I borrowed this book from a friend because I had read about its interesting narrative in David Lodge's 'The Art of Fiction'. I haven't read a lot of Henry James yet, so I was definitely in for a challenge. When I read the synopsis I thought, as a child of divorced parents, that this would either be very interesting or a string of cliches that would leave me bored. What intrigued me was that F.R. Leavis apparently called this book 'perfect'. He is a harsh critic, so this kind of praise is noteworthy.
After her parents' bitter divorce, young Maisie Farange finds herself shuttled between her selfish mother and vain father, who value her only as a means for provoking each other. And when both take lovers and remarry, Maisie - solitary, observant and wise beyond her years - is drawn into an increasingly entangled adult world of intrigue and sexual betrayal, until she is finally compelled to choose her own future.
Maisie is a very interesting main character. The story is told from her perspective, which means that as a reader you get her interpretation of situations and people. Yet still James tells you enough to be able to know what Maisie doesn't understand. As she grows up, her perspective changes and she knows more than she lets on. As she slowly becomes the centre of the battle between parents and step-parents, she starts to question such things as morality and why her parents behave the way they do. Although a reader might regard all the adults in her life as evil and weak, she turns their actions into '‘the stuff of poetry and tragedy and art'. This is what saves her from becoming just as vile as the adults.
After finishing the novel I did some research and I was surprised to find out that the majority of critics feel the novel only spans 2 or 3 years. This would mean that at the end of the novel, Maisie would be 7 or 8. While reading I felt that Maisie achieved early adolescence towards the end. Her perceptions of her surroundings become much more detailed and the intense questioning of her morality by Mrs. Wix, her governess, would also imply that Maisie reached an age where some kind of reflection could be expected of her. For James, the development from childhood to adolescence was very important in many of his novels and in 'What Maisie Knew' the development of Maisie is crucial to the plot and narrative. Because of her innocence the novel doesn't become dreary or depressing, but a journey on which the reader discovers the capabilities of humans to love, disappoint and hate.
The novel is a discussion of a huge number of issues and themes: the cruelty of parents to children, the richness of experience, love, hate and responsibility. To her parents, Maisie is a tool to annoy the other, either by keeping her away from the other or refusing to take her back after the agreed time. Neither of them seems to have a true grasp of their responsibility as a parents and both of them demand their freedom back int he final part of the book. Because we see their actions through Maisie's perspective, we see the love with which a child always approaches its parents, even if they commit moral crimes against her. I feel that perhaps here James is making a point about the strength in children, their natural ability to see what is good and to forgive. Maisie knows that her parents aren't perfect, yet she can also see their vulnerability and pain, especially towards the end.
A very interesting role is played by Maisie's stepparents. I feel that James might have had a slight grudge against women, since neither Maisie's mother nor her step-mother are seen to really care for Maisie. Her step-mother, Mrs. Beale, starts out s her governess, yet works her way into her father's household. At the beginning of the book you do feel as if she truly cares, yet she seemingly becomes more manipulative. Whether this is due to Maisie seeing and understanding more I do not know, yet towards the end Mrs. Beale has become a negative influence in Maisie's life. Sir Claude was the character that seems to ask for most pity from the reader. Maisie comes across as strong, as resting in herself. Sir Claude seems utterly lost and afraid, especially towards the end. He has no control over the situation and is unable to protect Maisie.
The conclusion of the novel left me utterly bereft. Somehow I felt that just like her parents, we had abandoned Maisie. How will her life continue, will she be scarred by what happened to her or will she become a better person by it? Yet this is not a criticism of the book, but praise. I wish we could have continued Maisie's narrative, yet it is simple the truth of life that you cannot know how it ends and that you lose track of people. There will be a filmsoon, which takes the story out of England and sets it in modern day new York. Her parents are no longer socialites but a rock star (the mother, for a change) and an artist. I am slightly ambiguous towards this movie. It might be really good, it might be utterly terribly and Hollywood-cliche. But I will definitely see it, because the book deserves it.
I give this book...
I think this book is absolutely fantastic. Never before have I seen a child being taking this seriously in a book that is essentially about what people are really like. James gets into the nastiness of how people can be and even makes the reader part of this exploration. Yes, Henry James' writing style is difficult to read at times, but the trick is to just continue reading and not give up!