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I chose to read James’s unusual, and perhaps not widely read, novel What Maisie Knew for the Back To The Classics Challenge in the 19th Century category.

Cover illustration by Edward Gorey

Briefly, the 1897 novel chronicles the toxic fallout resulting from the divorce of two beastly, self-absorbed parents and the fate that befalls their little girl, Maisie of the book’s title. While the subject matter may seem redundant and uninspired in our divorce-ridden culture, it was revolutionary at the time it was written. Divorces happened infrequently and when they did were not discussed in polite company. Certainly, they were not common subject matter for the fiction of the time and were in no way a life path to be emulated. That James chose such a subject was intriguing to me, and as a survivor of childhood divorce myself, I was curious as to how James would handle it. He apparently was inspired by a real-life case told to him by a friend, the details of which can be gleaned from reading the introduction to the novel.

I tend to like Henry James for the way he telescopes in and intensely examines a thing, person, or event much like the way a scientist examines some unknown organism under a microscope. I admire his detailed narratives that follow a person over the course of the many events and minutiae of their lives. In James, every event is significant. Every event impacts a person in untold ways and I love this about him because I see this as a truth of human life experience. No event is insignificant.

In What Maisie Knew the events, unfortunately, are significant in a directly damaging way. The child is the ultimate victim of adult vagaries and selfish impulses that are never once curbed. In nearly all instances, Maisie is used by the adults as a pawn to get what they want. This is done while assiduously assuring her that her own interests are being taken to heart, but the child’s interests are consistently buried and forgotten and the reader has the sense, by the end, of total and complete abandonment. There is a cloying, hideous awareness that what Maisie now knows are things no child should ever have to know, things she will carry with her into adulthood, which she will bring to each person and event she touches. This reader, at least, was left with the appalling sense of the truth about the theory of the domino effect, and a very concrete manifestation of the ways in which the sins of the father (and mother, as well) are begotten upon the children. Perhaps even more startling is that the damage indicted on the child goes beyond that done by her parents and succeeds to damage being done by those with whom her parents both have relationships after their divorce. In Maisie’s, world no adult is safe.

I hesitate to recommend the novel, though perhaps it should be read, lest there are still people in the world who persist in the deluded belief that divorce has no lasting effect on children and in some cases can even be beneficial. The novel is unique of its kind in the time period in which it was written. Ultimately, I found the book disturbing and sad, and the prose more than unusually dense — which considering it’s James, says a lot. I was at times overwhelmed by a constant sense of unease and insecurity, fearing for Maisie and what was to become of her at the hands of these indiscriminate people. The back cover of my edition says the novel “abounds in dark humor and savage wit.” For my part, I found no humor here and the wit was lost amidst the monstrous behavior of the adults and the sheer sense of abandonment and brutality the child endured.

Craft Point*

Portrait of Henry James, by John Singer Sargent

James doesn’t shy away from difficult subjects. He excels in examining things in minute detail — a character’s idiosyncrasies, the innuendos in spoken words, the uncertainty evoked due to perception, and the conflict between and among perceptions based on each character’s personal experience. His structure is impeccable and he doesn’t waste time on things the reader can solve for herself. For example, it is enough that the characters go to a French cafe. The reader can paint in all the details based on how the characters interact with one another in the place, without his getting in there and painting first. His chapter breaks are continuously evolving a singular narrative arc, deftly picking up where the previous left off. I found myself paying attention to how he moved the story along both through structure and an interesting use of a limited omniscient point-of-view that remained on the page and did not follow the characters off-stage, picking them right up again when it was time for them to reappear. The ultimate recommendation of the novel, for me, would be as a study in craft, as opposed to any affection for its subject. It’s a lesson in how to do difficult things exceedingly well.

*My main reason for participating in the Classics Challenge is to study the craft of fiction at the hands of the masters. It is my intention to include a “Craft Point” for each book I review.