What Maisie and the Book Group Knew

What Maisie Knew, Henry James (1897, this Kindle edition based on Echo Library Large Print Edition 2006)

1_wmkBefore the meeting: When I read Henry James at university (Portrait of a Lady in first year and What Maisie Knew some time later), quite a bit of it went right over my head. I loved the prose, but the worlds of his novels were a long way from the North Queensland pragmatism and Catholic piety that I had been brought up with. Perhaps now, more than forty years of secular urban life under my belt, I’d have more luck. After all, Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s movie adaptation just about tore my heart out a few weeks ago, and Kate Lilley’s poem ‘Maisily’ moved me simply by listing the adverbs from the book.

The Kindle edition gets right down to business – cover, title page, table of contents, and then, without so much as a chapter heading:

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. The father, who, though bespattered from head to foot, had made good his case, was, in pursuance of this triumph, appointed to keep her: it was not so much that the mother’s character had been more absolutely damaged as that the brilliancy of a lady’s complexion (and this lady’s, in court, was immensely remarked) might be more regarded as showing the spots.

We’re thrown right into the middle of a story, everything in plain sight, embedded in metaphor and sarcasm. This can’t be read fast, and once you know that by this stage of his life James dictated his novels, it can’t be read without the mental image of a portly gentleman pacing the room enjoying the sound of the sentences as they roll out from his mouth.

And it continues as it has begun: rich, sonorous, intricate sentences that tell a story of child neglect from the point of view of the child, but with no attempt to tell it as a child would: instead, we are asked to explore the great complexity of this little girl’s perceptions of the adult world and her strategies for dealing with it, in language that is at times as baffling to the reader as that world is to her.

I enjoyed the book, but I can’t pretend that I always understood what was going on in that adult world. Specifically, in the last movement Maisie – now well past the age of six that she remains in the movie – has to make a decision about her living arrangements in a context where the adults clearly share an understanding of the issues and believe incorrectly that Maisie does too. James seems to expect his readers to have the insider’s view as well. But times have changed, and the reference point of the culture have shifted so much that I at least could only follow the broadest outlines of what F R Leavis calls the ‘moral squalor’ of the adult world. The governess Mrs Wix, who is possibly meant to be a kind of moral centre of gravity (and who is not there in the movie) wins out in the end, and I think we’re meant to see this as a triumph of good over evil, but I completely couldn’t see why Maisie’s rejection of Mrs Beale, who has always defended and loved her, should be seen as a good thing (though who can tell when the air is so thick with irony?).

By telling the story from Maisie’s point of view, the novel throws into question the whole concept of moral squalor, if that refers primarily to sexual behaviour: what Maisie doesn’t get is all the sexual stuff, so being a kept man or a loose woman or a gold-digger or someone who pays for sex, as various characters appear to be, matters not at all, whereas loyalty, patience, kindness, generosity and their absence are what count.

F R Leavis thought very highly of this novel, which is probably why it was set for us to study at Sydney University in the 1970s. I don’t know that it’s a book I’ll be in a hurry to reread, though many of James’s sentences merit many re-readings.

After the meeting: Words like ‘loathing’ kept cropping in emails leading up to last night’s dinner. However, it was hard to feel loathing for anything much, as we sat outside eating barbecued chicken and sausages on a balmy, mosquito-free Sydney spring evening, as darkness brought an end to a day that had been predicted to be full of bushfire horror but had instead been one where the volunteer rural fire service could be justifiably proud of having averted disaster by strategic backburning the day before.

There were six of us. A couple had been travelling, and shared travellers’ tales. One had been living in Darwin and told spectacular yarns of Territory life. Some of us had been to the theatre and had stories to tell from there as well – one involving a smart phone that played Beatles tunes as background to the drama until an actor politely asked the blithely unaware owner of said phone to turn it off. It was a warm, convivial evening.

We did talk about the book, happily and with minimal rancour. Only one of us – me – had read the whole thing. Only one of the others said he planned to finish it. I may have been the only one who found the sentences fascinating rather than perversely complex. As we were going home, we clapped eyes on the paperback that one chap was holding, and several of us had difficulty reconciling the slimness of the paperback with the size of the book we felt we had read on our various electronic devices.

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