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What Maisie Knew (Penguin Classics) Revised Edition

3.5 out of 5 stars 123 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0141441375
ISBN-10: 0141441372
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Editorial Reviews


“Reading Henry James is like putting a new faculty to the test. This is the true morality.”—Anita Brookner

About the Author

HENRY JAMES (1843–1916), born in New York City, was the son of noted religious philosopher Henry James, Sr., and brother of eminent psychologist and philosopher William James. He spent his early life in America and studied in Geneva, London and Paris during his adolescence to gain the worldly experience so prized by his father. He lived in Newport, went briefly to Harvard Law School, and in 1864 began to contribute both criticism and tales to magazines.

In 1869, and then in 1872–74, he paid visits to Europe and began his first novel, Roderick Hudson. Late in 1875 he settled in Paris, where he met Turgenev, Flaubert, and Zola, and wrote The American (1877). In December 1876 he moved to London, where two years later he achieved international fame with Daisy Miller. Other famous works include Washington Square (1880), The Portrait of a Lady (1881), The Princess Casamassima(1886), The Aspern Papers (1888), The Turn of the Screw (1898), and three large novels of the new century,The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903) and The Golden Bowl (1904). In 1905 he revisited the United States and wrote The American Scene (1907).

During his career he also wrote many works of criticism and travel. Although old and ailing, he threw himself into war work in 1914, and in 1915, a few months before his death, he became a British subject. In 1916 King George V conferred the Order of Merit on him. He died in London in February 1916.

CHRISTOPHER RICKS is professor of humanities at Boston University and most recently author of Dylan’s Visions of Sin.

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Product Details

  • Series: Penguin Classics
  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics; Revised edition (November 30, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0141441372
  • ISBN-13: 978-0141441375
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.8 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.1 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (123 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #88,285 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
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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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
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.
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Format: Paperback
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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Format: Paperback
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.
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