Monday, February 22, 2016

The actual was the absolute, the present alone was vivid - opening What Maisie Knew

What a shock to move from The Portrait of a Lady (1881) and its environs to What Maisie Knew (1897).  The sentences lengthen, the prose thickens, the ungrounded metaphors spread.  “Maisie could positively seize the moral that her elbow seemed to point in ribs thinly defended” (Ch. 28) – what?  If I were not already a believer in James’s periods, I would be now.  If I had not already read the previous James novel, The Spoils of Poynton (1896-7), who knows what I would think.

As a guess, I might blame – or credit – both, really, pros and cons – James’s legendary failure as a playwright for his change in style.  The next novel, The Awkward Age (1899), is the one mostly in dialogue, while Maisie begins with a much more difficult experiment.  For six chapters (plus an introduction) it comes quite close to abandoning scenes, instead describing actions that are ongoing and replacing setting and character with metaphor.

Maisie is a little English girl – how is she? five or so? and at the novel’s end, what, nine? – how I would like to see a timeline – anyway Maisie’s parent’s divorce and get an odd split custody where each one gets her, or she is forced on each one for successive six month periods.  After one round this arrangement is violated, which is one reason I didn’t follow the chronology well.  The father is “bespattered from head to foot” while the mother “might be regarded as showing the spots” (opening page), meaning they are both bad, bad people with no interest in their daughter except as a weapon against each other.  Both parents quickly remarry, luckily for Maisie to suckers who are not such bad people, and who have some human interest in the raising of a little girl.

One of the bold moves in Maisie is that the girl’s actual parents are so absent from her life that they barely count as characters.  The father is reduced to a beard and fine teeth.  They are both “awfully good-looking” and “made up together, for instance, some twelve feet of stature” – what an odd way to say that they are both tall.  Late in the novel, each parent is given a scene with Maisie; each is effective in part because I had so little idea what to expect from these vicious ciphers.

The world around the parents and Maisie is described in a rush.  I was startled to look back and see that the dense early chapters, the ones with only fragments of scenes and bursts of dialogue, only amounted to thirty pages, rapid little chapters that only hit the brakes to bundle Maisie off in another carriage to start her six months with another parent.

She was at the age for which all stories are true and all conceptions are stories. The actual was the absolute, the present alone was vivid. The objurgation for instance…  (Ch. 2)

“Objurgation,” there’s some James.  The conception of the novel is entirely, rigidly Maisie’s, but James is with her at all times; their partnership, Maisie’s and Henry’s, gives the novel its unusual voice.

After this purely novelistic opening, James resorts to more scenes and long dialogues in drawing rooms and similarly theatrical stuff, leaving later Modernists to attempt to write entire novels along the lines of these early chapters.  James has given himself another hard puzzle to solve which will take all of not his attention but mine.  Tomorrow, the riddles.


  1. I had the same thought about wanting a timeline! We know she is six at the beginning, but how many unbounded stretches of six months happen after that?

  2. Even in the beginning, I have one doubt. Maisie is six in chapter one, but in the preface - well, that is part of the sceneless nature of the beginning. A little uncertainty is part of of the concept. Maybe a lot of uncertainty.

    Just calling her six is a good idea. Please consider this comment a correction to my question above.

    I know that the first year proceeds according to plan, but after that I honestly do not know.

    The last third of the novel only covers a couple of weeks.

    Maisie is a child all the way through; I guess I am sure of that.

  3. All that you have written now and in the past about Henry James suddenly leads me a question that I should have pondered long ago but skipped over: I wonder how "popular" James was in his own time and what that says about readers then v. readers now. (I suspect 100+ years makes a lot of difference, but my curiosity, I suppose, leads me back to certain theoretical considerations: cultural materialism and new historicism. If I have more time, I will give more time to those considerations, but my initial question persists.)

  4. I don't know much about James's sales. I should read Leon Edel's biography sometime.

    "Daisy Miller" was a big hit, and James was always able to sell work to The Atlantic Monthly. But he had plenty of bombs, too.

    Readers a hundred years ago were outstanding; readers today are also great.

  5. Great post.

    I had troubles with the timeline too. And reading this in English was a challenge

  6. Reading this novel in a second language is a real accomplishment. The prose is always challenging, and sometimes it is downright hard - all right, back to the beginning of the sentence, what did that mean.

  7. Observation: His syntax, diction, punctuation, and tropes are all reasons James is almost "always challenging."

  8. Yes, every element, they have all become a notch or two more challenging than they were circa "Daisy Miller."