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on March 15, 1998
Never mind the thickets of subordinate clauses. Henry James could look at ugly situations and use them as a means to explore human nature. Written about a century ago when divorce was rare, the novel deals with a little girl whose value to her appalling parents is as a weapon to use against each other. If that wasn't bad enough, nearly everyone who shows the child some kindness has a reason for doing so other than her welfare. What makes this other than pathetic is Maisie herself. She watches the adult's grim game of musical spouses with utter clarity. She may not understand everything she sees, but she is without illusions. She observes, she watches, she copes. Mrs Wix is appalled by Maisie's acceptance of her stepparent's adultery. What Mrs Wix doesn't understand is that Maisie has no conception of conventional morality. How could she? It certainly makes for an interesting protagonist. Maisie may be a strange little girl, but it is because she has lived a strange little life. Shs is more a miniature woman than a little girl because the twisted adults around her have stolen her childhood. In this, James was prophetic of what we have done to our children since he penned this novel at the dawn of the twentieth century.
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What hubris to review a work by such a major novelist as Henry James, even though WHAT MAISIE KNEW may not be one of his major novels! All the same, a review can perhaps be useful in two regards: by commenting on this particular edition, and by suggesting how the novel might appeal to those familiar with other James works but not this one.

The Penguin Classics paperback is crisply printed, comfortable in the hand, and well annotated. There is also an excellent essay by Paul Theroux. It gives too much away, I think, to be read as an introduction, but it does make a helpful afterword. If you do read the essay first, which is how it is printed, it may seem that Theroux has revealed virtually the entire plot, but in fact this is not so. James's narrative exposition is unusually swift in this book, and a lot happens very quickly, but his main interest lies in exploring the psychological depths of the situation that he has established; there is a distinct change of gear at roughly the halfway point of the book.

As Theroux points out, the novel is generally considered a transitional work between James's earlier style and his later one. Theroux also locates this gear-change at the point where James ceased writing in longhand and started dictating his novels to a stenographer -- a crisis described so well by Colm Toibin in his biographical novel, THE MASTER. The first half of the book shows a leanness of style and also a great sense of humor not often associated with the author. But the book's premise is intrinsically comic: Maisie, a five-year-old girl, observes the doings of the adults around her as she is shipped from household to household in consequence of her parents' divorce, as the parents take lovers and remarry, and then as virtually everybody else in the story takes other lovers. The humor comes from the fact that while Maisie understands so little at first, the adult reader quickly picks up what is going on. The spider symmetries of the expanding web of sex make a formal pattern as clear and intricate as a dance, illuminated by James's dry wit and his beautiful ability to see through childish eyes.

Several things change at the half-way point. Maisie becomes old enough to understand a little more. The adults whom she had previously observed from below now become more conscious of her as a potential ally and start using her unscrupulously to further their own ends. Twists of the plot which had at first seemed only amusing now appear as quite nasty turns of the screw, as Maisie's affections and loyalties are forced into the vise. Questions of morality come to the fore, and eventually dominate the action. The narrative tone also changes; although Maisie's knowledge and moral awareness develops considerably, James is forced into using his own voice to describe it, as though Maisie herself has lost the words to follow her own farewell to childhood.

The reference above to THE TURN OF THE SCREW is deliberate, for WHAT MAISIE KNEW (1897) seems almost like a preliminary draft for the more famous story, published in the following year. Yes, there are differences: this is comic rather than tragic, complicit rather than mysterious, and much less hermetic. The child heroine appears to come through with more wisdom and less trauma than the situation might have caused. But the final scene is astonishingly close to the ending of the later story: a struggle for control of a once-innocent child waged between a humble governess and two charismatic figures who exert a powerful hold both on the child and on each other. Only the ending is different, though no less worth waiting for.

