What Maisie Knew - Portrait of a Child

Essay by Femeie26University, Master'sA-, March 2004

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What Maisie Knew - Portrait of a Child

After 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...