19th century,  General Fiction

What Maisie Knew by Henry James

What Maisie Knew by Henry James was first published in 1897 and just recently turned into a movie starring the lovely Julianne Moore. I was offered a review copy by Penguin and I accepted: it was the first time a publisher had offered me a re-print of a classic, so thank you!


From GoodReads:

What Maisie Knew represents one of James’s finest reflections on the rites of passage from wonder to knowledge, and the question of their finality. The child of violently divorced parents, Maisie Farange opens her eyes on a distinctly modern world.

I think GoodRead’s description is short yet accurate and I would not advise future readers to do more research. When I first started reading I only knew it was the story of a child caught in the middle of her parents’ bitter divorce and I totally refused to watch the trailer just in case it spoiled anything. For me, this worked perfectly fine and has been doing so for some recent readings.

So, what about What Maisie Knew? I would definitely label it as a typically Jamesian: the story is organised in short chapters, full of long sentences and lots of subordination. If you ever read James, you know what I am talking about and how it sometimes mean you have to re-read a sentence. For me this was not a big deal because the style was perfect. Just perfect! I enjoyed every sentence and felt that they were all perfectly constructed with every word belonging where it was placed. I had forgotten how much I admired Henry James for his style and technique and only remembered how tedious some of his longer works can be.

The characters along with the above-mentioned style played a key role. Obviously, young Maisie is the main character and the reader can only but sympathise with her. She may be a child, but she is witty and she knows how to adapt herself to her environment. One of the things that I found more tragic is how she is deemed a fool when, in order to avoid confrontation, she makes other people believe she knows thing and just stares at her speaker. Sadly, no one thought Maisie more clever than she really was when all she was trying was to protect herself.

The themes are obvious from the very beginning: a child caught in her parents’ bitter divorce will go through a lot of bad experiences. I always thought it very sad to see a child’s parents literally use the child as a weapon against one another instead of worrying about the child’s feelings and her stability. Funny how I thought that as a modern concern: James wrote the novel in 1897 and a hundred and ten years after, there are people who still put their children through such hells – mind you, the “using-them” part, not the divorce in itself! – so I was really surprised to see how current the whole text still was.

I highly recommend What Maisie Knew to anyone interested in psychology and/or children and how they navigate the adults’ world better than we sometimes do. I was not happy at all with the ending, but since the book was so well-written and I had fallen in love with Maisie, I thought it fair to let her do what she wanted for once and for all.

Now I plan on seeing the movie as soon as possible and also I’m eager to read Washington Square the novel in which the Broadway play The Heiress (starring Dan Stevens and Jessica Chastain last yeat) was modelled on. 🙂



  • amanda

    I want to say that I hadn’t heard of this prior to first reading about the movie, yet somehow it’s on my to-read list. Oops. I guess I’ve let that list get out of control… It sounds like a potentially devastating book. I can’t help but feel that parents that use children like that are acting very selfishly.

    Were you aware that Henry James had a brother, William, who was a psychologist? I don’t know if he influenced Henry’s writing at all, but it does occur to me as interesting in light of your description of this as being a good one for anyone interested in psychology.

    • Elena

      I knew! Actually, I first heard of William and then I thought I’d better read Henry. I think they did influence each other, at least Henry’s works have a huge psychological insight.

Don't forget to share what you think!