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What Maisie Knew

Think of the most dysfunctional family you've ever seen portrayed in media. It's unlikely that they could top the familial relations shown in Henry James's 1897 novel What Maisie Knew. It is a text in which a selection of complex characters grapple with themes of isolation, adultery, and disconnected families. Today, James's novel is critically respected and judged to have great literary significance.

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What Maisie Knew


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Think of the most dysfunctional family you've ever seen portrayed in media. It's unlikely that they could top the familial relations shown in Henry James's 1897 novel What Maisie Knew. It is a text in which a selection of complex characters grapple with themes of isolation, adultery, and disconnected families. Today, James's novel is critically respected and judged to have great literary significance.

What Maisie Knew, an illustration of Henry James looking towards the artist, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Take a look at this portrait of Henry James.

What Maisie Knew: summary

What Maisie Knew revolves around the young and innocent Maisie Farange. Her parents, Ida and Beale, have recently divorced. The court has ordered that they be given joint custody of Maisie, their only child. Maisie spends six months of the year with each parent. However, Ida and Beale have undergone a bitter divorce and feel a deep hatred towards each other. They selfishly use Maisie to ferry cruel messages between each other, taking advantage of her innocence. As a young child, Maisie struggles to view her parents negatively and trusts them to treat her well. She is also developing into a much better individual than either of her parents are. Maisie is kind, good-natured, and respects others.

However, Maisie becomes unable to deal with being used as her parents' messenger for their hatred towards each other. The only solution her young mind can come up with is to run away and escape this toxicity. She decides she needs a companion to do this with, trying to decide which of her governesses would be best for the task. Maisie has two governesses, one in Ida's home, Mrs Wix, and one in Beale's, Miss Overmore. Mrs Wix is an unusual but reliable and loving person, whereas Miss Overmore is younger and much more glamorous.

A governess is an old-fashioned term used to refer to a woman who is brought into a household to privately educate its children. Governesses were typically employed by more upper-class families.

Things become even more complicated for Maisie due to yet another twist in her parents' love lives. Both remarry, Beale to the beautiful Miss Overmore and Ida to Sir Claude. Sir Claude is a charming and attractive man whom many of the adult women in the text are interested in. However, he also struggles to assert himself at times. After a period, Beale and Ida cheat on their new partners. Consequently, Miss Overmore and Sir Claude also begin an affair, developing a strong affection for each other. Mrs Wix has noticed their adultery and deeply disapproves.

Despite this, Sir Claude has also stepped in to care for Maisie in the wake of her parents' neglect. Ida and Beale have become too caught up in their personal drama to pay much attention to their daughter. Sir Claude takes it upon himself to ask Maisie to come and live with him and Miss Overmore in France. Desperate for a stable family with loving parents, Maisie goes with them. Sir Claude also wants Mrs Wix to come, but she is unsure, still disapproving of Sir Claude and Miss Overmore's relationship.

However, now a teenager, Maisie is torn between remaining in France or going to live with Mrs Wix. She has developed a deep distrust in relationships and marriage, eventually deciding to leave France. Maisie believes that Sir Claude and Miss Overmore's relationship may too fall apart, especially as they have both proven themselves capable of adultery. Maisie fears being left in another unstable situation. As a result, she goes to live with Mrs Wix, the one adult in her life who has never let her down.

What Maisie Knew: characters

What Maisie Knew contains a host of characters that are interconnected. They have complex and often overlapping links to each other.

Maisie FarangeMaisie is a young girl subjected to stress and mistreatment by the adults around her, particularly her parents. She is a kind and good-natured child despite all this. Maisie also shows unusual strength for one so young, taking on every challenge that she is presented with. Due to the abandonment in her life, Maisie is on the search for genuine love and affection.Kind, lonely, resilient.
Ida FarangeIda is Maisie's recently divorced mother. However, she rarely behaves like a true mother to Maisie. Ida is self-absorbed, spending much of her energy on fighting with Beale and having multiple affairs. She behaves quite unusually for a woman at this time. She is also frequently cruel towards Maisie, harshly criticising her and blaming Maisie for things that are outside of her control, despite Maisie's young age.Unreliable, cruel, unfaithful.
Beale FarangeBeale is Maisie's father but is rarely present in What Maisie Knew, which is representative of his place in his daughter's life. He is just as neglectful as Ida but even more absent, spending very little time with Maisie. This contributes to her loneliness. Beale is also extremely unfaithful in relationships. After getting remarried to Miss Overmore, Beale then cheats on her with a wealthy American woman. He seems to have more interest in superficial things, like beauty and money, than anything else.Materialistic, selfish, absent.
Sir ClaudeSir Claude is a kind and caring man, often acting as a father figure to Maisie. He cares much more for her than either of her biological parents do. However, Henry James does not show Sir Claude as a perfect figure. He commits adultery with Miss Overmore and is unable to forget her. Maisie eventually decides that this situation is too unstable for her in the wake of all she has been through.Caring, loving, conflicted.
Miss OvermoreMiss Overmore is a beautiful and elegant governess. The young Maisie admires her poise and grace, and she treats Maisie with a great deal of care. However, Miss Overmore marries Beale and cheats on him with Sir Claude. This is a confusing situation for Maisie. Throughout the novel, Miss Overmore reveals herself to be manipulative and self-serving, like many of the adults in What Maisie Knew.Elegant, calculated, unreliable.
Mrs WixMrs Wix is Maisie's other governess. She is described as much plainer than Miss Overmore in appearance but much more morally upright in character. Mrs Wix can be unusual in her teaching styles, but she does everything out of love for Maisie. The two develop an extremely close bond. Mrs Wix is the only person in the novel who acts as a truly stable and loving parental figure to Maisie. She wants to help Maisie grow into a good and kind adult.Dependable, dedicated, loving.

