What Maisie Knew is a 1897 novel by Henry James, about a young girl, tossed around between two parties in a vengeful divorce. They fight over custody of Maisie, and fight just as hard when each parent thinks they are being expected to spend too much time with the child. Then there is a sub plot of nannies and guardians who themselves have affairs with each vile parent, and with each other – and fight over Maisie!
This plot sounds like a kind of nineteenth century version of Dynasty. The tone of the writing, however, is very much nineteenth century literary fiction. The story is told from the point of view of Maisie, who is both confused by the machinations of adults, and able see through the self-serving fictions adults cook up to make themselves look good. We see events through Maisie’s eyes, but rather than the narrative voice remaining with her, we hear instead the tone of a world-weary, adult with literary pretensions. So the viewpoint and the voice make for an odd mixture, a combination of the innocent, and the knowing, which is fitting for the book’s preoccupations.
This is a very artful book, reflecting on the contradictions of knowledge and deception, innocence and experience. As just a brief example – Maisie always sees the best in everybody, which is a lovely quality. But admirable though this quality is, it has the practical effect of making her believe in whoever she is with at any particular moment. Her guileless effort to be loyal to everyone, can also have the appearance of flighty disloyalty.
A number of reviews of the book are included at the end of the Penguin edition. One from the Manchester Guardian of 1897, concludes by saying:
“It is undoubtedly a work of art, but hardly one you would like to hang on your walls.”
I think this sums it up. What Maisie Knew is a very clever book, but is by no means an easy and relaxing read. The world of childhood only comes to us through the voice of an adult, who loves his long sentences and even longer paragraphs. This is a children’s book for the sort of adult who is willing to suffer for their literary rewards