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.
In 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.
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.
Title: What Maisie Knew
Author: Henry James
Publisher: Oxford World’s Classics
Challenges: Classics Club