Ce que savait Maisie

by Henry James

Paperback, 1980



Call number




10 (1980), 395 pages


When Beale and Ida Farange are divorced, the court decrees that their only child, the very young Maisie, will shuttle back and forth between them, spending six months of the year with each. But each parent remarries and abdicates her care to Mrs. Wix, the governess. But can Mrs. Wix be permanent?

Media reviews

The Smart Set
Henry James’s What Maisie Knew is a perfect comedy, a riotous and delightful piece of Olympian foolery—and happily free from Mr. James’s more recondite snarls of speech. It is worth a dozen best-sellers of the current crop. It has more good fun in it, and more shrewdness, and more civilized entertainment than all the masterworks of the Athertons and Sinclairs, the Herricks and Frank Danbys, the Phillpottses and Mrs. Humphry Wards, taken together. It is a first rate piece of writing by a first rate man.

User reviews

LibraryThing member baswood
This was my first read of a book by Henry James and I thought I might not even get that far after struggling through his almost impenetrable preface to the 1909 American publication of the book. Finally I got to the novel itself, but there was no time to relax, as I plunged back into some intense verbiage and obfuscation as I tried to make sense of what was going on. A friend who recommended the book to me had labelled James as “Mr Wordy” and I could see what he meant, but it is not just the volume of words; in paragraphs that can stretch over two pages that is the real problem; it is the syntax itself. I have read that James’s style was a precursor to modernism and the stream of conscious technique and where there is some evidence of this in the novel, the impression I got was that James was looking back to the 19th century rather than forward to the 20th century. A difficult reading experience then, but was it worth the effort?

The Story is a good one. We first meet Maisie as a young child who is subject to a court order following divorce proceedings. Her parents finally agree to have Maisie for half a year each, not we are told in consideration of each other, or of Maisie, but because of their ill feeling, they wish to saddle each other with the burden of the child. Maisie finds herself under the supervision or protection of two very different governesses. Her mother; Ida employs Mrs Wix; a widower whose concerns are mainly with Maisie’s moral welfare, while her father Mr Beale employs the beautiful Miss Overmore. Maisie’s parents are both in James’s words immoral characters who exude charm to all who meet them and it is no surprise that Miss Overmore soon becomes the second Mrs Beale and that Ida marries the equally charming Sir Claude. Maisie now has a step mother and a step father, but the real complications begin when these two step parents meet and start an affair of their own. Little Maisie grows up within this whirlwind of meetings and love affairs {Ida is soon seen with other men and Mr Beale is not far behind with seeing other women) and James shows us Maisie’s world through the eyes of this somewhat precocious child: though thankfully not in the first person..

It is the world seen through Maisie’s eyes that gives this book it’s feeling of modernism, and James does this so well. He conveys her fears, her confusion, her gullibility, her sinless character, her desire to make the right choices and to please everybody around her. Maisie’s main concern especially in her most childish phase is to please everyone, but as the novel develops so does Maisie until faced with her difficult choice at the end of the novel she is empowered to do so. She is always careful and thoughtful about what she says and does and even when she fails to understand much of what is happening she manages to not cause too much upset. The brilliance of this novel is James’s ability to make us believe in all these facets of a young child character, we as readers can see and feel more than Maisie ever can about her situation and although she sometimes makes us cringe with the things she says, we admire her natural common sense.

A child surrounded by charming manipulative characters as Maisie is, cannot herself fail to be charmed and we very rarely witness any bad behaviour towards the child, in fact quite the opposite and in Sir Claude’s case it may be that his love for his mistresse’s step daughter goes beyond the bounds of propriety. This lurking fear for Maisie’s safety is the hook that will ensure many readers will finish the novel, as well as some brilliant passages of prose and insights into the characters that are presented before us. I particularly enjoyed the sojourn to the channel port of Boulogne on the North coast of France, where Maisie’s future must eventually be decided. James captures for me the essence of this French town at the turn of the century and the hotel life of English ex-pats, who look wistfully back across the channel.

For me it is Henry James’s moral standpoint that places his novel with both feet firmly in the 19th century. He tends to scream out moral rectitude to his readers. Mrs Wix is the moral force in the novel, it is she that has the task of saving Maisie from the charming people around her and although James is careful to present Mrs Wix character to us with warts and all (she is also hopelessly charmed and a little in love with Sir Claude), it is her moral viewpoint that will prevail, it is she that will scold Maisie that will force her to sort right from wrong. “Haven’t you really and truly any moral sense” she says in exasperation to Maisie and this reader felt that Henry James was addressing this question directly to him.

