What Maisie Knew
By: Henry James
Format: eBook; my copy
After her parents’ bitter divorce, young Maisie Farange finds herself shuttled between her selfish mother and vain father, who value her only as a means for provoking each other. Maisie—solitary, observant, and wise beyond her years—is drawn into an increasingly entangled adult world of intrigue and sexual betrayal until she is finally compelled to choose her own future. Published in 1897 as Henry James was experimenting with narrative technique and fascinated by the idea of the child’s-eye view, What Maisie Knew is a subtle yet devastating portrayal of an innocent adrift in a corrupt society.
This is the third novel I’ve read by Henry James (also read The Turn of the Shrew and Daisy Miller (review) earlier this year). I was curious about this novel because of the adaptation coming out starring Julianne Moore and Alexander Skarsgård. May contain some minor spoilers ahead!
Lo and behold, if I was focusing much about Henry James and the subject of parenting in Daisy Miller, it is the major theme of this novel. Poor Maisie is treated merely as a bargaining chip in her parents’ very bitter divorce, carted between their places and being told all sorts of things by both parents as a way of getting back at the other. Of course, Maisie starts off rather cluelessly, as any child her age would, but over time realises just how poorly she’s being treated by her parents.
Ugh, the Faranges, talk about best parents of the year < / sarcasm >, they really are the worst. They really did not care about Maisie at all; I always bristled whenever they called her horrible and a monster because she’s not siding with the parent or because she’s not talking to the parent much because what the heck, man, she did nothing wrong. They treat her like she’s excess baggage, which is very sad because Maisie is very bright; she’s just terrified of how to act around her parents. Her biological father is weak and her mother is confusing and they’re both just so horribly selfish and self-involved.
Sir Claude and Mrs. Beale, her step-parents, were better in that they treated her with far more kindness, love and attention, all of the things that Maisie as a young girl needs. I thought it was a little cute and hilarious how Sir Claude would refer to Maisie as “dear boy” and “old man”; it was also intriguing how, although he’s good with children, he treats Maisie like an adult–yes, he still beats around the bush and doesn’t refer to specifics about the adult way of things, but they do discuss, and I think it’s the first time that Maisie has a frank discussion about her feelings, maybe more so than with Mrs. Beale (or maybe she also had such discussions with Mrs. Beale and I forgot because her scenes with her were early in the novel). I was rooting for things to work out with those two because they seemed to genuinely care for Maisie’s well-being and was disappointed that in a way they also used Maisie to get what they want.
It’s interesting how it’s Mrs. Wix who had Maisie’s welfare in mind throughout the whole novel if only because she was rather annoying at times. I feel like Henry James was trying to shoehorn the morality aspect into the story; don’t get me wrong, it’s very important in this story in the face of such unbridled selfishness that’s rampant throughout, but through Mrs. Wix it comes across as heavy-handed.
While the story pretty much glued me to my eReader until the wee hours of morning, Henry James’ prose in this novel is dense. There’s a lot more narrative than dialogue and I thought much of it could’ve been edited and condensed to make the story flow more smoothly. The second half of the novel was a bit confusing because it was like sifting through all the lies: who was telling the truth? Who has the most to gain out of the situation? Talk about the complication of adult lives, and the reader sees that complication through Maisie’s eyes.
Overall What Maisie Knew is an interesting novel that very much resonates today. When relationships dissolve, it’s always the children who are most affected by these changes. The writing can be plodding but I kept reading because I felt for Maisie and was rooting for her to have a happy and stable ending.
As an aside, I kind of hope that the modern adaptation will change the ending
a bit; I’m biased, Alexander Skarsgård and Joanna Vanderham are too precious with Onata Aprile’s Maisie (judging by the trailer and the clips I’ve seen).
Edit: Also, this is accurate about this novel (click to enlarge):