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)


  1. Oh, I just knew you would write so thoughtfully about this book! I'm so glad you read with us. And you're right, they're all so cerebral about things - I wonder sometimes if it was Henry who was a little squeamish about the consequences. I'm not quite finished, but it's hard to imagine how much more could happen to this little girl. (PS I love, just love, that you have a label for 'governesses.')

  2. Maisie has been on my mind ever since I finished reading the book, Audrey. I'm looking forward to finding out how you, JoAnn and the other readers felt about the story. BIG question for me if we were all sitting down together...Did Maisie seem to converse with adults in a manner we're not familiar with considering the Victorian mantra of 'seen and not heard'?

    You can't go very long without reading something to do with a governess!

  3. That is a really interesting question! I think that some of the answer rests in the fact that children functioned as small adults and were expected to be completely compliant when it comes to adult directives. They own Maisie's pattern of discourse in a way so until she ages and begins to master that discourse, her internal voice is her own and make not match the external choices she makes or allows to be made for her. Such a wonderful book! It has been occupying my thoughts as well.

  4. That makes sense...children growing up in hostile atmospheres tend to be hyper-aware. A child like Maisie would know, most of the time, to censor their topic of conversation depending on who they're with.
    This would make such an excellent book to discuss in a group setting...there's just so many things to say! Thanks for stopping by Frances!

  5. Thanks so much for posting this. I have not read much Henry James and this sounds like one I should read. Though The Portrait of a Lady has been on my TBR list forever and needs to come first. Happy to see you enjoyed Mrs. Dalloway, from your last post!