It would be overstepping the mark to say that there is a brilliant novel here struggling to get out, because at times James writing style does enhance the confusion and fears of Maisie, however it also buries the story a little too deep to make this a comfortable reading experience. I found it difficult to concentrate fully at times and sleep inducing at others, but then I would wake up with a start; coming across a brilliant passage and find myself thinking “how good is that” I suppose therefore I am ambivalent about Henry James as a writer and certainly about this novel. I would not wish to read it through again, but it has made me wish to try another of his works, but not just yet. This was for me a three star read.
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LibraryThing member randoymwords
This is the beginning of Henry James' style of impartation through obfuscation. Everything that happens in this novel is either in front of the young child Maisie, or offstage, referred to in polite, avoiding conversations. This doesn't work as strongly as it would in the 19th century. Divorces, and the usage of children as weapons before and after the proceedings, are now a relatively common event. So Maisie's being ping-ponged between parents, or even the parents' affairs, are not as shocking to the current reader as Henry James would have as an effect. This doesn't detract from the pure cleverness of the novel, however, as it shows us a young girl learning from her environment, and the adults, perhaps, learning from her.… (more)
LibraryThing member gbill
Painful. I choked down about 200 of the 280 pages and then couldn't take anymore.

At the risk of offending a Henry James afficionado (21-year-old goof or otherwise), I have to say, I am not a big fan of his. It's ironic, I love his friend Edith Wharton and will have to type up a few reviews raving about her. All this negativity gets me down.

Anyway, Henry just always seems to get in the way of himself with his own commentary, and his books, including this one, are way too dense. 10 year old fruitcake dense. Osmium dense. George W. Bush dense. (Hey if I'm going to offend, why not cast the net wide :-) At his best his character's dialogue speaks for itself; unfortunately, this is rare, and at his worst, his long, awkward sentences need to be re-read to be remotely understood.

But I'm sure it's just a personal taste thing and I'll be promptly corrected by a legion of erudite James lovers.

What I liked about "What Maisie Knew":

1. Concept of writing about divorce and awful adult behavior through a child's eyes in 1908 was well ahead of its time.

2. Concept of rescuing this little paperback from 1954 from a Library book sale. Don't you love those? The cover alone did it.

3. Nothing else. Oh, wait, one more. Finally deciding to put it down without finishing it. I felt too guilty to do so at page 70 when the urge first hit me. As I picked it up nightly and continued dutifully slogging through it like a condemned man, a little horned devil on one shoulder kept whispering to me, "don't finish it, you don't like it, there are so many books to read, so little time, why go on...". Naturally a little angel on the opposite shoulder appeared in James' defense, saying "don't listen to him, James was a genius, watch for the deft psychological touches, I'm sure the story will become compelling eventually, and oh by the way what will your LibraryThing friends say if you review something you didn't even finish...".

What can I say? I think the last he was seen, the angel was nodding off out of boredom and had drool dangling out of his mouth, while the devil had gone from whispering to shouting, "life is too short! Go get another book!" So I did.
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LibraryThing member marysargent
This is what I wrote in 1991 when I read this book:

The most irritating good writer I've ever read!!!!
LibraryThing member guendalina
James brings the reader back in time. It is unbelievable how the events are presented surrounded by that mist of misunderstanding and uneasiness only a child can experience when faced with the illogical adult world. Shockingly real.
LibraryThing member Liz_Toronto
It's a difficult book but genius in construction. To me, the subject matter that was more cringe-inducing than the writing. It's written in third person, yet purely from the POV of Maisie, who thinks she knows a lot but doesn't because she's a child, surrounded by manipulative and selfish adults who think they are worldly and cunning and know nothing of themselves or other people. It's about knowledge, lack of, gaining of, and it takes a while to get to the point where we can understand the novel. This doesn't lessen my love for Henry James. (Kind of increased it, actually.)… (more)
LibraryThing member pieterpad
Perhaps the pivotal work in the evolution of James's style and the first of the "difficult" ones, the book considers a young girl tossed among separated parents and their lovers and spouses. The story is told from her point of view, so there are elements that never do become understood. Wonderful conversations and arguments in well-depicted settings; this novel owes much to James's recent preoccupation with the theater. Highly recommended.… (more)
LibraryThing member ChristaJLS
At a young age Maisie's parents decide to tell her they're getting a divorce. From that point on, life as she knows it will never be the same. She is traded back and forth among them and forced to put up with their constant bickering. So despicable are her parents they even use this poor child as a messenger to pass along insults. Fortunately, Maisie finds allies in her parents new spouses, Claude and Mrs. Beale and her governess Mrs.Wix, though their own motives may not be so clear. Throughout it all Maisie is simply trying to find her place in an indifferent and cruel adult world.

