What Maisie Knew Summary

Henry James

What Maisie Knew

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What Maisie Knew Summary

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Henry James’s novel What Maisie Knew was originally published as a work of serial fiction in The Chap-Book. This literary magazine published stories from 1894 through 1898 and was considered one of the first of its kind—little magazines. Little magazines are literary publications that often focus on new and emerging writers of experimental fiction. They do not often publish on a regular basis, and they are typically non-commercial. After appearing in The Chap-Book, What Maisie Knew was published in the New Review in 1897. It did not appear on the market as a book until a year later. The story follows Maisie in the fallout of her parents’ divorce during her childhood to maturity.

Maisie’s parents, Beale and Ida Farange, divorce, and the court rules that Maisie will split her time between them—six months with each parent. Both Ida and Beale are immoral people, and that along with their frivolity, drives them to use Maisie to exact their hatred on one another. Both of them remarry. Beale chooses Maisie’s governess, Miss Overmore, for his second wife. Ida marries Sir Claude, a likeable but weak-willed man. Maisie ends up with a new governess, Mrs. Wix. Despite her frumpiness and occasional ridiculousness, she is devoted to Maisie.

It does not take long for both Ida and Beale to mess up their new marriages, cheating on Miss Overmore and Sir Claude. In response, Miss Overmore and Sir Claude begin their own affair. Wrapped up in their romantic drama, both Beale and Ida neglect Maisie. Sir Claude ends up taking responsibility for her, and she must choose whether to stay with him and Miss Overmore or return to Mrs. Wix. By this time, Maisie is a teenager and in France with Sir Claude. She decides that Sir Claude and Miss Overmore will split just like Beale and Ida had, so she chooses to leave them and return to Mrs. Wix.

An important theme in What Maisie Knew is knowledge and education. Maisie learns that just because her parents and their new spouses are attractive does not mean they are reliable. She uses this knowledge as she chooses to stay with Mrs. Wix, who is the most devoted and responsible adult in her life. But Mrs. Wix is not a saint, and she too, like the other four adults, projects onto Miasie. While the other four project their sexualized drama onto the child, Mrs. Wix laments the loss of her own child and projects that grief onto Maisie.

Henry James, born in America, spent much time in England. He viewed English society in an unfriendly light; many of his works, including What Maisie Knew, involve parents and guardians who are neglectful of their responsibilities toward children in their care. What Maisie Knew is a scathing reprimand to what James saw as a corrupt society. Woven throughout this rebuke, readers will discover James’s own dark sense of humor, evidenced in Mrs. Wix’s infatuation with Sir Claude and Beale’s involvement with what he tells Maisie is an American countess.

At the time the story was published, it received mixed and polarized reviews. Edmund Wilson, a literary critic, admired the work for its style and judgment of English society. He recommended What Maisie Knew to Vladimir Nabokov, who wrote Lolita. Nabokov did not like What Maisie Knew at all. F.R. Leavis loved James’s book, and called it perfection. In 2012, Julianne Moore and Alexander Skarsgård starred in a film by the same title as the book. While the movie follows the book closely, this adaptation takes place in 21st-century New York City. Another difference is the absence of Mrs. Wix. Instead, Maisie finds her new parents to be reliable and loving, so she stays with them.

Henry James was a prolific author. His most well-known works include The Portrait of a Lady, The Ambassadors, The Turn of the Screw, and The Wings of the Dove. His fiction is considered important transitory work between literary realism and literary modernism. He also wrote plays, as well as works of criticism, biography and autobiography, and travel. Henry James was thrice nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature: in 1911, 1912, and 1916.

Like James himself, many of his fictional works embody characters that reflect either Old World Europe, which he paints as beautiful and corrupt, or America. These characters are often brash and value freedom. Many of his protagonists are young women who are facing oppression of some variety, and/or abuse. Many of his works also include a fish-out-of-water, drawing on his own experiences as an expatriate. His works are considered influential to authors such as Virginia Woolf and Max Beerbohm. He has been fictionalized in no less than a dozen other works by authors such as H.G. Wells, Joyce Carol Oates, and Gore Vidal.