What Maisie Knew Portrait Of A Child

1262 words - 5 pages

What Maisie Knew - Portrait of a ChildAfter his disastrous shot at playwriting, which occupied him for a few years, Henry James finally returned to what he knew best: writing novels. What Maisie Knew (1897) is perhaps the finest of James' middle period books, a relatively simple story about a young girl of seven or eight who endures her parents' acrimonious divorce and a lot else besides.There are said to be James cultists who can spot the exact point in What Maisie Knew when the Master, suffering from a wrist injury, gave up writing his tale himself and began dictating it to a male secretary. The outrageous sentences that turn up in his last books, a veritable car crash pile-up of clauses, are said to have stemmed from this different way of working. Maisie is relatively easy to follow, though you might find yourself going back over a sentence to get its full flavor. Reading some of James' sentences is like hang-gliding from the first word to the period--you take in so much information along the way that you're likely to get a bit giddy.The act of writing to James was a highly delicate operation, as if he were building a house of cards, and the least slip would ruin the design. Though Maisie is not a perfect book, it is filled with James' elaborate literary feats, those suspenseful sleights of hand that always induce pleasurable gasps at each successful intellectual vibration.Maisie must have been a particularly difficult book to write because James has to retain the perfect balance between a child's-eye point of view and a sophisticated third person narrative. Viewed in this way, the book is truly a triumph.In What Maisie Knew (a fearsomely bland, even absurd title that of course fits the novel to a T) James is pursuing one of his favorite themes: the corruption of innocence. In his hands, this idea is so complex as to be nearly indigestible. Maisie's innocence is, by the standards of the time, already "corrupt." When her parents desert her completely, the little girl is thrust into the company of her stepparents: Sir Claude, the quintessential gentle Jamesian stud, who has recklessly married her unspeakable mother, and Miss Overmore, a former nanny who has married her awful father. These two quite quickly fall for each other, and Maisie even boasts that she "brought them together."She's a special person, this Maisie, and if What Maisie Knew stands as one of James' best novels perhaps it is because he seems to be so fond of her. In his greatest book, The Bostonians (1878), James gives his all to the repressed lesbian Olive Chancellor, and we care enough about her fate so that the remorseless conclusion carries a real sting. Elsewhere in his output, James can be so aloof as to abandon his characters to nebulous chat alternating with explosions of meaning. James is best, or at least most touching, when he allows himself to be moved by his characters.A Henry James ending, however, is often unforgivable. If he doesn't smack you in the face with a...

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