Home > 19th Century, American Literature, James Henry, Novel > She should be playing with toys, not be the toy

She should be playing with toys, not be the toy

What Maisie Knew, by Henry James. 1897.

Beale Farange and his wife Ida have a stormy divorce. We never get to know what happened between them; we just know the outcome: they hate each other.

It was indeed a great deal to be able to say for Ida that no one but Beale desired her blood, and for Beale that if he could have his eyes scratched out it would be only by his wife.

In the middle of their relentless hatred for one another stands little Maisie. After Beale fails to pay Ida the money granted in the first judgement, they go to court again. This time, Maisie’s custody will be shared between her two parents and she shall spend six months per year with each of them.

They need a governess. Ida hires Mrs Wix. Beale hires Miss Overcome. Maisie gets attached to her governesses “Parents had come to seem vague, but governesses were evidently to be trusted”. Life goes on and Ida leaves England to Italy for an extended period of time. Maisie stays at her father’s longer than planned. This situation suits Ida well as she takes revenge on her former husband by imposing on him his daughter’s presence longer than otherwise needed. This situation also suits Miss Overcome as Maisie’s presence provides her with an excuse to stay at Beale’s house and pursuit her goal and marry him.

When Ida comes back from Italy, she’s married to Sir Claude and Beale is married to Miss Overcome, now called Mrs Beale. Sir Claude is a charming young man who calls himself a “family-man”. He’s interested in Maisie and comes to her father’s house and brings her back with him at her mother’s. That day, he meets Mrs Beale.

Months pass by, the two marriages are in a bad way and Sir Claude and Mrs Beale are attracted to each other. Ida cheats on Sir Claude. Beale cheats on Mrs Beale. The two new partners want to set free and be together. In the meantime, Mrs Wix takes care of Maisie. “The charm of Mrs Wix’s conveying that somehow, in her ugliness and her poverty, she was peculiarly and soothingly safe”.  

I won’t give too many details but I felt terrible when reading What Maisie Knew. I felt a lot of compassion for Maisie and as a parent, reading what was done to her was almost unbearable. How can the adults in Maisie’s life be so childish and selfish? They utilise her. She’s a carrier pigeon supposed to bring hateful messages from one parent to the other. Miss Overcome uses her to marry Mr Farrange. Sir Claude uses her against his wife who frightens him. Mrs Beale uses her to get close to Sir Claude. Mrs Wix is probably the only one who genuinely loves her a little bit but she’s desperately in love with Sir Claude, so she may use Maisie to be near Sir Claude who does spend time with Maisie. No one sincerely loves Maisie for herself without expecting anything else in return but her love.  

In this sad tale, James is ahead of his time for two issues: the divorce and its aftermath and the lucidity of children. Children perceive more than they can express and thus more than the adults think they do. Maisie is no exception.

It was to be the fate of this patient little girl to see much more than she at first understood, but also even at first to understand much more than any little girl, however patient, had perhaps ever understood before.

After that divorce, Maisie’s childhood is over. She can’t afford to be joyful, unconcerned or buoyant. She isn’t a child any more. She learns what she shall say and what she shall hide. She acquires the skill to avoid touchy questions and dodge tricky situations.  

These adults are driven by their passion and have no sense of duty or of responsibility at all. They are unable to ignore their needs to take care of a child. They act on a whim, mix Maisie into their love affairs, retrieve her from a home without thinking any moment of her feelings. A child needs at least three fertilizers to grow: love, security and a solid education. Maisie has none of the three.

The adults around her don’t love her. They pretend to love her because their open love for her serves their interests. They demonstrate their love through hugs, carresses and kisses. But Maisie isn’t so easily deceived. She soon simply states: “Mamma doesn’t care for me”. Coping with indifference is one thing. Facing hatred and underhand manoeuvres is another thing. Reading the passages I had highlighted, I was hit by the raw violence the child had to deal with. Mrs Beale tells her “Have you been a hideous little hypocrite all these years that I’ve slaved to make you love me and deludedly believed you did?” Her mother throws to her face “Your father wishes you were dead”. Mrs Wix confides her “You know your mother loathes you, loathes you simply”. How can a child survive to such verbal violence?

Security isn’t part of her world either. She can be moved from one house to the other at any moment, separated from her governess, almost kidnapped and brought to France. She constantly thinks about how she should act, not to bring any ire on her. She lives with an uncomfortable fear sitting in a corner of her mind:

She therefore recognised the hour that in troubled glimpses she had long foreseen, the hour when –the phrase for it came back to her from Mrs Beale – with two fathers, two mothers and two homes, six protections in all, she shouldn’t know “wherever” to go.

She perceives that the adults face financial insecurity. Her father abandons his home to live with an ugly rich mistress. Her mother seems to survive on her lovers’ income. 

