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What Maisie Knew

What Maisie Knew

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Encyclopedia
What Maisie Knew is a novel
Novel
A novel is a book of long narrative in literary prose. The genre has historical roots both in the fields of the medieval and early modern romance and in the tradition of the novella. The latter supplied the present generic term in the late 18th century....

 by Henry James
Henry James
Henry James, OM was an American-born writer, regarded as one of the key figures of 19th-century literary realism. He was the son of Henry James, Sr., a clergyman, and the brother of philosopher and psychologist William James and diarist Alice 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 in the same year. The story of the sensitive daughter of divorce
Divorce
Divorce is the final termination of a marital union, canceling the legal duties and responsibilities of marriage and dissolving the bonds of matrimony between the parties...

d and irresponsible
Moral responsibility
Moral responsibility usually refers to the idea that a person has moral obligations in certain situations. Disobeying moral obligations, then, becomes grounds for justified punishment. Deciding what justifies punishment, if anything, is a principle concern of ethics.People who have moral...

 parents, What Maisie Knew has great contemporary relevance as an unflinching account of a wildly dysfunctional family
Dysfunctional family
A dysfunctional family is a family in which conflict, misbehavior, and often abuse on the part of individual members occur continually and regularly, leading other members to accommodate such actions. Children sometimes grow up in such families with the understanding that such an arrangement is...

. The book is also a masterly technical achievement by James, as it follows the title character
Fictional character
A character is the representation of a person in a narrative work of art . Derived from the ancient Greek word kharaktêr , the earliest use in English, in this sense, dates from the Restoration, although it became widely used after its appearance in Tom Jones in 1749. From this, the sense of...

 from earliest childhood
Childhood
Childhood is the age span ranging from birth to adolescence. In developmental psychology, childhood is divided up into the developmental stages of toddlerhood , early childhood , middle childhood , and adolescence .- Age ranges of childhood :The term childhood is non-specific and can imply a...

 to precocious maturity.

Plot summary


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
Morality
Morality is the differentiation among intentions, decisions, and actions between those that are good and bad . A moral code is a system of morality and a moral is any one practice or teaching within a moral code...

 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, more than a little ridiculous, but devoted Mrs. Wix.

Both Ida and Beale soon busy themselves with other lovers besides their spouses. In return those spouses — Sir Claude and the new Mrs. Beale — begin an affair with each other. Maisie's parents essentially abandon her in heartbreaking scenes, and she becomes largely the responsibility of Sir Claude. Eventually, Maisie must decide if she wants to remain with Sir Claude and Mrs. Beale. In the book's long final section set in France
France
The French Republic , The French Republic , The French Republic , (commonly known as France , is a unitary semi-presidential republic in Western Europe with several overseas territories and islands located on other continents and in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. Metropolitan France...

, the now teenaged Maisie maturely decides that the relationship of her new "parents" might well end as badly as that of her biological parents. She leaves them and goes to stay with Mrs. Wix, her most reliable adult guardian
Legal guardian
A legal guardian is a person who has the legal authority to care for the personal and property interests of another person, called a ward. Usually, a person has the status of guardian because the ward is incapable of caring for his or her own interests due to infancy, incapacity, or disability...

.

Major themes


It's not surprising from the book's title that knowledge
Knowledge
Knowledge is a familiarity with someone or something unknown, which can include information, facts, descriptions, or skills acquired through experience or education. It can refer to the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject...

 and education
Education
Education in its broadest, general sense is the means through which the aims and habits of a group of people lives on from one generation to the next. Generally, it occurs through any experience that has a formative effect on the way one thinks, feels, or acts...

 form a major theme in this bittersweet tale of Maisie's up-bringing. Her keen observation of the irresponsible behavior of almost all the adults she lives with eventually persuades her to rely on her most devoted friend, Mrs. Wix, even though the frumpy governess is by far the least superficially attractive adult in her life.

The novel is also a thoroughgoing condemnation of parents and guardians abandoning their responsibilities towards their children. James saw English
England
England is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. It shares land borders with Scotland to the north and Wales to the west; the Irish Sea is to the north west, the Celtic Sea to the south west, with the North Sea to the east and the English Channel to the south separating it from continental...

 society as becoming more corrupt and decadent
Decadence
Decadence can refer to a personal trait, or to the state of a society . Used to describe a person's lifestyle. Concise Oxford Dictionary: "a luxurious self-indulgence"...

, and What Maisie Knew is one of his harshest indictments of those who can't be bothered to live responsible lives.

It might seem that such a book would become almost unbearably grim. But James leavens the sorry doings with a generous dose of admittedly dark humor. For instance, the dumpy Mrs. Wix falls victim to an unintentionally hilarious infatuation with the handsome Sir Claude. And James often plays Maisie's lightweight father for laughs, as when he gets involved with a woman he tells Maisie is an American
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 "countess."

Literary significance & criticism


What Maisie Knew has attained a fairly strong critical position in the Jamesian canon. Edmund Wilson
Edmund Wilson
Edmund Wilson was an American writer and literary and social critic and noted man of letters.-Early life:Wilson was born in Red Bank, New Jersey. His father, Edmund Wilson, Sr., was a lawyer and served as New Jersey Attorney General. Wilson attended The Hill School, a college preparatory...

 was one of many critic
Critic
A critic is anyone who expresses a value judgement. Informally, criticism is a common aspect of all human expression and need not necessarily imply skilled or accurate expressions of judgement. Critical judgements, good or bad, may be positive , negative , or balanced...

s 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
Vladimir Nabokov
Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov was a multilingual Russian novelist and short story writer. Nabokov wrote his first nine novels in Russian, then rose to international prominence as a master English prose stylist...

, the author of Lolita
Lolita
Lolita is a novel by Vladimir Nabokov, first written in English and published in 1955 in Paris and 1958 in New York, and later translated by the author into Russian...

,
Nabokov thought the book was terrible. F.R. Leavis, on the other hand, declared the book to be "perfect."

The way James convincingly follows the growth of Maisie's consciousness
Consciousness
Consciousness is a term that refers to the relationship between the mind and the world with which it interacts. It has been defined as: subjectivity, awareness, the ability to experience or to feel, wakefulness, having a sense of selfhood, and the executive control system of the mind...

 from its first faint glimmerings of awareness to its final comprehensive understanding of her situation has usually earned great respect. Though a lifelong bachelor, James was good at portraying children in tales like Turn of the Screw; this book shows his ability to enter into the trials, fears and joys of a child's existence.

External links

  • What Maisie Knew including the author's preface (New York Edition
    New York Edition
    The New York Edition of Henry James' fiction was a 24-volume collection of the Anglo-American writer's novels, novellas and short stories, originally published in the U.S. and the UK in 1907-1909, with a photogravure frontispiece for each volume by Alvin Langdon Coburn...

     1908)
  • What Maisie Knew, available freely at Project Gutenberg
    Project Gutenberg
    Project Gutenberg is a volunteer effort to digitize and archive cultural works, to "encourage the creation and distribution of eBooks". Founded in 1971 by Michael S. Hart, it is the oldest digital library. Most of the items in its collection are the full texts of public domain books...

  • Note on the various texts of What Maisie Knew at the Library of America
    Library of America
    The Library of America is a nonprofit publisher of classic American literature.- Overview and history :Founded in 1979 with seed money from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Ford Foundation, the LoA has published over 200 volumes by a wide range of authors from Mark Twain to Philip...

     web site
  • What Maisie Knew Adaptation to Film set in Contemporary New York City, IMDB web site