What Maisie Knew
Published in 1897
“What Maisie Knew” is my first introduction to Henry James. Although I’ve known James through Edith Wharton, I have never tried to venture to his works until now. In fact, I’ve never intended to buy this book had it not been for Ian McEwan’s Atonement. You see, Vintage Classics sold their books by pair (at least at the bookstore where I get my books). I bought McEwan’s and got James’ too.
Meeting Henry James was quite difficult. It has been a couple of years since I got the book, tried reading it a few times but I couldn’t get to the next page. I got distracted easily and tried rereading it but I couldn’t, for the life of me, GET IT. I couldn’t moved on! I decided to abandon it. I was painfully rejected. It seemed James did not want to be introduced to me! I know it was a crazy thought but what the heck. So for two years, it was comfortably tucked in my bookshelf.
So what started me to pick it up again? I don’t know, no, I knew. I refused not to know Henry James and Henry James cannot stop me. Surprisingly, he has not tried…yet. I am finished with the first ten chapters and currently into chapter eleven.
The book opens with a bitter divorce case between Maisie’s parents, Beale and Ida Farange. Maisie is about 6 years old – too young to understand what is happening around her. Her parents are battling for the custody of Maisie, not out of genuine love and care, but to taunt the other.
“….They had wanted her not for any good they could do her, but for the harm they could…do each other. She should serve their anger and seal their revenge….”
The final decision is for Maisie to be split to both parents, that is, she will spend six months with her father and the remaining six months with her mother – like a shuttlecock pass from one to the other and back again, as James put it. Both parents made Maisie a sort of messenger of insults. In one scene where Maisie was fetched by her mother from her father’s house, it is clear how deep the hatred each parent has with the other.
“…’And did your beastly papa, my precious angel, send any message to your own loving mamma?’ Then it was that she found the words spoken by her beastly papa to be, after all, in her little bewildered ears, from which, at her mother’s appeal, they passed, in her clear shrill voice, straight to her little innocent lips. ‘He said I was to tell you, from him,’ she faithfully reported, ‘that you’re a nasty horrid pig!'”
We can only imagine the scene that follows.
So many things had happened within the first few chapters of the book. By then Maisie had already had a nurse and 2 governesses – Miss Overmore and Mrs. Wix, a stepfather, Sir Claude – whom her mother met while in Paris, and a stepmother – whom her father married a day before her mother announced her engagement. Her stepmother is, in fact, her first governess employed by her mother and who wishes to be called Mrs. Beale.
But of all twists and turns, that Sir Claude and Mrs. Beale should meet, that Maisie – bless her innocent heart – has a deep affection to both stepparents more than her own, that Mrs. Ida Farange would fallen out of love with her current husband just as fast as she had fallen in love, that Mrs. Wix should like, really like, Sir Claude, are something that makes the ball rolling.
Henry James’ novel is an exploration of childhood and innocence. It is like listening to a child’s heart and mind speaking, questioning and trying to fit in in an adults’ chaotic world.
I wonder if my thoughts when I was a child were the same as Maisie’s. Come to think of it, did I even thought so much as a child?