What Maisie Knew
|What Maisie Knew|
First edition cover of What Maisie Knew
|Publisher||William Heinemann, London
Herbert S. Stone, Chicago
|Publication date||September 17, 1897 (Heinemann)
October 16, 1897 (Stone)
|Media type||Print (Serialized)|
|Pages||304 pp (Heinemann)
470 pp (Stone)
What Maisie Knew is a novel by Henry James, first published as a serial in the Chap-Book and (revised and abridged) in the New Review in 1897 and then as a book later that year. The story of the sensitive daughter of divorced, irresponsible parents, What Maisie Knew has great contemporary relevance as an unflinching account of a wildly dysfunctional family. The book is also a masterly technical achievement by James, as it follows the title character from earliest childhood to precocious maturity.
When Beale and Ida Farange are divorced, the court decrees that their only child, the very young Maisie, will shuttle back and forth between them, spending six months of the year with each. The parents are immoral and frivolous, and they use Maisie to intensify their hatred of each other. Beale Farange marries Miss Overmore, Maisie's pretty governess, while Ida marries the likeable but weak Sir Claude. Maisie gets a new governess: the frumpy, somewhat-ridiculous but devoted Mrs. Wix.
Both Ida and Beale soon cheat on their spouses; in turn, Claude and the new Mrs. Farange begin an affair with each other. Maisie's parents essentially abandon her and she becomes largely the responsibility of Sir Claude. Eventually, Maisie must decide if she wants to remain with Sir Claude and Mrs. Farange. In the book's long final section set in France, the older (probably teenaged) Maisie struggles to choose between them and Mrs Wix, and concludes that her new parents' relationship will likely end as her biological parents' did. She leaves them and goes to stay with Mrs. Wix, her most reliable adult guardian.
WARNING: this section has a very strange tone
Knowledge and education form a major theme in this tale of Maisie's upbringing. Her observation of the irresponsible behavior of almost all the adults she lives with eventually persuades her to rely on her most devoted friend—if the least superficially-attractive adult in her life—Mrs. Wix.
The novel is also a thoroughgoing condemnation of parents and guardians abandoning their responsibilities to their children. James saw English society as becoming more corrupt and decadent, and What Maisie Knew is one of his harshest indictments of those who can't be bothered to live responsible lives.
James leavens the sorry doings with a dose of dark humor. For instance, the dumpy Mrs. Wix falls victim to an unintentionally humorous infatuation with the handsome Sir Claude.[neutrality is disputed] Also, James often plays Maisie's lightweight father for laughs, as when he gets involved with a woman he tells Maisie is an American "countess."
Literary significance and criticism
What Maisie Knew has attained a fairly strong critical position in the Jamesian canon. Edmund Wilson was one of many critics who admired both the book's technical proficiency and its judgment of a negligent and damaged society. When Wilson recommended What Maisie Knew to Vladimir Nabokov, the author of Lolita, Nabokov said he thought the book was terrible. F.R. Leavis, on the other hand, declared the book to be "perfection.". The psychoanalytic critic Neil Hertz has argued for a parallel between James' narrative voice and the problem of transference in Freud's Dora case.
A film by the same title was released in 2012. It is based largely on James' plot, with some alterations, such as 1890's London becoming present-day New York City and the professions of Maisie's parents changing. Moreover, in the film version, unlike the book, Maisie's foster parents prove deeply loving (to her and to each other) and highly dependable. Maisie thus finds a happy life with them, with the character of Mrs. Wix being virtually eliminated from the film's plot.
- The Novels of Henry James by Edward Wagenknecht (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1983) ISBN 0-8044-2959-6
- The Novels of Henry James by Oscar Cargill (New York: Macmillan Co., 1961)
- Apprenticeships: The Bildungsroman from Goethe to Santayana by Thomas L. Jeffers (New York: Palgrave, 2005), p. 89-118 ISBN 1-4039-6607-9
- What Maisie Knew including the author's preface (New York Edition 1908)
- What Maisie Knew, available freely at Project Gutenberg
- Note on the various texts of What Maisie Knew at the Library of America web site
- What Maisie Knew Adaptation to Film set in Contemporary New York City, IMDB web site