Wednesday, February 24, 2016

“It MUST do us good – it's all so hideous” - What Maisie Knew as a novel of education

Is What Maisie Knew a kind of Bildungsroman?  Or is it the reverse, a parody, of the novel of development?  How much development  - meaning of the moral sensibility – should I expect of a nine year-old, especially when literally every person she meets is t best inept and at worst a heartless monster.

At times Maisie looked like a parody of the novel of education, like Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Émile turned into farce (and read a certain way, Émile is already pretty funny).  Maisie’s education is not merely neglected by her parents but openly impeded.  Her one relatively present governess, the magnificent Mrs. Wix, is an ignoramus, and thus comes cheap. 

They dealt, the governess and her pupil, in “subjects,” but there were many the governess put off from week to week and that they never got to at all: she only used to say “We'll take that in its proper order.” Her order was a circle as vast as the untravelled globe.  (Ch. 4)

Maisie’s step-parents are better educated than the governess, and less appalling than the actual parents, and thus occasionally make plans to educate Maisie.  For example, Sir Claude, he step-father, plans a course of reading for Maisie and Mrs. Beale, the step-mother:

He had got hold of an awfully good list – “mostly essays, don't you know?”  Mrs. Beale had said; a word always august to Maisie, but henceforth to be softened by hazy, in fact by quite languorous edges. There was at any rate a week in which no less than nine volumes arrived…  (Ch. 17)

Even more ambitiously, Sir Claude suggests a series “of lectures at an institution,” which have the added bonus that the institution is reached via the Underground, a thrill for Maisie.  The walk from the train was  

a pathway literally strewn with “subjects.”  Maisie imagined herself to pluck them as she went, though they thickened in the great grey rooms where the fountain of knowledge, in the form usually of a high voice that she took at first to be angry, plashed in the stillness of rows of faces thrust out like empty jugs.  “It MUST do us good – it's all so hideous,” Mrs. Beale had immediately declared; manifesting a purity of resolution that made these occasions quite the most harmonious of all the many on which the pair had pulled together.  (Ch. 17)

That may be my favorite passage in the novel.  Maisie, the emptiest of jugs, has no understanding of the lectures, but at least she is spending some quality time with her step-mom.

…  they dashed out together in quest of learning as hard as they often dashed back to release Mrs. Beale for other preoccupations…

But the joke is that Mrs. Beale’s interest is selfish.  She hopes that Sir Claude might also show up at the lectures and that the outings will be dates, with Maisie along as the excuse, or disguise.  Maisie’s step-parents are, you know, dating.  Or want to date.  Or something.  That’s the plot of the novel, or the background plot.

In the long end of the novel, almost a third of it Maisie is asked to make a choice that should not be asked of a nine year-old, but nevertheless requires her to balance moral and selfish interests in a way that has some resemblance to what I might see in a Bildungsroman.  Has she salvaged a moral education from the wreckage of her childhood?  To change the title a little, what does Maisie know?

Or, possibly, Maisie is manipulated into thinking she is make a choice etc. etc.  The adults are as always using her as a tool, giving her the illusion of choice for her own purpose.  She still doesn’t know anything.

Or, possibly, Maisie manipulates the adults into giving her the arrangement she wants.  They think they are giving her a choice etc. etc.  She knows far more than anyone realizes, but her knowledge is a form of corruption, and what else could it be given her educators?  I am kind of turning What Maisie Knew into one of those heist films where all of the robbers are triple-crossing each other.

Having read this slippery novel just once, I will not choose among the options.  The first is the most likely.

Underneath all of this, for me, was the sense of horror at witnessing a novel-length act of child abuse.  Someone give that poor little girl an education!


  1. "Underneath all of this, for me, was the sense of horror at witnessing a novel-length act of child abuse. Someone give that poor little girl an education!"

    My feeling, exactly. Poor girl. It would have been different if this child had been a boy.

    If you think of Washington Square and the constant opposition between father and daughter, that makes two books by James with awful and manipulative parents.

  2. Different if a boy, yes. Have you read "The Pupil" (1891)? There the awful parents stay together but have no interest in their son, so his tutor becomes his only friend and ally. Definitely different. One of the best James stories.

    The Washington Square comparison is good, too - the daughter is an adult, but the father treats her like she in nine years old.

    1. No I haven't read The Pupil. I'll put it on my list.
      So, there's a third James with awful parents.
      Jamais deux sans trois.