What Maisie Knew, Henry James (1897)

The mother had wished to prevent the father,…from ‘so much as looking at the child;’ the father’s plea was that the mother’s lightest touch was ‘simply contamination.’ These were the opposed principles in which Maisie was to be educated….Nothing could have been more touching at first than her failure to suspect the ordeal that awaited her little unspotted soul.

6117068In What Maisie Knew, Henry James captures the plight of a child caught between her parents in a bitter divorce. The settlement decides Maisie must be split from each parent for 6 months out of the year, but their hatred for each other keeps her from the other for longer periods of time. Beale and Ida Farange are selfish, neglectful and indifferent toward their daughter. Their meanness is not lost on the child, who with a touching candor sees she is in the way of her parents as they look for other partners and is well aware they don’t love her.

Her parents remarry, her father to Maisie’s governess, the beautiful Miss Overmore. Ida marries the kind, but weak Sir Claude. While at her mother’s she is given a new governess, the plain, gossipy, but devoted Mrs. Wix.

After her parents cheat on their spouses, Sir Claude and the new Mrs. Farange begin an affair. With her parents having abandoned her, Sir Claude decides he wants to be responsible for Maisie and to the best of his ability tries to parent her, along with Mrs. Farange. But with her parent’s relationship in mind, Maisie fears this new ‘family’ will not last either. She loves Sir Claude, but is afraid her stepmother will make their life unstable. With Mrs. Wix also vying for her charge, Sir Claude gives Maisie an ultimatum to choose between himself and Mrs. Farange and Mrs. Wix. She chooses security and stability, even though the package it comes in would probably not, unless the players were known, be obvious to others.

My Thoughts

As the book progresses, the passage of time is a little fuzzy; Maisie grows far too mature to be only a child of six or seven as she is when the book opens and by the end the reader is not at all sure of Maisie’s age. I believe this is deliberate to show that it is not her age that matters as much as the story in general, which is an “every girls’” story of divorce or at least one where the circumstances are this dire. James wants to show the selfishness and immorality of parents who put themselves first over the safety and welfare of their child.

James gives Maisie an awareness of her circumstances as seen through the immorality and narcissism of her parents. While her tale is harrowing, James manages to get into the head of this little girl and make her strong, bright and full of wonder regardless of the insecurity of her childhood. Many entirely inappropriate conversations are said in Maisie’s presence, but she hasn’t the age or life experience to fully understand their meaning. And while the reader knows the nightmare, Maisie sees only the present moment with her innocence intact.

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Title: What Maisie Knew
Author: Henry James
Publisher: Oxford World’s Classics
Device: Paperback
Year: 1897
Pages: 275

Challenges: Classics Club

 

Madame de Treymes, Edith Wharton (1907)

And Madame de Treymes has left her husband?
Ah, no, poor creature: they don’t leave their husbands—they can’t.

 

treymesMadame de Treymes, published in 1907, is Wharton’s first work after The House of Mirth. As one of the themes in most of her fiction, this novella is very much concerned with the male/female dynamic around marriage. In this short work Wharton’s prose weaves a consummate tale of cunning and deceit, good intentions, hope and promise and the final let down.

The story revolves around the American Fanny de Malrive (née Frisbee) and her wish to divorce her husband. At this time in France, the husband must initiate the proceedings and though he granted a separation six years ago, he has not allowed for this greater termination of their union. As John Durham has proposed the need for a divorce is pressing and they hope the influence of Christiane de Treymes, her husband’s sister, can convince him. One of the issues holding back her consent to marry Durham is the requirement in the separation that she remain in France where her husband’s family has full access to their young son, which she believes will also be part of any divorce settlement. It is this control she fears and something she knows Durham cannot understand:


The moment he passes out of my influence, he passes under that other—the influence I have been fighting against every hour since he was born!—There is nothing in your experience—in any American experience—to correspond with that far-reaching family organization, which is itself a part of the larger system, and which encloses a young man of my son’s position in a network of accepted prejudices and opinions. Everything is prepared in advance—his political and religious convictions, his judgments of people, his sense of honour, his ideas of women, his whole view of life…Already he is only half mine, because the Church has the other half.

Gallantly, John responds, “If you’ll marry me, I’ll agree to live out here as long as you want, and we’ll be two instead of one to keep hold of your half of him.” And so, they are resolved.

We are never certain about the crimes Fanny’s husband committed, be they against her and their marriage or something else, but his family willingly supported the separation. Divorce is another matter entirely, though. Christiane is the most important member of his family and she has always been sympathetic to Fanny, so it is to her she and John turn. However, when John asks for her support, she asks him for help with her own serious matter: she is in debt after having taken her husband’s and family’s money and now has no means to pay it back. The debtor turns out to be her lover and she wants John to bail him out. Blackmail? He hesitates with his answer as such a despicable request sinks in. She responds:

Do you mean to give me nothing—not even your sympathy—in return? Is it because you have heard horrors of me? When are they not said of a woman who is married unhappily? Perhaps not in your fortunate country, where she may seek liberation without dishonor., But here–! You who have seen the consequences of our disastrous marriages—you who may yet be the victim of our cruel and abominable system; have you no pity for one who has suffered  in the same way, and without the possibility of release?…I don’t pretend to deny that I know I am asking you a trifle. You Americans, when you want a thing always pay ten times what it is worth.

