What Maisie Knew – Henry James

[This is a journal in 5 sections. I didn’t start reading a new section until I’d finished writing about the one before, so I didn’t know how any of it would turn out until I got to the end.]

3 February 2011
Chapters 1-14
Just over a third of the way through, and things keep happening. It was first published in serial form, so James would have wanted to keep things moving along smartly – and the sometimes vertiginous pace, and the almost arbitrary-seeming succession of events, are how things should be. Years might have passed – James is careful not to keep too close a count of them – but every new turn whirls Maisie away into some new way of having to look at the world. She never knows where she is, sometimes quite literally.

Famously, this is the novel in which the goings-on in the adult world are all perceived from the point of view of the girl growing up in their midst. Except that’s not it, really. What makes James’s technique so beguiling is that whilst he’s being absolutely strict with himself in giving us only Maisie’s viewpoint, he’s adept at allowing his adult readers to understand what she can’t. It’s as though there’s an unspoken agreement between author and reader: if we let him pretend he’s only giving us what Maisie sees, he’ll give us the opportunity to subject his adult characters to any judgments we feel like. And we can tell from the start that this is going to be good fun: in a bleak comedy of manners we can see James moving his characters around to cast them, almost always, in the worst possible light. It’s James at his most controlling – but I’m fine with that.

Who are these people, just about managing to scrape their way along the uncomfortable bottom layer of upper-class society? At the beginning Beale and Ida Farange are divorced, and the legal wing of polite society, not liking what it’s heard about Ida, gives the father custody of the young Maisie. However…. Never mind how – it’s to do with money troubles, inevitably – a compromise is hastily cobbled together so that she must spend six months with each. For half a year at a time each parent feeds poisonous words to her about the other, and we get the beginning of the process of her education. She learns how to pretend not to understand what’s going on. Often, of course, she really doesn’t understand and this adds to the air of obtuseness she cultivates. They begin to think she’s slow, but we know better.

Other adults appear and take their places in a ghastly kind of dance. There are two governesses, of very different classes and capabilities, at the parents’ houses. There’s a lover, at first seen by Maisie only in the form of a photograph, for her mother. There’s a lover – the governess – for the father… so soon there are two new step-parents. Just before all this, the giddy carousel of Maisie’s peripatetic life has lurched to a near-standstill: she finds herself at her father’s long beyond the half-year as her mother gallivants around Europe finding and, it turns out, marrying ‘Sir Claude’. That’s ok: she’s been able to spend time with the highly engaging – but, as far as her education goes, completely uninterested – Miss Overmore. The other governess, the stolid Mrs Wix, brings the photograph of Sir Claude – and Miss Overmore is very happy to make it a central feature of the schoolroom décor…. She can make a point of this because she’s suddenly now ‘Mrs Beale’, and it’s clear that if her new husband doesn’t like it, well, tough.

Are you keeping up with this? Maisie is, just – until Sir Claude suddenly arrives and makes an instant hit with her: he’s even better in the flesh. Miss Overmore seems to think so, too. There’s an undercurrent in the conversation that James helps us to pick up on by having Maisie not quite pick up on it… and, in fact, he’s set a hare running. When Ida starts to tire of Claude – a process that appears to take only a few months – he starts visiting Mrs Beale secretly. And Maisie learns something else in that segment of her education that takes place outside the schoolroom (i.e. just about all of it): even perfect gentlemen are capable of saying things that might not be true….

I’m jumping the gun a bit. Claude’s first arrival at her father’s ends with him taking her back to her mother’s – where James has upgraded Ida to full monster status. She won’t see Maisie for three days, pretends, oh, all sorts of stuff when she does…. But one thing the girl does get is Mrs Wix. Right from the early chapters this woman has provided what nobody else does: a near-perfect imitation of maternal love. She’s lost her own daughter in a tragic accident that James, because Mrs Wix is faintly ridiculous, can’t help rendering as a kind of blackly comic episode. But she loves Maisie, and it’s mutual. Why wouldn’t it be? And as Ida starts to bring a rich suitor home to have a look around, it becomes clear that Claude isn’t going to be able to stay with her for much longer. For a while there’s some unrealistic talk of the three of them – him, Maisie and Mrs Wix – setting up in some sort of household. It’s a child’s dream come true – except, of course, it doesn’t come true….

…because by now, Claude has to come clean, up to a point, about certain dealings he has with Mrs Beale – as Mrs Wix has already hinted at to Maisie. One of their excursions mutates into a visit to her father’s new place, to see her. And, before she knows it, she’s staying there and not going back to Ida’s. Which means she’s not going back to Mrs Wix either, and this causes a pang. But not much of a pang: she always had terrific times with Mrs Beale when she was still Mrs Overmore, didn’t she? Hmm. Maybe she did – but one of the things that James has made sure is never far from the surface is how expensive life is, how there is always the fear of a smash. The affair between Claude and Mrs Beale – unlike that between Ida and her banker – seems built on nothing at all.