No one cares about her academic education. (Would it be the same if Maisie were a boy?) As their parents are totally unable to overcome their hatred for each other, they can’t agree on the choice of a unique governess who would follow Maisie and change of house every six month. They hire one governess per home, exposing their child to the absence of a stable figure in her life and to an erratic education. After Miss Overcome’s marriage with Beale, Mrs Wix will be her only governess. And what a governess! She was probably elected because she’s ugly and cheap. Maisie receives no structured education; Mrs Wix teaches her what she fancies without any schedule. The school room is poorly decorated, dull, cold showing how little Ida cares for her daughter’ well-being. 

All the adults around her fail her. They see her either as a weapon or as a burden, sometimes as an ally. Ida and Beale are too preoccupied with chasing lovers. Miss Overcome/Mrs Beale is driven by ambition and then by passion. Sir Claude is probably fond of Maisie but too weak to fight against Ida and Mrs Beale’s will and choose duty over passion. Mrs Wix takes her as her confident, exposing her to thoughts and feelings unsuitable for her age.

James shows us the events through Maisie’s eyes which are less and less innocent as time goes by. I wonder what kind of adult can Maisie become after such a dreadul childhood. 

A word about James’s style. I struggled with his prose. Some tortuous sentences needed several reading to be understood. My English isn’t the only cause, I guess James is difficult to read for Anglophones too. Sometimes I just couldn’t figure out where he wanted to take me. He sort of lost himself in circumvolutions full of semi-colons and French use of commas. Like in here:

It didn’t spoil it that she finally felt he must have, as he became restless, some purpose he didn’t quite see his way to bring out, for in the freshness of their recovered fellowship she would have lent herself gleefully to his suggesting, or even to his pretending, that their relations were easy and grateful.

Ouf!! Proust’s long sentences are a summer path in the countryside where a wanderer muses, James’s long sentences are a mountain path taken by a reader who sweats and suffers to reach the summit. A little editing would have been welcome from time to time.

I certainly didn’t have fun reading What Maisie Knew. It demanded a tremendous amount of concentration and the miserable life of this poor little girl overwhelmed the mother I am. However I’m glad I’ve read it. It was one of the books Kay and Jonathan discuss in Un homme à distance. I guess I know the link between Maisie and Kay’s brother.

PS: Thanks to Sarah from A Rat in the Book Pile, I have found another review of What Maisie Knew here.

  1. April 20, 2011 at 2:31 am

    I can’t remember which James novel I was reading, but I came across a sentence that was about a page long. It made no sense whatsoever and I became completely lost in it. Poor Henry James (and he is a favourite) but he did himself no kindness. May I suggest the marvellous book Author, Author by David Lodge. It’s a wonderful fictional exploration of James’s personal demons.

    As I read the review I too thought that James was ahead of his time.

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    • April 20, 2011 at 7:52 am

      I’m glad I’m not the only one to get lost. I wonder what it means for Nick in The Line of Beauty to love James so much. After all he gets lost in his life, unable to find a path that made sense.
      I’ve read something like 10 David Lodges and you pick one I haven’t read. Thanks for the recommendation.

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      • April 20, 2011 at 5:52 pm

        I am a James fan. Can’t argue that, so I tend to overlook some of his problems.

        The Lodge book was slammed by some but I loved it. I thought it gave incredible insight into James’s art, style and problems. I had no idea how overlooked (criminally so) he was in his lifetime.

        Quite sad really.

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  2. April 20, 2011 at 7:02 am

    I also bought this after having read Pancol but didn’t get to it yet. I love Henry James. I have never considered him to be difficult in any way although I hear this often. Maybe the books I read were not (Portrait of a Lady, Washington Square, the Turn of the Screw, The Europeans). The topic of the book didn’t interest me as much as the others I read and your review makes it indeed sound like something very bleak. How do you survive this as a child? I could tell you a lot about it. Parents do not have to be divotced to be cruel but in Maisie’s case, I guess, what makes it even more difficult is the fact that both parents are equally mean. On the other hand I think Jaes shows a dilemma of divorced people with children who really hate each others guts and I often wondered how they do it. If you have to continue to see the other person because of your children might this not lead, in immature people, to the hatred of the child? I already feel sorry for little Maisie and haven’t even read the book… I can see how this did overwhelm the mother you are but it would also overwhelm me at times because I grew up with an almsot sadistically mean mother.

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    • April 20, 2011 at 8:27 am

      I’ve also read Washington Square (in English) and Daisy Miller (in French) and I didn’t notice those long sentences. It depends on the book, I guess.

      Your comment made me realise that I didn’t point out that What Maisie Knew isn’t a book against divorce and I should have said it. James’s point isn’t to show that divorces are a disaster for children or something like that. And actually, the violence Maisie has to face isn’t due to the divorce in itself, as you say, she “just” has mean and careless parents. These two persons shouldn’t have children, that’s all. But at the time they didn’t have a choice. Writer Yves Simon once said he didn’t have any children because he had never met a woman with whom he could imagine to live at least 20 years. And he thought his couple had to last at least 20 years, for the child’s sake. It stayed with me as something quite reasonable.

