Tuesday, May 21, 2013

What Maisie Knew ... my take on the Henry James' classic


What Maisie Knew is quite an old book - published in 1897 - but its' subject matter is just as timely in 2013 as ever. The inspiration for a new film starring Julianne Moore, Alexander Skarsgard, Steve Coogan, Joanna Vanderham and scene stealing Onata Aprile, here's the overview of the novel's storyline from Barnes and Noble.
"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. 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. Published in 1897 as Henry James was experimenting with narrative technique and fascinated by the idea of the child’s-eye view, What Maisie Knew is a subtle yet devastating portrayal of an innocent adrift in a corrupt society."

My take on the book
While I read and loved Portrait of a Lady in my youth, these days I find Henry James' language a bit too archaic and convoluted; it's tedious to have to read and re-read some of James' more ambitious sentences several times before moving on! And moving on is quite often more of the same. Poor Maisie, when she's not being forgotten, she's constantly being pulled back and forth between fathers and mothers, governesses and stepfathers, in six months rotation periods; she's been exposed to a wide variety of bad behavior which only Mrs.Wix - her governess from her mother's household - and her stepfather Sir Claude seem the least bit concerned.

Maisie, constantly questioned by each parent about the other, learns quickly how best to couch her answers. Let's speak plainly; her self-obsessed mother is more concerned with securing new lovers than worrying where or how, her daughter is. Her father, similarly self-centered, gets to have it off with his daughter's pretty young governess; by marrying Miss Overmore he has convenient built-in child care and the worry of Maisie off his shoulders.  Miss Overmore and Mrs.Wix both rely on Maisie as a means to a living and a place to sleep. To put it crudely; no one gives a crap about the child except as she affects them. Sir Claude has genuine feelings for Maisie but he's little more than a kept man, with no money of his own, and helpless to change his nature.

cover art by Edward Gorey
In the novella, James wants us to know only 'what Maisie knew' nothing more or less; the constant question in the reader's mind, as adults talk over, around and far too much, directly to, Maisie,  is just what six year old Maisie does know and what does she make of what she's seen? How much does she understand the choices the adults in her life make, and what does she imagine those choices say about their feelings for her?

Maisie's welfare is a thin pretext for the adults in Maisie's world satisfying their own needs - ultimately every one in the book disappoints us, but not Maisie. All the while she's been watching, listening, learning; she accepts her lot at the story's end with a shrug. It's heartbreaking to see how little mind she pays, as if she had already assessed her value, the pure simple power of her innocence, and realized she could never compete against the temptations of the adult sexual world.

While I found the idea at the heart of the novel very compelling in its' contemporary nature, the experience of reading the book was - for me - just too exhausting to highly recommend it.

Will it make a good movie? Yes! Nancy Doyne has written an adaptation that captures the essence of the story but completely contemporized it. I've just seen the film and aim to get my take up shortly but in a word. LOVE. And obviously, loads better than the book.

Side note: As shocking, appalling and heartbreaking as Maisie's treatment in the novel, even more disturbing to me were the hateful words James put in Maisie's mouth to describe her father's newest 'friend'.
"Maisie in truth almost gasped in her own; this was with the fuller perception that she was brown indeed. She literally struck the child as more as an animal than a 'real' lady; she might have been a clever frizzled poodle in a frill or a dreadful human monkey in a spangled petticoat." 
I was so surprised by the inherent racism that I googled James only to learn to my horror that his nonfiction look at America - The American Scene - is rife with it. I'm depressed by my own ignorance about James; but how disappointing to see that level of ignorance put forth by a supposed intellectual!
Why should I want to read anything else by this bigoted old gasbag???

2 comments:

  1. Oh, Sim. Tell us how you really feel. Get review of the book. I'll stick with the movie.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That should have said "great review of the book."

      Delete

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