This book, though short, seemed to drag on forever! It is so verbose, disengaging and talk about run on sentences! It would often take me a couple re-reads through a sentence to figure out exactly what was going on. Even once I figured out what was going on I found the book couldn't hold my attention. Upon reflection I can determine this is only because I did not care about a single character in this book. I felt bad for Maisie because her parents are absolutely despicable and their spouses may love Maisie but there so shallow and self absorbed you have to wonder if they're really any better. Even Maisie herself wasn't such a great character. I found her annoying the way she automatically fell in love with everyone she met. She's supposed to be innocent but even innocent characters tend to learn something and by the end of the book I found myself wondering if she knew anything at all.

It is clear that James has an amazing command of the English language. But this particular book is a little disorientating and not one I found myself getting lost in. It does put forth some interesting ideas and is a disturbing look at how horrible and selfish adults can be. In actuality the book may actually have been enjoyable if it just wasn't so overwritten.
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LibraryThing member stillatim
I didn't expect this to be so funny- like a drawing room comedy. Then you think, wait, is it still funny when one of the main characters is a young girl? And then you think, wait, is she clueless or just completely and utterly starving for love? And I'm not sure that was ever resolved. Would you rather live with people who use you for their own sexual ends, or a person who uses you for her own messed up moral ends? Funny, and then suddenly really, really sad.… (more)
LibraryThing member samfsmith
A classic novel, extensively researched, written about, and commented on. Maisie is the first fictional child to be the product of a broken home. Her parents hate each other, and treat Maisie as a weapon, something all to familiar to modern readers. Maisie ends up as a pawn between not only her parents but her stepparents and a governess. An awful mess, but a good read.… (more)
LibraryThing member devenish
The tangled tale of a small girl called Maisie and the adults that like a group of satellites surround and interact with her.None of the characters are at all sympathetic with the sole exception of Maisie. Not one of this authors better works by any means,it is in truth rather tedious.
LibraryThing member markbstephenson
A tough but very rewarding read. Maisie has the unenviable lot of being born to a handsome but worldly couple unready for either marriage or parenthood and is used by both parents as fodder for their contentious divorce and subsequent perpetual warfare. One might think this would be a very dark book ( it was written just after The Turn of the Screw) but that would be without reckoning with Maisie who is a marvel, a little genius, and ultimately a heroine. Some say she is a bit of a self portrait of HJ himself. Her stepfather, Claude is also very memorable, funny and likable.… (more)
LibraryThing member CasaBooks
I didn't give up, I did NOT give up!!!! 307 pages - easy . .I can read that in 2 sittings - but this 307 pages, had only about 400 sentences, or so I could swear. And swear, I did - because I had to read every one of those sentences at least 3 - 4 times . . thus making this the longest book I've read in ages!!!
Mr. James is a well known author of many familiar classic titles. Obviously, my non-classical literary background did not prepare me for this one. Don't be fooled by the soft cover book on the "new books" shelves with the photo from last year's movie of the same title - this book was written in 1897 and is shockingly contemporary in it's premise of a horrible custody battle.
The prose is not contemporary, however, and even having been partnered with TWO precisely speaking (albeit sometimes 'wordy')juris doctorates, did not make this a quick read for me.
I did enjoy the book - enjoy the book - enjoy the book. Just wish I would have been able to read it with more ease. Tried to "google" a question of the average words per sentence, but all I saw were all the reports of convoluted sentences. Might have been smarter to have noticed that before I began.
I didn't give up!!! (Hope the movie is decently done - it's a good story and the reason I picked up the book, was to read before the movie . . )
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LibraryThing member Helenliz
I think this serves as an object lesson in why some people shouldn't be allowed to have children. Maisie is the daughter of parents who go through an acrimonious divorce. Part of the settlement is that she'll spend 6 months with each parent. They both use Maisie as a weapon to continue to wound the other. Maisie takes refuge in the governesses that populate her young life. They are almost equally at war with each other as her parents are. She ends up being pushed from one house and life to the other at increasing intervals. As the parents acquire new partners, so they have an increasing impact on Maisie's life. For the most part the adults are all self absorbed and irresponsible, while Maisie is of indeterminate age and clings to whoever shows her kindness and affection (however false that affection might be).
This is an odd book. I can't say I enjoyed it. At times my ear was caught by a turn of phrase, but for the most part the language was flowery, the text melodramatic and most of the characters thoroughly unlikeable. I also found it impossible to place Maisie in age, at times she sounded very young, at others too old and knowing. Not so bad as I'll never try James again, but not good enough to rush out and read more. OK is as good as it gets.
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LibraryThing member jmoncton
Divorces are painful, especially when there are children involved. But divorces become extremely ugly when parents use the child as a weapon to hurt their former spouse. Maisie is a young girl when her parents Ida and Beale Farrange split up. Both parents are self-absorbed narcissists and are too selfish to have the commitment to stay in a relationship, let alone have the skills or the desire to be a good parent. Both parents don’t want to release their claim on Maisie as part of a power struggle with their partner, but since neither wants to really take care of her, they each farm her out to governesses. And here is where the plot becomes complicated. Mrs. Farrange hires a pretty young governess who falls in love and eventually marries Maisie’s father. Maisie’s mother also remarries – a wonderful and caring Sir Claude, but both Maisie’s mother and father lack the fidelity or desire to stay in any lasting relationship. And with a plot twist that you might expect from a Hollywood blockbuster, Maisie’s step parents – you guessed it – fall for each other. In the center of all of this romantic entanglement is poor Maisie.