      About your last part. I’ve always thought you’re more married to someone when you have a child together than by signing a paper in front of a mayor. This partner will never go out of your life after that. Yes I can understand how the hatred can turn on the child and it needs a lot of maturity to remember that the child isn’t responsible for the conflicts and the decisions the adults make. Sadly we all know examples of divorces which turned into hell for the children and marriages or relationships that aren’t happy enough for the children to grow up peacefully.

      You already feel sorry for little Maisie? Wait until you read the book and you’ll feel more than sorry because with my post you only caught a glimpse of what these criminals do to her. I can’t put this book out of my head. This morning, my children complained about the menu I left to the nanny for their lunch. They didn’t want green beans like last Wednesday. At first, it irritated me. Then I recalled Maisie and all her real siblingsin the world and I was grateful that their only concern was not to eat green beans again.

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    • April 20, 2011 at 5:51 pm

      Caroline: Those are considered some of his best.

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  3. leroyhunter
    April 20, 2011 at 9:35 am

    I’m not going to read the review in detail bookaround as I bought this the other day so hope to get to it soon. I read some shorter James recently and it gave me a taste for him again…it’s been years since I read him.

    I know his later stuff (of which this is an example) is tough going for the native speaker (as Guy said) so my hat is off to you for tackling it…

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    • April 20, 2011 at 9:41 am

      Well I hope you’ll get back here and leave a comment after you read it. I wonder how you’ll respond to it, as a father, as a reader, as a man and if you’ll be as upset as me.
      I wanted to tell you, if you ever want to share about a book you loved, e-mail me and we’ll arrange a guest post for you.
      As for James’s style and language, well, I’m glad I’m French, it helps for 19th C books. I loved the part in France with its not-translated French sentences.

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    • April 20, 2011 at 5:57 pm

      Leroy: there’s a post somewhere on my site about reading Henry James, and even he thought that the Ambassadors should be read in small stretches.

      I really liked the Aspern Papers if anyone wants another rec.

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  4. leroyhunter
    April 20, 2011 at 10:00 am

    What a kind offer! Thanks a million, I’ll keep it in mind.

    Yes I’ll pop back when I read it. I have another one (The Lesson of the Master) I want to read first, but it’s quite short.

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  5. April 20, 2011 at 6:41 pm

    Between you and Nancy (the review you tracked down on Silver Threads) I am going to have to read this. I was considering Aspern Papers next, as recommended by Max, but What Maisy Knew is a strong contender.

    Both works are available at Project Gutenberg, but I quailed when I saw the length. There are limits to how much screen-reading is tolerable.

    I think what I like most about your review is the impression you give of the huge emotional impact of this story, magically achieved by James through the driest of styles. I probably said this before but, speaking of style, even as an anglophone I do have to concentrate and re-read some of those tortuous sentences. You have my admiration!

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    • April 20, 2011 at 6:54 pm

      I’m glad there are several potential readers for this. I’m curious to read your posts about it because I found it hard emotionally. There’s a distance between the text and the violence of the words and the compassion the reader (and the author) feel for Maisie. It’s not told in a tearful voice. The clinical and sometimes funny style create a distance but don’t withdraw the emotion.
      I forgot to say : James can be very funny.

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  6. April 20, 2011 at 7:52 pm

    I’m a big Aspern Papers fan (I’d forgotten I’d recommended it to Sarah but the recommendation holds good).

    This sounds excellent. Possibly a little close to home though as I grew up with parents divorced and difficult family circumstances. Still, it sounds challenging and intelligent.

    Have you read Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha? That’s a marvellous portrayal of marital breakdown through a child’s eyes.

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    • April 20, 2011 at 7:58 pm

      I don’t know this book, I’ll look it up, thanks. (and note down Aspern Papers, second recommendation after Guy’s)

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  7. leroyhunter
    April 21, 2011 at 10:57 am

    Aspern Papers seconded (or thirded).
    Also worth a look: The Coxon Fund, a lean 100 pages or so, very funny, and features one of those 19th century “I’m ruined!” episodes that was discussed on the Balzac thread.

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  8. September 21, 2012 at 1:19 am

    Did you know that this is coming out in a film version–updated to modern New York and featuring Julianne Moore.

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    • September 21, 2012 at 4:31 pm

      No, I didn’t know, thanks for the tip. Julianne Moore will be the mother or the governess?

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      • September 22, 2012 at 1:14 am

        I’m not sure. The film just showed at the Sundance film festival and was picked up there. It’ll be in cinemas next year. I’d guess the mother, but I could be wrong.

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  1. January 1, 2012 at 1:09 am

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