4 February
Chapters 15-20
This novel is nominally about what Maisie knows, and James wants to show us that this is a complex, fluid thing. Sometimes it’s really about what Maisie doesn’t know, or about what her parents would like to pretend she knows… or whatever. As time goes on, as it has done by the mid-point of the novel, James allows her to be more explicit with herself about what it is that she’s seeing. Sometimes, as he (not she) explains, she might not have the words, but she knows what it is that’s happening. That’s one level. But at another level there are still yawning chasms in her understanding. It’s only during Chapter 20 that she realises why Sir Claude, her stepfather has to keep well away from Mrs Beale, her stepmother. She knows that Mrs B’s late night excursions must be to see him, but thinks they are discussing her, and doesn’t guess that if they were seen together that would end their chances of keeping Maisie when the dust settles.

In these middle chapters she’s spending almost all her time with her step-parents – the ones she doesn’t recognise as a single item until it’s made explicit – but there are two long set-piece scenes set aside for memorable encounters with her real parents. These meetings straddle the mid-point of the novel so neatly it looks deliberate – an impression reinforced by the fact that both her parents seem to want exactly the same thing from her, and there are constant echoes. At one point, as her mother speaks to her, James points these out twice – then a third time in a phrase he reminds us is too grown-up for Maisie: it’s as though history is repeating itself….. It seems that when he signals things for us he likes to make sure we don’t miss them.

She meets her father first and, in a meeting straddling two chapters, James shows us what she’s learnt. For a start, she’s learnt how to recognise real wealth when she sees it or, at least, the nice things rich people surround themselves with. Her father recognises these as well, which is obviously why he’s attached himself to the woman who owns all this stuff – which Maisie sees as well as he does is better than anything owned by anybody else she knows….

But she’s learnt a lot more than that. She is infinitely more tactful than Beale – a point reinforced in a deliberately involved explanation of what he understands about her understanding of him – and she has also become, in James’s presentation of her, almost unfeasibly adept at understanding the gap between what adults say and what they mean. She understands almost from the start that by asking her to go to America with him and his new woman friend, what he’s really doing is seeking a way to leave her in England but appear to be doing the right thing. As James expresses it – he often has to put into adult language the complexities of the mental manoeuvres she has to perform with her parents – he is really asking her to ‘help me to be irreproachable, to be noble, and yet to have none of the beastly bore of it.’

She gives him what he wants. It’s a decision made very easy indeed by the arrival of the American ‘countess’ – a combination of rank and nationality that James is quick to inform us the ever more knowing Maisie finds surprising – who is dark-skinned, short, fat and with a moustache like the one that suits Sir Claude but doesn’t suit her. James, somehow, never lets us forget that Maisie is still a little girl in a lot of ways, and one of them is how impressionable she is. We’ve recently seen it in her immediate liking of the ‘Captain’, her mother’s companion in the park a couple of chapters earlier. Now, we know for certain that she will never have anything to do with this woman who is ‘almost black’. ( I’m not making any comment about the way she sees the countess in the same light as some kind of performing animal….)

Her meeting with Ida is even worse. Her defences are down, because a) Ida has put on her best show of making herself charming and b) the Captain had been so forthright in his praise of her: ‘She’s an angel!’ Things are going swimmingly as Ida wallows in the glowing light her daughter seems willing to cast her in. It doesn’t stop her from being as self-centred and vicious as ever but, like Beale, she wants something from Maisie: she’s come to Folkestone, she says, to take her back. This is just as nonsensical as her father’s invitation to America, and once she’s made the gesture Ida seems to forget all about it. She’s going to make do with finding a little something from her purse – until Maisie makes a mistake. She thinks she knows about adult relations, assumes her mother is still with the Captain after that meeting in the park, that he won’t have disappeared like all the others…. Oh dear. Her mother is thrown into a rage, and soon Maisie is ‘a precious idiot’, a ‘little horror’ – presumably because she’s had the temerity to remind her of the reality of her life. Whatever she was going to give Maisie finds its way back into the purse.

Ah, money. When did it start to be one of the main themes in novels? It’s certainly a great theme in this one. Ida’s purse trick contrasts with the dark American’s two or three chapters previously, when she fills Maisie’s hand with a ‘cluster’ of sovereigns for cab-fare amounting to about half-a-crown. As Maisie thinks, her father’s story about her ‘interests’ – the ones he needs to go to America to sort out – must have a basis in reality: the gold is certainly real enough. (Ida’s banker friend, on the other hand, is no longer on the scene: he’s suffered a smash, to nobody’s surprise.) Meanwhile Maisie’s parents and step-parents seem to survive on very little, and she is as aware of this as of anything else. There’s the exhibition at which Mrs Beale can’t spare the sixpences to enter the pavilions, her old hat given a makeover, the cold cuts which is all Sir Claude can afford for them in Folkestone… and her education, based on free lectures that Mrs Beale pretends are great adventures. ‘How to Live Well on Nothing a Year’ is a chapter in Vanity Fair, published 50 years earlier. Plus ça change.