A NOTE ON THE MOVIE. I have just (June 2013) seen the movie based on the book. It is a beautiful piece of work, with a remarkable naturalness to the acting, especially from the girl who plays Maisie. It is updated to contemporary New York, but loses surprisingly little; the child's-eye view is created by the camera rather than words, and its visual elegance is a fair translation of James' prose. The other two main changes largely cancel each other out. It is a sad movie, because (other than the wide-eyed trust of the little girl, which is a two-edged sword) the camera has no equivalent for James' humor. On the other hand, it stops a little more than halfway through the book, thus sparing us the depths of cynical manipulation to which James' Maisie is subjected at the end, and offering the suggestion of a happy ending.
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on November 22, 2004
While this novel is a less popular work than some of the author's others, it should not be dismissed as a minor one. James' prose is refreshingly complex - a true balm in these illiterate times - and his narrative bears his distinctive creative style.

Maisie is somewhat different in style from James' other works, but this is not a lapse in quality but rather a testament to his versatility as an author - he was not stuck in one particular mould. The choice of subject matter is fairly unique - I don't know of any other novels that deal with these topics in quite the same way. Social mores may have changed since James' time, but the way children are effected by such events remains the same. The story is narrated, but we see the events unfold through the child's eyes. The numerous dialogues between Maisie and her various adults portray brilliantly the veiled manner in which children are spoken to about 'inappropriate' subjects, and the vague scarcity of key details which a child should not be allowed to know is left to the reader to be unraveled. In this unraveling the reader is given a tangible sense of the child's confusion, her struggle to comprehend these unexplained happenings with her lack of definite information. It is James' intention that the reader should share in this confusion - that there should be some struggle to piece together what is occuring out of the direct line of sight. This helps to create a connection between the reader and the little heroine.

Some criticize the novel for its consistantly dark tone - but this is hardly a basis on which to assign value to the work (or any work for that matter). Furthermore, what other tone could the novel have? This is after all an exploration of a group of supposed adults behaving very badly indeed towards a helpless child. The moral qualms are not all rooted in the Victorian age, many remain just as topical today as then - which is in itself quite an achievement.
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on August 14, 2006
WHAT MAISIE KNEW is probably the weirdest novel by Henry James. He had already written of seamy themes before this, but now he writes a variation of one of his favorite themes--that of the corruption of the innocent. Maisie is a young female child, perhaps six years old whose parents are getting divorced. In the best of situations divorce hits hard, and this was far from the best. Maisie's parents, Beale and Ida Farange are morally depraved and care not a whit for the welfare of their daughter. Maisie is a good-natured child who wants only to be loved by the parents she loves. Maisie is the prototypical Jamesian innocent about to be plunged into a maelstrom of decay.

The terms of the divorce allow Maisie to live with each parent at six month intervals, and this she does. It is what she sees and happens to her that begin to cloud Maisie's moral universe. To begin with when she stays with her father, his friends paw her in ways that smack of sexual abuse. Maisie's mother, Ida, hires a governess, Miss Overmore, to care for Maisie. Soon enough Miss Overmore begins an affair with Maisie's father, Beale, ultimately marrying him. Ida follows suit by marrying her lover, Sir Claude. So now Maisie must adjust to a set of step parents. Claude's interest in his step-daughter verges on the incestuous--indeed later on when Maisie is thirteen, she outright propositions him. Ida hires a new governess, Mrs. Wix, to take the place of the erstwhile Miss Overmore. Mrs. Wix is a decent elderly woman who truly loves Maisie and tries to inculcate in her a moral center of goodness. This sense of goodness is put to the test immediately, when Maisie's remarried parents begin a new dance of musical lovers.

As Maisie ages toward young girlhood, she shows signs that she has well learned the lessons of moral depravity that abound. She has no problem adjusting to a series of new adults zipping in and out of her life as parents, step parents, and lovers of parents. Maisie even makes it easy for these newcomers to pull the wool over the eyes of their cuckolded partners by making suggestions to facilitate what is by now a familiar routine or illicit romances. By the end of the novel, a thirteen year old Maisie desires Sir Claude as her own lover. Mrs. Wix, when she hears of this, angrily demands of Maisie what has happened to the sense of moral decorum that she thought was by now firmly instilled in Maisie. The answer, of course, is that the sense of propriety was doomed from the start since Maisie early on learned the difference between words of decorum and deeds of decorum. The Maisie at the end of WHAT MAZIE KNEW suggests that children--or adults for that matter--need a ongoing foundation of goodness to show that the ugliness they may see unfolding around them need not envelop them.
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on July 17, 2000
Everything in this novel evokes childhood's mysteries. It all seems to take place at knee or waist-level, with the brave Maisie (who "throbs" instead of speaks) attemtping to develop a moral code in the middle of a custody battle between parents who are less mature than she.
A tough read, but give it time to weave its spell.
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on August 1, 2004
I have not read any other James, except for Daisy Miller over 20 years ago, but picked this up on a friend's recommendation.