From the title of this book, What Maisie Knew, I was dreading some awful secret that the young girl would discover. But sadly, it seems like the lessons that Maisie learns are to not trust the adults in her life and that no relationship ever lasts. Good story.

One comment about the audio narration. The book I listened to was performed by Maureen O’Brian. Her voices were good for most of the characters, except for Maisie. In the story, Maisie is a young girl – maybe in the range of 5 to 10 years old. She gives her a very high squeaky voice – almost what you would expect from a pixie or fairy. I found it slightly disconcerting and a distraction from the overall story.
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LibraryThing member missizicks
I've only read a couple of books by Henry James, but I've enjoyed them. What Maisie Knew was a chore. The premise is horrible - a child used by her divorced parents in a horrible game of revenge, forced into an adult frame of mind she barely understands but somehow manages to embrace. There were long passages where nothing happened that were described by James in verbose and repetitive language. It should not have taken me 11 days to get to the end, but I found myself doing anything and everything rather than sitting down to read this monstrosity.… (more)
LibraryThing member ChazziFrazz
I have finally finished this book. I decided to read a second Henry James novel just to see if it was the book or if I just was not a fan of his work. I can now say I am not a fan of his work.

The story line is the raising of a small girl by her divorced parents. Both parents dislike each other and use the child to find out what each other is doing and use that information to further their mutual dislike and share their feelings with the young child whenever the child is residing with one of the parents.

The parents remarry and the child is introduced to her step-parents. The step-parents each develop a relationship with the child. They become more caring and concerned with her well-being and enjoy spending time with her, unlike her biological parents.

There is also a governess in the cast. She also develops relationship with the child and each of the step-parents.

James' writing style is quite verbose and makes it difficult to understand the relationships and what each adult is trying to accomplish in their relationship with the child. James writes in long, winding sentences that seem to go forward and then double back on themselves to add extra information or explanation of what the meat of the sentence is.