Anything else? There’s that callous-seeming way that Maisie has of forgetting to pine about people who aren’t around. I’m really talking about Mrs Wix, off the scene again as they head for France. Ok, she’s expecting her to catch up with them at some point – yeh, sure – but, basically, so long as there’s enough other stuff going on that’s enough for Maisie. Well, that’s just it: she’s young, impressionable, has never – as James often reminds us – been offered the kind of attention that children should be given routinely. So when there’s somebody else around, particularly Claude or, in the times when he’s in a kind of purdah, Mrs Beale, that’s enough for her. It accounts for the way she becomes seduced by the presence her real parents, if only for a short time – and even a complete stranger like the Captain can captivate her if he tells her the things she longs to hear…. It’s all very plausible.

Anyway. It seems that now Maisie is finally free of her parents’ gruesome influence. Seems: they have a habit of turning up when you least expect them, and I can’t see James dropping two comic monsters like them if he doesn’t have to. At the end of Chapter 21, Sir Claude – as they spend a couple of days in Folkestone on their way to France – says to himself, twice: ‘I’m free!’ ‘I’m free’? Why not we? They’re a trio, aren’t they? Aren’t they?

11 February
Chapter 22 to part-way through Chapter 26
These chapters are making me feel a bit claustrophobic, which is ironic when Maisie has finally got to see what England looks like from the other side of the Channel. She’s travelling with her stepfather and Susan Ash, who is only a maid and something of a last resort as a companion. Suddenly we get one of those disorientating lurches Maisie is often subjected to with the re-entrance of – wait for it – Mrs Wix into her life. More importantly, she’s back in Sir Claude’s life as well, and sees it as her designated role to remind him how he ought to behave. In fact, both Maisie and Sir Claude hear her say things they would never have expected previously – and it’s clear that James needs her to do a lot of work for him. She almost has to become a different character; with the familiar clothes and glasses – the terrifying ‘straighteners’ – James has to keep reminding us that she’s the same person, honest….

Her main job – there are others – is to make a start on the next stage of Maisie’s education. You can see why she’s decided that the girl has no ‘moral sense’: there’s been a long conversation about Sir Claude and Mrs Beale, and the fact that they are now both ‘free’. Maisie thinks she knows what this means but, of all the times in the novel when the reader sees exactly what it is that she doesn’t understand, this is the most blatant so far. She looks on in wonder as Mrs Wix forbids Sir Claude to read aloud Beale’s letter to his second wife – it presumably contains graphic enough descriptions of what he’s up to in America to make it quite unsuitable for Maisie – and seems to force a promise from him that he will drop Mrs Beale.

Maisie, with her total lack of knowledge of sex, has no idea of the taboos separating men and women in society. As far as she is concerned, there’s nothing stopping her step-parents from being together now – and Mrs Wix, appalled, is transformed into the voice of Victorian convention. She also starts to huff and puff a lot, more or less literally. Where is she going to begin with a girl who’s had the role models she has?

Maybe this is why I started feeling claustrophobic. In chapter 26, Sir Claude has returned to England, supposedly to tell Mrs Beale the bad news. He’s taken Susan Ash, now surplus to requirements, so now Maisie is left alone to tour the medieval town accompanied by Mrs Wix and her disapproval. It’s Sir Claude she really disapproves of, guessing that he’s too much of a coward to speak frankly to Mrs Beale, guessing that’s the reason why he hasn’t written after three days – but it’s Maisie who has to listen to it all. And, at the point I’ve reached, I really do wonder what’s going to happen next. Maisie has idolised Sir Claude throughout the book, is proud of those unspoken conversations she has with him, those knowing looks when other people are saying difficult things. But she has no idea what makes him tick, knows nothing at all about him except that he always gives in to whichever woman he happens to be with.

Aside from an extraordinary ability to handle adults in conversation – and there are as many examples in these chapters as in any of the earlier ones of how carefully she examines her possible responses before deciding on the best one – Maisie doesn’t really know anything. At this particular moment, I know how she feels.

To the end of Chapter 26
Guess. Go on – who arrives in France with Sir Claude, looking more beautiful than ever? (We know what a sucker Maisie is for beauty, and I don’t think I mentioned that Mrs Beale has it in spades.) And, in an echo of Sir Claude’s cry five chapters earlier, she lets out a triumphant ‘I’m free!’ – as if that helps anybody. Just before this moment, which ends the chapter and, presumably, the magazine instalment, Maisie has finally persuaded Mrs Wix of her moral sense by swearing to kill Mrs Beale if she does wrong by Sir Claude. Mrs W’s response is a confession that she ‘adores’ him. Tangled web, or what?