Yes, you do have to read this book slower than most novels, but it is well worth it. It is a sharp, dark, and devastating satire on how adult use children. Each character that Maisie encounters uses her as a prop to meet their own emotional needs--any affection they give her is purely secondary.

Perhaps many people do not like this book because it is so relentlessly dark. As the book goes on and Maisie is more and more aware of by the coldness around her the same behavior that makes the reader snicker in the first chapters becomes painful.

If you are looking for a escapist period novel--skip this one. If you want something more probing--this is well worth picking up.
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on May 18, 2013
James is not an easy writer and you began with the wrong work. Believe me, he is worth the effort. It's kind of like taking up resistance training and starting with 200 pound weights. You need to start with an earlier work of James. James wrote all of his work in long hand and he wanted very much to be a dramatist. He failed and this was one of the tragedies of his professional life. However, later in life he developed arthritis and hired an amanuensis to take his work down from dictation. And this freed something in him and his work became denser as he was allowed to "act out" as it were his ideas. "What Masie Knew" is one of the works in his later stage - and just about the point where he began to develop an ever more rich style. After some practice, you will be able to read a book like "What Masie Knew" and the language won't seem dense and inaccessible as you will have become used to the flow - in the same way that eventually you can lift 200 pounds if you work at it. Begin instead with "The Europeans" - this is also short but very charming. Then read some of his "short stories" which are actually novellas: "The Turn of the Screw" is one of the great ghost stories of all time; "The Beast in the Jungle" gave me chills and I read it the first time in a hot bath; "The Aspern Papers" will leave you with more questions than when you began. Then read "The Portrait of a Lady" which is one of the great novels of all time. If you read that and don't like James - then he is not for you. But he is worth the try.
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on April 5, 2014
Forget the recent movie version. This is the real thing. Henry James brilliantly portrays the machinations of self-absorbed parents and step-parents, but more importantly, he illuminates the mind of a child who knows more than she should and tries to process that knowledge within the limitations of her experience. We witness her gradual corruption and ultimate redemption. There is one major reason all Henry James films fail: he writes about the life within as much or more than the life without. This is not an easy read, but utterly compelling. I first read this book thirty years ago. I am so glad to have reread it again.
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on May 24, 2013
Wow! Henry James is always an amazingly astute observer. This novel, which kept me racing along until I got to the very end reminded me of his other wonderful novel The Turn of the Screw in which young children are put into a truly unhappy situation. Maisie's point of view manages to convey the whole emotionally dreadful world that the adults around her create for each other and for Maisie. James is the master story teller and this is gripping.
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on November 20, 2004
I read this about 10 years ago, had to write a paper for it in college. I remember the first ~200 pages being excruciating, then the last 40 or so transforming the novel for me (for the positive). It's in the end where the themes really came together for me; it might not be a coincidence this is when Maisie really begins to emerge as an active character. Throughout the novel she passively absorbs the actions of her bourgeois parents, step-parents, their lovers, etc. Then, finally, she tries to apply what she understands, through the filter of her consciousness (and imagination), and becomes a participant in the intrigues and romances floating about her. She doesn't understand it's not her time; the object of her affections is cynical and weak, but not debauched, and in fact she is the aggressor. He tries to guide the burgeoning light of her consciousness as best he can. In the end I thought the novel was a lovely story about a child's encounter with the wall of possibility, the reconcilation of imagination with human limits.
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