What Maisie Knew, by Henry James is a very disturbing novel on several levels. The manipulative effects and affects forced upon her by her parents are ones no child should endure.
This book was written during a time period when divorce was not common. Maisie’s parents are going through a divorce and bitter custody battle. Throughout the situation, Maisie is used as a tool in order for her parents to get what they want, as they bicker back and forth over their marriage. Maisie is left to discern what is occurring, on her own, without much explanation from the adults in her life. That was the manner in which situations like this were handled, back then.
Maisie is thrown into circumstances beyond her control, and yet, she does seem to have some perception of the moods, mores/standards, and social interactions with betwewn various adults in her life. She is confused as to appropriateness, and social appearances. Within the confusion of knowing what is appropriate, she seems to have an inner sense of the actions of the adults in her life, and what they are actually doing, yet trying to conceal from her. She is a reader of body language, not only gestures, but also facial expressions. She learns a lot from them, and tries to piece together a semblance of emotional security. There is much that she should not know due to her age, yet her innate ability to fathom certain circumstances, is both a positive attribute and a negative one. She is often confused. She ends up agreeing with, and plays for attention with, the adults she is involved with at the moment.
Her parents infuse her with vivid statements of hatred for each other, and through this their words also contain a hatred for Maisie. The adults use her, and manipulate her for their own purposes, in order to gain favors, monetary and otherwise. She is moved back and forth from household to household, always trying to find love within the walls. Maisie is not able to unveil the secrecy within the households she finds herself. And, secrets there are. James is brilliant in not only revealing them, but also in concealing some of them, in order for the reader to decide for themselves what is occurring.
She is a child who is not wanted, and is used for the money that is in trust for her. This causes those around her to lie and to endeavor to win her favors. Maisie is not taught moral standards, and has to learn what is right and what is wrong, more or less on her own.
That a child should be treated in such a manner is despicable. An innocent child is verbally and emotionally abused, and the self-centered adults in her life could care less about her welfare. It is a sad statement of affairs, and James writes with extreme flourish on Maisie’s situation. He is masterful with his word-imagery, and also masterful with depicting divorce and its cruelties forced upon children.
What Maisie Knew is a dark and intense look at what parents will do in order to gain what they want in a divorce. It is a dark look at what parents so relentlessly put their child through, caring only for their own outcomes, and not the child’s welfare.
That Henry James was able to write about this with such depth is a testament to his knowledge of the human condition and a testament to his skills.