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Posted June 26, 2013
My Take: What Maisie Knew was written in the late 1800's, but t
What Maisie Knew was written in the late 1800's, but the subject matter is as timely as ever.
Maisie is a young girl who is a victim of her parents' bitter divorce. With custody split between the two, she is repeatedly used as a weapon against the other. Example: Her father tells her to tell her mother that she is a nasty, horrid pig (not Maisie, Maisie's mom Ida).
You can feel the confusion and bemusement of this child as she tries to puzzle out what is right and what is wrong - in order to avoid repeating things that are "bad", she plays dumb. Almost all of the selfish adults around her expose her to intrigues and conversations that are not fit for a child's ears and eyes. Her later governess, Mrs. Wix, feels that the adults around her have skewed her moral compass.
I originally read "What Maisie Knew" in (high school/college?) - some time ago :). Back then, I had a difficult time with Henry James' tangled prose. On this re-read, I still had a difficult time with a few passages - on these, I simply passed rather than re-reading. Example:
In the evening upstairs they had another strange sensation, as to which Maisie could not afterwards have told you whether it was bang in the middle or quite at the beginning that her companion sounded with fresh emphasis the note of the moral sense. What mattered was merely that she did exclaim, and again, as at first appeared, most disconnectedly: 'God help me, it does seem to peep out!' Oh, the queer confusions that had wooed it at last to such peeping! None so queer, however, as the words of woe, and it might verily be said of rage, in which the poor lady bewailed the tragic end of her own rich ignorance.
James' rhetoric was voluble even by Victorian standards. For example, a famous falling-out between James and H. G. Wells was precipitated by Wells being quoted saying the following about Henry James' writing:
"He splits his infinitives and fills them up with adverbial stuffing. He presses the passing colloquialism into his service. His vast paragraphs sweat and struggle; they could not sweat and elbow and struggle more if God himself was the processional meaning to which they sought to come. And all for tales of nothingness It is leviathan retrieving pebbles. It is a magnificent but painful hippopotamus resolved at any cost, even at the cost of its dignity, upon picking up a pea which has got into a corner of its den. Most things, it insists, are beyond it, but it can, at any rate, modestly, and with an artistic singleness of mind, pick up that pea."
Fortunately, in this novel, those types of passages don't predominate. If you can wade through these instances of hyperbole, the STORY and the characters underneath DO dominate.
There is a movie (trailer below) that is a contemporary re-telling of this novel. As always, I recommend reading the book first, then seeing the movie.
Pick this one up to brush up on a classic with subject matter that is just as relevant today as it was when it was written.
... the only link binding her to either parent was this lamentable fact of her being a ready vessel for bitterness, a deep little porcelain cup in which biting acids could be mixed.
She was in short introduced to life with a liberality in which the selfishness of others found its account ...
The eveil they had the gift of thinking, or pretending to think, of each other, they poured into her little fravely gazing sould as into a boundless receptacle ...
She puzzled out with imperfect signs, but with a prodigious spirit, that she had been a centre of hatred and a messenger of insult, and that everything was bad because she had been employed to make it so.
Writing: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Plot: 4 out of 5 stars
Characters: 4 out of 5 stars
Reading Immersion: 3.5 out 5 stars
BOOK RATING: 3.75 out of 5 stars
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