History: This book was first published as a serial in the Chap-Book and (revised and abridged) in the New Review in 1897 and then as a book later in the same year. What Maisie Knew has great contemporary relevance as an unflinching account of a wildly dysfunctional family
Plot: When Beale and Ida Farange are divorced, the court decrees that their only child, the very young Maisie, will shuttle back and forth between them, spending six months of the year with each. The parents are immoral and frivolous, and they use Maisie to intensify their hatred of each other. Beale Farange marries Miss Overmore, Maisie's pretty governess, while Ida marries the likeable but weak Sir Claude. Maisie gets a new governess, the frumpy, more than a little ridiculous, but devoted Mrs. Wix.
Both Ida and Beale soon busy themselves with other lovers besides their spouses. In return those spouses — Sir Claude and the new Mrs. Beale — begin an affair with each other. Maisie's parents essentially abandon her in heartbreaking scenes, and she becomes largely the responsibility of Sir Claude. Eventually, Maisie must decide if she wants to remain with Sir Claude and Mrs. Beale. In the book's long final section set in France, the now teenaged Maisie maturely decides that the relationship of her new "parents" might well end as badly as that of her biological parents. She leaves them and goes to stay with Mrs. Wix, her most reliable adult guardian.
Review: It's not surprising from the book's title that knowledge and education form a major theme in this bittersweet tale of Maisie's up-bringing. Her keen observation of the irresponsible behavior of almost all the adults she lives with eventually persuades her to rely on her most devoted friend, Mrs. Wix, even though the frumpy governess is by far the least superficially attractive adult in her life.
The novel is also a thoroughgoing condemnation of parents and guardians abandoning their responsibilities towards their children. James saw English society as becoming more corrupt and decadent, and What Maisie Knew is one of his harshest indictments of those who can't be bothered to live responsible lives.
It might seem that such a book would become almost unbearably grim. But James leavens the sorry doings with a generous dose of admittedly dark humor. For instance, the dumpy Mrs. Wix falls victim to an unintentionally hilarious infatuation with the handsome Sir Claude. And James often plays Maisie's lightweight father for laughs, as when he gets involved with a woman he tells Maisie is an American "countess."
Opening Line: “The litigation seemed interminable and had in fact been complicated; but
by the decision on the appeal the judgement of the divorce-court was
confirmed as to the assignment of the child.”
Closing Line: “Mrs. Wix gave a sidelong look. She still had room for wonder at what Maisie knew.”
Quotes: “No themes are so human as those that reflect for us, out of the confusion of life, the close connection of bliss and bale, of the things that help with the things that hurt, so dangling before us forever that bright hard medal, of so strange an alloy, one face of which is somebody's right and ease and the other somebody's pain and wrong.”