period—I took as many medieval literature classes as I could and devoured Viking/Icelandic sagas—Henry James was one of the authors that kept reoccurring. Many of my professors liked his work; however, without fail, we would always read Daisy Miller. So, even while I had a little experience with James, I never had the chance to read one of his novels. When I discovered that What Maisie Knew was being turning into a film, I decided it was finally time to settle down with something other than a short story. And, even though it was daunting, it ended up being well worth the effort.
The book opens with a vicious divorce between Beale and Ida Farange. From brief details given, it seemed like a circus of mud-slinging. And at the centre of it all is their little daughter, Maisie. The court decides that she is to split her time between her parents. Six months are spent with her mother; six months with her father. And, through all of this, both of her parents decide to use her as their own personal weapon. Sending her to the other parent with little "gems" and messages, Maisie cannot help being a carrier pigeon for her parents' continued hostility. As things progress, each of her parents remarry. And, from all appearances, her step-parents love her, care for her, and give her more love than either of her parents. However, being the people that they are, her parents decide to partake in adulterous affairs with other people, and, whether it is full intentional or not, they involve Maisie. All the while, her step-parents are drawn together out of their mutual love for the child. Instead of being an innocent child, Maisie is thrust into an adult world of intrigue, drama, and failed relationships.
From the first page to the last, this book is heart rending! It appears as though Maisie was merely an accessory to her parents. She was constantly used as a way to send hurtful and damning messages to each parent, they wanted her as their own information gatherer, and so on. Every horrible thing you can imagine, her parents made her do. And, unless she had some juicy tidbit about the other parent, neither parent was interested in her company, and she was cast off to governesses. When her parents do speak with her concerning other things, she is subjected to horrible psychological abuse.
Through all of this, Maisie is struggling with her position in the world, her family, and her role. While she loves Sir Claude and Mrs. Beale—and the idea of them being together—she wants her parents to want her and to be a part of their lives. At every turn, she is cast aside by the people who are supposed to love her the most. When each parent individually asks the child to come with them, it hurt to read that Maisie—in the maturity and knowledge gained from watching her parents' self-destructive and self-involved behavior—knew they didn't really want her but where just reassuring themselves that they did try to put on a show that they wanted her.
Honestly, this book is extremely hard to discuss without giving everything away. Suffice it to say, this book obviously spans a number of years, and Maisie grows older as the story goes on. However, while James does not tell the specific passing of time, it is obvious in Maisie's widening of knowledge, her field of vision, and her ability to learn and manipulate the games being played around her that she is aging. While this book follows Maisie, it also seems to be a huge statement from James about parents refusing to take responsibility and the decay of the system of marriage and what people will do/sacrifice in order to keep themselves happy. At the centre of the whirlwind of her parents' divorce and multiple love affairs, Mrs. Wix's batty nature, and Sir Claude and Mrs. Beale's relationship, is a young girl who has been cast aside by her parents and desperately wants someplace, someone to belong to.
The finally chapter of this book really brings home the reality that Maisie lives in. Furthermore, it also uses Mrs. Wix as James' mouthpiece to attack the behavior exhibited by both sets of parents and voice his feelings concerning the parental role. And, while I understand Maisie's final choice, I still find myself wishing that Sir Claude had been willing to do as the child had asked.
Current Pages: 16,282