Sunday, March 13, 2011

What Maisie Knew, Henry James

I found myself reading What Maisie Knew because it's a book about shared custody.  I'm a stepmother to two kids who have been in shared care (one is now majority with us) for nearly 8 years.   I was interested to read a take on custody from the point of view of the child, as well as the historical differences, as Maisie was published in 1897.  Not to mention that I'm a bit of a Henry James fan.

 Here's where I confess that I like Henry James. But OMG, is he wordy.  This one suffered from a severe lack of full stops.  I know, I know, that's one of his "things", but still, I found The Ambassadors and Wings of the Dove far easier reads than Maisie, so it seemed particularly bad here.

What Maisie Knew follows the story of Maisie's life as she is landed in shared care between two equally crappy parents, and her subsequent relationships with her step-parents and governess.  As Maisie grows from a child of around 6 into a teenager, so does what she "knows."  This growth is the real point of the novel.  I also thought it was a powerful comment on the casual cruelties of parenting.

"She was divided in two and the portions tossed impartially to the disputants.
"What was clear to any spectator was that the only link binding her to either parent was this lamentable fact of her being a ready vessel for bitterness, a deep little porcelain cup in which biting acids could be mixed.  They had wanted her not for any good they could do her, but for the harm they could, with her unconscious aid, do each other."
At times this book just brilliant, the development of and insight into the central character (and what she "knew") from child to teenager is remarkable.  Some of the insights into divorce and it's uglier effects on children were painfully true.  The constraint that Maisie has, and feels, especially in the early parts of the book, as she is constantly silent and observing, was beautifully captured. [That sentence was positively Jamesian in it's many clauses!]  
"She puzzled out with imperfect signs, but with a prodigious spirit, that she had been a centre of hatred and a messenger of insult, and that everything was bad because she had been employed to make it so.
"Her parted lips locked themselves with the determination to be employed no longer.  She would forget everything, she would repeat nothing, and when, as a tribute to the successful application of her system, she began to be called a little idiot, she tasted a pleasure new and keen."
At other times this book was just too long, too involved, and too essentially unbelievable.  The whole step-parents romance and successive runnings off was just too overly dramatic for me.  It was where my interest flagged.  I felt the sections to do with her parents were far more relevant and alive.  I just noticed that all the sections I highlighted were from the first 50% of the book, nothing afterwards, and this is just where the action moves from her parents to the step-parent/parent/confusing romances and meetings and running away a lot last half of the book.

Overall, the book felt like an over-developed novella.  I also didn't find Maisie a terribly sympathetic character, she was a tad lacklustre, and I would have liked some more anger and grief from her.  More like the passage I quoted above, and less of the "dragged along in the whirlwind" feel she had for much of the book.  I also thought the central character of Mrs Wix was one dimensional, and her "love" of Sir Claude was an unnecessary distraction the book could do without.  The Countess as a figure of horror, largely because, as far as I can tell, she's black, sat pretty uncomfortably for me.

The long conversations and sometimes minute details weighed heavily in the final section, though the tension of this lack of decision was finely done, I was mostly just glad it finished.  The ending was unsatifying, and too many practical questions were left unanswered (like, what did they live on!).

All in all, while I'm a fan of Henry James, this one fell a tad short for me.  It was too convoluted and felt like it wasn't edited closely enough, for my liking.  I'd consider myself pretty fluent in 'James'', but had to re-read several sections, they were so confusing.  Some parts of this book sing, but some fall flat.

Read it if you're interested in custody of children after divorce, or if you're a James fan.  Probably skip it otherwise.


There are four Henry James novels on the core list: The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, Portrait of a Lady, and What Maisie Knew.  This was a e-read, on Kindle for iPad.  5BBR2AG3E7XG


Kristi said...

The only Henry James I have read was The Turn of the Screw and the wordiness really bugged me. I probably wasn't in the right frame of mind at the time. It sounds like What Maisie Knew would leave me with the same impression.

I have heard great things about Wings of the Dove. I'll probably start with that first. Sorry it fell a little flat for you.

Selene said...

I loved Wings of the Dove, the wordiness of that one really seemed to gel for me. Maisie just didn't, but ah well, I still like James overall! I haven't read Turn of the Screw yet.