It is noteworthy that readers of What Maisie Knew by Henry James don’t get a look at Maisie for most of the 1897 novel.

All of the action is seen through the young girl’s eyes.  That’s the point of the story, to give a sense of what it is like for a child to be at the center of a world of adults — but only as a sounding-board, as someone for an adult to vent to or think aloud to or rage at, not someone to be seen.

It’s the story of what Maisie sees, what she hears, what she experiences and what she understands — knows — about all that is happening.

I’m not sure that James, a lifelong bachelor, knew much about how a young girl would look and act.  But he did know one thing, and I latched onto it as soon as I saw it.

Maisie is with her governess Mrs. Wix in a hotel in a coastal town in France, awaiting the return of Maisie’s stepfather Sir Claude who has gone to England.  Mrs. Wix has just finished badgering the girl about whether she has “a moral sense.”

The night, this time, was warm and one of the windows stood open to the small balcony over the rail of which, on coming up from dinner, Maisie had hung a long time in the enjoyment of the chatter, the lights, the life of the quay made brilliant by the season and the hour.


Hanging over the rail

There it is — there is where the reader can finally see Maisie as the little girl she is, hanging over the rail of a balcony to take in all the excitement below. Little girls do hang over railings in just that way for just such of a purpose.

And, as if to underline this, James sends the girl back into the room where Mrs. Wix sits.  The often-overwhelmed woman hugs her and then gets into another badgerment about the girl’s “moral sense,” all communicated in ambiguous dialogue of a short sentence each.

It had the effect of causing Maisie to heave a vague sigh of oppression and then after an instant and as if under cover of this ambiguity pass out again upon the balcony. She hung again over the rail; she felt the summer night; she dropped down into the manners of France.

There was a café below the hotel, before which, with little chairs and tables, people sat on a space enclosed by plants in tubs; and the impression was enriched by the flash of the white aprons of waiters and the music of a man and a woman who, from beyond the precinct, sent up the strum of a guitar and the drawl of a song about “amour.”

Maisie knew what “amour” meant too, and wondered if Mrs. Wix did: Mrs. Wix remained within, as still as a mouse and perhaps not reached by the performance.


“A ready vessel for bitterness”

Some readers, among them literary professionals, believe that, by this time in the novel, Maisie is a teenager.  I think that is a misguided belief, and I’d point to this scene near the end of the book as evidence.

Maisie is six at the start of the novel — when her rich parents, Beale and Ida Farange, divorce in the ugliest of fashions with Maisie as a “bone of contention.”

As part of their ugliness, neither former spouse wanted custody of the girl, but their bitterness against each other results in, as James writes, a Solomonic judgement:

She was divided in two and the portions tossed impartially to the disputants.  They would take her, in rotation, for six months at a time.

A wealthy relative says, “Poor little monkey!” when the parents won’t let the woman help the little girl, “an epitaph,” James writes, “for the tomb of Maisie’s childhood.”  And he goes on:

What was clear to any spectator was that the only link binding her to either parent was this lamentable fact of her being a ready vessel for bitterness, a deep little porcelain cup in which biting acids could be mixed.

They had wanted her not for any good they could do her, but for the harm they could, with her unconscious aid, do each other. She should serve their anger and seal their revenge, for husband and wife had been alike crippled by the heavy hand of justice, which in the last resort met on neither side their indignant claim to get, as they called it, everything.


Moved between the households

Maisie does go back and forth between the parents, which is to say that she goes back and forth between governesses, except that soon one of the governesses, the young and beautiful Miss Overmore, marries Beale Farange and, so, becomes Maisie’s nominal stepmother.

It is a measure of her status in the marriage and in English society that the new wife is known as Mrs. Beale.  Similarly, Ida’s new, much younger husband is known simply as Sir Claude.  Beale Farange, new marriage notwithstanding, continues on with love affairs, many and wasteful, while Ida Farange, Sir Claude notwithstanding, does the same.

Over the course of about two hundred pages and some number of years, Maisie is moved between the households as a sort of pawn in the chess game between Beale and Ida, and then, when each finds a way to free him/herself from responsibility for Maisie, the girl becomes a pawn in a game between Sir Claude and Mrs. Beale who, in the course of things, have become secret lovers.


Shocked by such talk

Mrs. Wix knows of this scandalous affair, and that’s why she badgers Maisie about her “moral sense,” about the girl seeming to approve of Sir Claude even though he is engaged in illicit sex.

But that’s exactly what Maisie doesn’t know.

Like any girl of, say, ten, she knows what the word “love” or “amour” means — that two people spend a lot of time together and seem to have an affection for each other, as shown perhaps by a kiss or a tender touch.  And she knows that there is some kind of “love” between Sir Claude and Miss Beale.

But she has no knowledge of what that means, what an affair would be, how it would be seen by honest society.  She has no sense of a moral line being crossed.

She just thinks that, if there is this alliance between the two, then why can’t those two plus Mrs. Wix and Maisie just live together?

Mrs. Wix is shocked by such talk.


Keeping quiet and keeping her eyes open

This, to me, is the core of James’s novel.

From the time of the divorce, Maisie adopts an instinctive strategy of keeping quiet and keeping her eyes open.  Much is going on that she doesn’t understand.  She soaks up every piece of information that she can — what she sees, hears and experiences — in order to make sense of her world and her life.

The results are imperfect.  She is, after all, a little girl.  She takes much of what happens in stride.  She doesn’t know how her life is so radically different from the lives of most other girls her age.  Throughout the entire book, she has no playmates.

Adults talk at her, not really to her.  They see her as “a ready vessel,” not just for bitterness but also for any emotions they may feel or thoughts they want to express or ideas they want approved.  Maisie’s silence is seen by the adults as approval and as understanding and as a preternatural wisdom.

But she’s just a little girl.

Through Maisie’s eyes, James describes the selfishness, blindness and weakness of the adults, and, in doing so, he is pointing a spotlight on aspects of his British society at the turn of the twentieth century.

Maisie doesn’t have a full sense of what she is seeing, what she knows.  But James does.  And his reader does.

She is, after all, just a little girl.


Just a little girl

If, as some believe, Maisie is a teenager by the last half of the novel, she would be pubescent and would have a depth of knowledge about sex and “amour,” a knowingness, that is not exhibited by the Maisie in the book.

If Maisie has this sort of knowingness, the second half of the book makes no sense at all.  If she has this knowingness, she would know what Mrs. Wix is talking about when she goes on and on about “moral sense.”  She would have an insight into the sexual tension exhibited throughout the book by her mother, her father, Mrs. Beale and Sir Claude.  And into the scandal of the love affair of her ostensible stepparents.

And she would know why she and Mrs. Beale and Sir Claude (and Mrs. Wix) just can’t live together in the same household.

But she doesn’t know any of that.  She’s just a little girl.


Patrick T. Reardon




Written by : Patrick T. Reardon

For more than three decades Patrick T. Reardon was an urban affairs writer, a feature writer, a columnist, and an editor for the Chicago Tribune. In 2000 he was one of a team of 50 staff members who won a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting. Now a freelance writer and poet, he has contributed chapters to several books and is the author of Faith Stripped to Its Essence. His website is

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