12 February
Chapter 27 to the end
It doesn’t become any less claustrophobic. These chapters, like all of those in the final third of the novel, take place in Boulogne over a few days, and Maisie is faced with decision after decision until it all comes down to a choice that seems impossible. James keeps us guessing by having Maisie herself veer from one possible outcome to another – and when we think she’s finally made up her mind, well, she hasn’t.

Mrs Beale’s arrival throws everything into confusion. She’s on her own, and James makes it explicit that this is the one outcome of Sir Claude’s trip back to England that neither Maisie nor Mrs Wix expected. Suddenly Maisie is ‘my daughter’ as Mrs Beale stakes her claim – just as she is quickly installed in the rooms so recently vacated by Sir Claude. She’s brilliant at making everything seem like a fait accompli – just as she’s brilliant at establishing her ascendancy over the dismayed Mrs W. The poor old governess is simply outclassed by beauty, poise, savoir faire – you name it. (James does name it.) And Mrs Beale claims Maisie quite literally, folding her in her arms. Maisie is nonplussed. Less literally, Mrs B spends the rest of the day folding Mrs W in something else: her charm, which she sets working on her relentlessly – a technique Maisie recognises, from a different context, as ‘making love’. It’s the older woman’s turn to be nonplussed.

And then, next day, another vertiginous lurch: Sir Claude’s arrival, now that Mrs Beale is there, is as unexpected as hers had been. And the rest of the novel, except for the final chapter, is between him and Maisie. She’s still devoted to him, but – and this is one of the clever things James manages to make believable – she seems able to see him for what he really is. His ‘fear’ of Mrs Beale is a given – but now there’s another given: he will smile, and smile, and lie. Has he seen Mrs Beale? (Maisie asks because Mrs Wix is convinced they’ve been together in the one room while Maisie has slept.) No, he hasn’t. But, as they go for a walk, he’ll just get his stick, which he’s left in, er…. In England? Maisie asks innocently – in fact, offering him a get-out. Yes, he says, in England.

What to do? They spend all morning and into the afternoon working their way around the problem – and Sir Claude is no help at all. He really is likeable, and James has given him an assortment of absurd turns of phrase, usually to do with the way he always refers to Maisie as ‘old man’ or ‘boy’. But that’s the point. As Mrs Beale makes clear, Maisie is a girl needing a mother, not a boy – the girl decides that Sir Claude would be perfectly adequate if she were – and as a guide through these difficult waters he’s hopeless. James makes it explicit by having him imagine that Maisie is the older and wiser one. It’s easy to see what he means, which is James’s point exactly.

Possible scenarios: he and Mrs Beale live together with Maisie somewhere on the Continent where questions aren’t asked. Mrs Beale and Mrs Wix live with Maisie, with Sir Claude nearby. Or… or what? Eventually it seems to come down to a simple choice: Mrs Beale or Mrs Wix? But by the time they’ve been to the station and not boarded the train to Paris together, and to the harbour to contemplate a trip back to England… it’s come down to an ultimatum that Maisie gives Sir Claude: she will give up Mrs Wix if he will give up Mrs Beale.

In the final chapter the actual outcome is precipitated by the adults’ actions: Mrs Wix has packed her bags, giving Maisie up as a bad job. Mrs Beale begins to crow over her victory. Sir Claude, given all the opportunity in the world to choose Maisie, admits that he can’t live without Mrs Beale. What choice does she have? She goes back to England with Mrs Wix. And the fact that Maisie, finally, has proven that she does have moral sense.,.. it’s the icing on the cake.

The final words of the novel are ‘what Maisie knew’, an invitation to the reader to have a think about what she does know. She knows Mrs Wix’s value. And she knows that neither of her step-parents offers what she needs. They might both be beautiful to look at and, especially in Sir Claude’s case, might be fun to be with, but… but nothing. There’s a hollowness at the centre of them and their relationship that sends her back to the only one who has ever shown her unconditional love. This contrast has taught her all she needs to know – and James’s Victorian readers must have been as relieved as Mrs Wix. But am I? I’m relieved it’s over, definitely: I’ve had enough of them all – and, especially, Henry James. His determination to detail every last shred of every last conversation can sometimes be just too much.


4 Responses to What Maisie Knew – Henry James

  1. David Liu says:

    How the hell has this not gotten any likes yet? Thank you. Your explanation and witty commentary made this review enjoyable and I salute you for enduring this book.

  2. slidingtackless says:

    thank you very much (:

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