What Maisie Knew: analysis

What Maisie Knew is a bildungsroman.

A bildungsroman is a novel in which a typically young character grows to maturity. This is usually aided by various struggles and challenges. Famous bildungsromans include Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) and Little Women (1868) by Louisa May Alcott.

Maisie begins the novel as a six-year-old and ends it as a teenager. Readers see her growth throughout the text. In many ways, What Maisie Knew is a classic bildungsroman. Maisie begins the novel as a naive and innocent child. She knows little about the world and puts blind trust in adults, particularly in her parents. However, she is challenged by her parents' neglect. She feels constantly let down by them. One of Maisie's key steps towards maturity is realising that her parents are very flawed people. She spends much of her time searching for an adult figure that she can truly trust, eventually finding that in Mrs Wix.

The title of James's novel is also relevant to its genre. What Maisie Knew refers to the knowledge Maisie has of her situation and those around her. As Maisie grows and matures, what she knows about life greatly expands. Readers see the world through Maisie and, therefore, learn as she does.

What Maisie Knew: themes

What Maisie Knew explores loneliness and the impacts of adultery. James taps into many of the relevant social issues of the time in his novel. Below are key themes in the text.

What Maisie Knew: innocence

Innocence is central to a text about childhood. At the beginning of What Maisie Knew, Maisie is only six years old and still maintains much of her childhood innocence. However, her mistreatment at the hands of adults forces Maisie to grow up at a much younger age than what would be typically expected. She has to ferry messages between her dysfunctional parents, who often behave more like a child than she does. Maisie understands more about adult relationships than many children her age. Her observations and perceptions frequently read like they are coming from someone much older. However, James also makes the point that seeing things that she shouldn't at a young age will have a long-lasting psychological impact on Maisie, as seen in the quote below.

By the time [Maisie] had grown sharper...she found in her mind a collection of images and echoes to which meanings were attachable—images and echoes kept for her in the childish dusk, the dim closet, the high drawers, like games she wasn't big enough to play. (Narrator, Chp. 1)

What Maisie Knew: the complexity of adult relationships

There are a number of complex and interconnected relationships in What Maisie Knew. Mrs Wix is the only central adult character in the novel who does not commit adultery at some point. Ida and Beale cheat on their respective partners prolifically, and Sir Claude and Miss Overmore have an affair with each other. James's novel presents adultery as a fundamental moral flaw that stains each of these characters in some way. Mrs Wix is the moral centre of What Maisie Knew and disapproves greatly of adultery in any form. She is particularly resentful of the idea of Maisie living with Sir Claude because of his infidelity with Miss Overmore. She judges anyone who has committed adultery unfit to properly raise a child to their full potential.

What Maisie Knew, two gold wedding rings resting on a page with the definition of marriage, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Adultery and its impacts are key in James's novel.

James is accurately representing the social issues of his time in What Maisie Knew. In the late nineteenth century, marriage was seen as something sacred. It was expected that once a couple got married, they would remain together and faithful to each other no matter what. Therefore, adultery was viewed as an irredeemable flaw that tarnished a person morally.

What Maisie Knew: literary significance

Since its publication, What Maisie Knew has become a highly respected work in the canon of Henry James. Critics have particularly noted its incisive and effective societal commentary. James investigates the sanctity of marriage, adultery, and the proper way to raise children in his novel. He seems to pass judgement on a society that he feels has lost its moral way. The societies James had in mind here are likely to have been both that of Britain and America, as these are the countries in which James spent most of his life.

Can you identify any more instances of social commentary in What Maisie Knew?

The complexity of Maisie as a child character is also significant here. James allows Maisie to be a fully rounded character who grows as the novel develops. He also investigates the psychological impact that her upbringing is having on her. In a period in which children were often expected to be seen and not heard, this was quite ahead of its time.

What Maisie Knew - Key takeaways

  • What Maisie Knew is an 1897 novel by Henry James.
  • It revolves around the young character of Maisie, who is continually hurt by the dysfunctional adults around her.
  • What Maisie Knew is a bildungsroman.
  • Two key themes in the novel are innocence and the complexity of adult relationships.
  • James's novel is often recognised for its social commentary and privileging of the child's voice.

Frequently Asked Questions about What Maisie Knew

The novel is about how Maisie, a young girl, is impacted by the dysfunctional adults around her.

No, What Maisie Knew is fictional.

The novel was written in 1897.

A key theme in James's novel is complex adult relationships.

Main characters in the novel include Maisie, Ida, Beale, Mrs Wix, Sir Claude, and Miss Overmore.

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