Posts Tagged ‘What Maisie Knew’

She should be playing with toys, not be the toy

April 19, 2011 21 comments

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.

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