16 February 2016

What Maisie Knew by Henry James

This book never failed to catch my eye when browsing the 'J' section of the fiction area at the library.  The synopsis ticked a lot of boxes...it's Victorian, there's a governess or two, and it's set mostly in London.  At some point last autumn, Audrey wrote about another of Henry James's novels.  A few of us fellow bloggers mentioned that What Maisie Knew was a title from his oeuvre we were interested in exploring.  Audrey wasn't about to let an opportunity for a read-along pass us by.

Published in 1897, this is a novel that I can imagine would have been somewhat shocking to its readers.  The story begins with the end of a marriage.  Due to an agreement made between the couple three years earlier, no proceedings would be brought before the courts and a sum of money was paid from wife to husband.  Their truce eventually breaks and divorce proceedings are underway but Beale Farange is unable to repay of the money from the bargain.  In return, rather than lose her daughter as was the usual practice, Ida has custody of Maisie for six months of the year.  Rather than being a progressive arrangement, Maisie becomes the device for delivering venom spewed by both parents.

'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.'

Despite the fact the couple have gone their separate ways looking ever so elegant in rich clothes and jewels, there is very little cash at hand.  A 'crafty aunt' of Beale's agrees to take on the role of financially supporting Maisie's needs.  One of those needs is a governess who is so lovely in looks and charm that she soon becomes more of a mother figure to the little girl.

Down to some rather drawn-out sentences that seemed to drift off into tangents...or perhaps it was me that drifted off, I'm not sure if Beale Farange eventually marries the governess, Miss Overmore, out of love or spite.  But in any case, a new governess is hired who is as stunningly ugly as Miss Overmore is beautiful.  Now there are two camps hurling suspicion and abuse.  The ex-partners have each added an ally in former and current governesses.

Imagining the little girl caught between various arguments, plied for information, used like a doll for effect, and especially as a pawn, is nothing short of heart-wrenching.  A bright spot does emerge in Sir Claude.  I loved the relationship between Maisie and her stepfather and the way he would call her 'old boy' when having one of their many conversations over a meal or during a carriage ride out.  There was mention of a convivial session of smoking that made me think 'oh dear' for a brief moment considering that the poor girl was likely not in her teens at this point.  I digress.

There are stories about Victorian childhoods with far more nightmarish themes and, arguably, children from that era were kept in attic nurseries apart from their parents.  But to bear witness to your parents' affairs and vicious comments in a supposed genteel society is just so sad.  Henry James didn't allow so much as a puppy to alleviate the constant adult atmosphere.  As the story came to a close I wondered what sort of woman Maisie would become.  Would she harden her heart against anyone wanting to be close to her, or break from the mold of narcissism and conceit built by her parents?

Another aspect worth noting is that with all of the affairs and marriages there was no mention of any pregnancies.  I kept thinking that at some point someone would disappear for several months or one of the ladies would be indisposed after ingesting too much gin while soaking half the day in a boiling hot bath.  The topic might have been too delicate a matter to address but the implication was that there was a fair bit of sexual activity going on so why not go one step further towards credibility and/or consequence?

What Maisie Knew isn't the sort of book most people will clutch to their chest with joy once they've finished.  It's so sad.  But it's definitely a book you will never forget experiencing.  Thanks, Audrey!

 My First Sermon by Sir John Everett Millais (1863)

4 February 2016

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

My new job placement, through a rotation, is in a high school.  While of the teacher librarians were putting together a display last week I was asked about books I've abandoned (Villette by Charlotte Bronte at page 364) and books that intimidate.  Being in the midst of Mrs Dalloway I mentioned that I shied away from Virginia Woolf's writings for years.  I've read a few essays and Between the Acts but in Mrs Dalloway any feelings of trepidation have melted away.

This classic novel by Virginia Woolf, published in 1925, has been sitting on my shelves for something close to ten years.  Perhaps it's being close in age to Clarissa Dalloway, or the mention of flowers in the middle of our winter, that made me feel it was the right time to read this book.

Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself....

Taking place over a single day the reader is presented with the details of Clarissa's preparations for a party.  Her errands take her through busy streets of central London, and the chiming of Big Ben constantly reminds citizens that time is running out.

As Clarissa goes about her day her thoughts float through the guest list.  Among them is Peter Walsh, a past lover, who is currently in love with a married woman planning a divorce.  A habit of flicking his penknife open and closed when agitated belies Peter's well-presented smooth exterior.  Another guest is Hugh Whitbread, a former valet...'He was the perfect specimen of the public school type, she said.  No country but England could have produced him'.  Married to the Honourable Evelyn, theirs is a life lived in a grand home filled with oak furniture and pillowcases fringed with lace.  Sally Seton is to arrive soon and will add sparkle to the event.  In early adulthood she was quite vocal about socialist causes and the two friends felt an intimate attraction toward each other.   Eventually though, Sally goes on to marry a wealthy man, live an aristocratic lifestyle and bears five sons.  Sally and Hugh have been acquainted for many years and are therefore well-informed of each other's humble beginnings and the status to which they've risen.

While certainly not guests, Clarissa's husband Richard, and her seventeen year-old daughter Elizabeth are scrutinized by others.  In fact, Richard catches a glimpse of his daughter from across the room and hardly recognizes her as it seems in that moment she has gone from being a girl to a woman.

One of my favourite guests is Lady Bruton who 'detested illness in the wives of politicians'.  I especially like the image of her conjured up by Woolf as a 'spectral grenadier, draped in black'.

'...if ever a woman could have worn the helmet and shot the arrow, could have led troops to attach, ruled with indomitable justive barbarian hordes and lain under a shield noseless in a church, or made a green grass mound on some primeval hillside, that woman was Millicent Bruton.'

While preparations are under way for Clarissa's party, another character struggles with post-traumatic stress after witnessing the death of a friend on the battlefield during the Great War.  Septimus Warren Smith is a tragic figure who is so badly affected by what he has experienced that he thinks birds are singing in Greek and he frequently sees a wall of flames before him.  Moments of lucidity bring joy to his young Italian wife, Rezia, but they are too few and there seems to be little help from the doctors.  One even suggests, whether through condescension or ignorance, two bromide tablets should do the trick.  Virginia Woolf's struggles with her own mental illness and frustration with the medical world's lack of understanding are clearly evident.  

Septimus and Clarissa never meet but we are reminded that for every festivity taking place in a corner of the world there is also suffering, and sometimes not so very far away.  Through Woolf's keenly observed characters we see a brilliant portrayal of the breadth of difference that often exists between persona and person.

The iconic opening line of Mrs Dalloway is the equivalent of a first bolt in the construction of a space shuttle.  Such a humble and unassuming beginning to something so powerful in its end product.  This is definitely a novel to return to as I'm sure further readings will reveal many more facets of the characters in this stunning book.