What Maisie Knew

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What Maisie Knew
First edition (UK)
AuthorHenry James
CountryUnited Kingdom
United States
PublisherWilliam Heinemann, London
Herbert S. Stone, Chicago
Publication date
17 September 1897 (Heinemann)
16 October 1897 (Stone)
Media typePrint (Serialized)
Pages304 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. It tells the story of the sensitive daughter of divorced, irresponsible and narcissistic parents. The book follows the title character from earliest childhood to precocious maturity.

Plot summary[edit]

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 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.

Literary significance and criticism[edit]

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.[citation needed] F. R. Leavis, on the other hand, declared the book to be "perfection".[1] The psychoanalytic critic Neil Hertz has argued for a parallel between James' narrative voice and the problem of transference in Freud's Dora case.[2]

An eponymous film adaptation was released in 2012, directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, and starring Julianne Moore, Alexander Skarsgård, and Onata Aprile.[3] It is based largely on James' plot, with some alterations. The film is set in present-day New York City, and the professions of Maisie's parents are changed. Unlike in the book, Maisie's foster parents are highly dependable and love her and each other deeply. Maisie finds a happy life with them, and the character of Mrs. Wix is virtually eliminated.


  1. ^ Leavis, F. R. (June 1950). "James's 'What Maisie Knew'". Scrutiny. pp. 115–127.
  2. ^ Hertz, Neil & Bernheimer , Charles (Editor) & Kahane, Claire (Editor) (1985). "Dora's secrets, Freud's Techniques". In Dora's Case: Freud- Hysteria—Feminism. New York. pp. 221–42. ISBN 023107221X.CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
  3. ^ French, Philip (25 August 2013). "What Maisie Knew – review". The Observer. Retrieved 27 December 2013.


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