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Developing a Moral Sense
on June 25, 2013
Henry James' 1907 novel, WHAT MAISIE KNEW, provides deep psychological insight into a young girl's predicament--as a result of her parents' bitter divorce in Edwardian England. Inspired by a friend's comments on the "shuttlecock" lifestyle of a divorced child, James studies the dysfunctional existence of an innocent pawn as two adults seek spousal revenge. Even at the tender age of seven Maisie realizes the wisdom of playing dumb. Although she reports little back to the opposing sides, she keenly observes and thoughtfully absorbs all that she witnesses and overhears in both her uncomfortable biospheres. Eventually, in self-defense, she adopts the painfully simple policy of Not Telling--thus refusing to provide more fuel for animosity on either side.
As in THE GOLDEN BOWL--a lengthy novel which scrutinizes the marital and emotional conflicts of a limited cast of characters--this shorter work could easily be adapted for the stage, for the chapters fall naturally in scenes. James' protracted dialogue between Maisie and the impassioned adults who dispute ownership and hosting rights would be wonderful to dramatize, although an audience would lose the delicious insight into each character which readers can grasp. Each successive piece of information expands Maise's understanding of the world, but she reconciles her maturing lucidity by concocting her own private schemes to protect one or the other parent, and later on, a step-parent as well.
The intense colloquies which James masterfully delineates are designed both to elicit information about events which have occurred "offstage" and to stir Maisie to the brink of definitive action--which will directly impact the five adults who should be most concerned for her welfare: her parents, Beale and Ida Farange, Sir Claude, Miss Overton and the paid servant, Mrs. Wix. Even compassionate readers are hard pressed to determine the optimal environment for the little girl whose very childhood has been jeopardized.
Unaware that her childhood is being stolen by utterly selfish people Maisie adopts a private agenda of conspiring to bring certain adults together. Yet one of the great literary ironies of this novel springs from the unexpected separations which her well-intentioned meddling precipitates. To her childlike logic being Free is the most desirable status for formerly-married persons--free to love and marry whom they choose. Also Free to to make a cherished home for herself with them. So who best can nurture Maisie?
The unfortunate girl is also isolated from other children--even girls her own age; thus she is left to puzzle out the world using only her keen observation of flawed adult interaction. Yet how can a lonely girl truly develop a sense of morality--at least by Edwardian standards? Does Maisie at 12 know what is in her own best interest; as if she could choose where to live? She has grown too worldly-wise to indulge in child's play, for she KNEW too much. This psychological novel is truly vintage James!