He won’t do it. He won’t help her in this way. But in the end, Christiane still presses her brother for a divorce.

Months pass as the proceedings and court papers are worked out and prepared. John has gone abroad with his mother and sisters to wait out the decision. Days before the divorce is finalized, John pays Christiane a visit. When Christiane tells him the particulars of the settlement, which Fanny does not know yet, he is shocked to realize Christiane’s “payback.” It slowly dawns on him this means Fanny may not be able to proceed with the divorce, which of course means their marriage is in jeopardy. The full weight of the deceit contained in the divorce decree will come after the marriage and the only moral thing to do is to tell Fanny the truth now.

Wharton’s long residence in France gives her intimate access to the contrasts between American and French culture and views of American individualism vs French ties to family, church and society, which are of major importance in this novella. The story and characters are just as vivid as if this was one of Wharton’s longer works. And the ending is just as shocking! (A major spoiler, but since this is a novella it won’t take you long to know)!

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My Edition
Title: Madame de Treymes and Three Novellas
Author: Edith Wharton
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 1907
Pages: 70

Challenges: Back to the Classics

The Three Weissmanns of Westport, Cathleen Schine (2010)

My Edition:threewesissmanns
Title: The Three Weissmanns of Westport
Author: Cathleen Schine
Publisher: Farrar, Straus, Giroux
Device: Hardcover
Year: 2010
Pages: 292
For a plot summary

Participating in the Reading New England Challenge this year has helped me discover books I might not have found otherwise. For this category, I needed a book with a Connecticut connection and while I started Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, I just could not get into it. O Mr. Twain, an editor would have been a good idea….but, that’s a post for another day. The Three Weissmanns of Westport, by Cathleen Schine was an unexpected, but fine discovery.

Betty Weissmann is 75 years old when her husband Joseph asks her for a divorce citing irreconcilable differences (“Of course there are irreconcilable differences. What on earth does that have to do with divorce” says Betty)? In his case, those ‘irreconcilable differences’ have to do with another woman and poor Berry is forced to change everything about her married Manhattan life, including leaving her home. When a distant relative invites her to live in his rental cottage by the sea in Connecticut, she accepts his offer and asks her two grown daughters, who have just suffered tragedies of their own, to move in with her just until the divorce, which Joseph is dragging his feet on, is finalized.

Annie, the oldest daughter, a mother of two grown sons who works at a small subscription library in New York City, is suffering from empty-nest syndrome and a stalled love affair. Though she has always thought of Joseph as more than a step-father, she is angry and shocked at his treatment of her mother, especially having cut off her funds and kicking her out of her home. Helping Betty is Annie’s priority, her finances in particular, since Betty will be on a budget for the first time in her life. She decides to sublet her apartment and commute.

Miranda, the second daughter has just made a spectacular mess of her literary agency business. Specializing in memoirs it has been discovered that two of her well-known, that is, financially-fruitful authors lied about their rags to riches life and their books are total hoaxes. To make matters worse she appears on Oprah where she tries to justify their literary license with an “everyone makes things up,” excuse. Oprah doesn’t buy it, shakes “her iconic head,” and Miranda is shamed. She loses everything.

As the three women spend these months helping each other through their losses, romance becomes an underlying development for both Annie and Miranda against the dissolution of Betty’s marriage. The relationships are surprising and progress gently, but they are real and stable, as steady as can be in real life.

And here I must mention the Sense and Sensibility connection. While this novel is loosely fashioned as an homage to this wonderful book, there are enough differences in many major plot twists to make it not matter. I say this because you don’t have to know the classic text to fully enjoy this book, and secondly, if you are disappointed that the novel does not follow the classic text, you will be critical of it.

This is my first Cathleen Schine and I found her strong in character development, thoroughly enjoying the journey each of the three Weissmanns have to undertake to find peace and acceptance in their lives. The supporting characters, too, are well-defined, each assisting or subverting the women along the way.

Schine writes with humor and intellect and I adored the mention of so many classic writers and their novels the sisters, both book lovers, mention at various times:

Then, invariably the sisters would quote Louisa May Alcott at each other—“She is too fond of books, and it has turned her brain”—and move on to other things.

And when Miranda characterizes one of Betty’s lawyers named Mr. Mole, as Mr. Toad of Toad Hall, I howled!

The Three Weissmanns of Westpport is reading time well and happily spent.