I have read Anthony Trollope, Charles Dickens and others and enjoyed them. Perhaps if I had read this while attending a lit class focused on James I might have a better opinion of his work. As it is...this is my last attempt at reading Henry James.
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LibraryThing member brakketh
Not sure what it was about this one but thus far my favourite of the James novels I've read. The story of Maisie stuck between her parents vitriol was somehow beautiful.
LibraryThing member ffortsa
Henry James heard about a divorce case in which a young child had become a pawn and decided to write about it from the child's point of view. Thus we see the story through Maisie's experience (not first person, but from her perspective and limited knowledge). The courts have awarded her to each parent for 6 months of the year, and it seems neither really wants her. The use her at every transfer. even at the age of 6, to convey hostile messages to each other, and Maisie learns to play stupid to extricate herself from these furies. Each parent provides a governess (of varying quality), and each says there is no money to send her to a day or boarding school. Poor kid.

Eventually each parent has a new spouse, but the pattern is set. One, Sir Claude, is loving but weak, the other, the once-governess at Maisie's father's house, now Mrs. Beale, has accomplished her goal of marriage and is not so interested anymore in Maisie. Maisie bonds most with Sir Claude, and when the opportunity comes to essentially run away with him, she takes it.

But more confusion reigns. Neither second marriage is happy, Sir Claude has fallen for Mrs. Beale, and these two plus the governess Mrs. Wix arrive in France, trying to sort out what will become of them all. At the end, it is Maisie who determines her own future.

What, after all this mistreatment, can a girl of 10 or 12 know?
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LibraryThing member JBarringer
I found it interesting reading about parents as messed up as my own, and thanks to my own screwy family, I could relate to Maisie's plight very well. She and I have a lot in common. But, while I could relate to the story, I couldn't always precisely follow the story. In this book, Henry James uses so much current slang and pretentious, overly verbose language that it is a chore keeping up with what is going on in this book. In addition, while I sympathize with poor, dear Maisie, I must point out that she lives a very fancy,comfortable life despite the terrible misery James seems to be trying to describe. For readers in the 1900's or 1920's, especially well-to-do readers from conservative backgrounds, I am sure this book made a lot more sense. For me, as a modern 2014 reader who grew up in similar circumstances to the main character's, the choices Maisie makes and the circumstances for them come across a bit differently. I do think that Maisie did well in choosing as she did, because the possibility of her being drawn into a romance of her own, if she had chosen the other option she was given, would have been very awkward and jarring even to my modern moral sense.

Did I like this book? Not exactly. But, I do think it would make a great book to read and discuss in a class or a book club setting. There would be plenty to discuss.
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LibraryThing member richardderus
Book Circle Reads 43

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Book Description: What Maisie Knew (1897) 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. Mothers and fathers keep changing their partners and names, while she herself becomes the pretext for all sorts of adult sexual intrigue.

In this classic tale of the death of childhood, there is a savage comedy that owes much to Dickens. But for his portrayal of the child's capacity for intelligent wonder, James summons all the subtlety he devotes elsewhere to his most celebrated adult protagonists. Neglected and exploited by everyone around her, Maisie inspires James to dwell with extraordinary acuteness on the things that may pass between adult and child. In addition to a new introduction, this edition of the novel offers particularly detailed notes, bibliography, and a list of variant readings.

My Review: Ida and Beale Farange, Maisie's parents, resemble Winter and Dick Derus, my own parents, very very closely. When I read this book in 1996, I was smacked in the teeth by the eerie similarities between the parenting styles of the adults. I'm still a widge unnerved by it. I am completely certain my father's never read the book since I've never ever seen or heard tell of him reading a novel, and I'm pretty confident that my mother wouldn't have read it, being as she was a thoroughgoing anti-Victorian in her reading preferences.

But it's as if they absorbed it from the aether and used it as a how-to manual. Poor Maisie!

My opinion of the book, then, is strongly colored by the coincidence of its resemblance to my own life. I rate it and respond to it based on that resonance; but that would, all other things being equal, put this much closer to five stars than I rate it here.

I've cut a star off because I, unlike most of the professional critics who have discussed the book, find the long ending section set in Maisie's teenaged years (or so we all think, it's never made explicit) unconvincing and a lot too long to be anything by hamfistedly didactic and tendentious. Maisie faces a decision that no child should have to face and she handles it with an aplomb that I found convincing...for a while...because it was so clearly prefigured in the adults who surrounded her behaving so badly. But James was a moralist, and he grafted his Moral Point onto the logical, inevitable ruminations Maisie goes through to make her horrible decision, and ends up crashing the narrative car into the brick wall of Conviction.

I do so hate that.
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395 p.; 7.01 inches


2264003189 / 9782264003188
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