It's a hard-knock life for little Maisie. But that's what makes her story so compelling. It's why readers keep returning to Henry James's classic and learning from its young heroine.
Maisie's story, first published in 1897, is all about overcoming awful adversity. It's about feeling—no, make that being—abandoned by the people who are supposed to love and protect you, getting over it, and finding people who do love and protect you. In that way, it's a little bit like every classic rom-com where our hero ditches their loser bf or gf and finds Mr. or Ms. Right in the end. Except What Maisie Knew is about a six-year-old girl and her quest for Mr. or Ms. Right Parent.
After a nasty custody battle, Maisie's selfish parents fight over her, then desert her, leaving her to figure out the world almost on her own and to decide which adult figure can really offer her the true parental love that she has never had. Eventually, Aurora-like, Maisie finds family… but she doesn't find it where you'd expect her to.
We'll spare you the spoilers for now and simply say that Maisie's more than worth a read. True to his nickname, "The Master" James masterfully and movingly charts this young girl's struggles and her final triumph. But it's how he does this that makes his novel stand out, and stand the test of time. From beginning to end, James gives readers a real sense of what it feels like to be in poor, unfortunate Maisie's shoes.
But even though the story is sad, the shoes are big ones to fill. Memorable Maisie's not just a damsel in distress; she's one of a kind and as sharp as they come. There's lots to be learned—about life as well as lit—in her school of hard knocks. We guarantee it.
What Maisie Knew will matter to anyone who's ever been a child. Yep, that means you, too. We've all been there, even if we haven't been there quite like Maisie. If you've ever been dependent, felt deserted, or had to fend for yourself in the absence of adults who act like adults, you'll feel for her. If you've ever learned an early-age life lesson about whom to trust, you'll feel for her. If you've ever found more protection and solace in a teacher's, babysitter's, or Girl Scout leader's company than in your own family, you'll feel for her.
Shucks, even if you remember what it was like not to understand why adults on TV tongue-kissed (eeeeew, cooties), you'll feel for little Maisie.
But by writing Maisie, James didn't just hold up a mirror to readers young and old. He also changed the way people thought about childhood. Before Maisie, there was book after book about angelic little saintly children or else books about very naughty children who usually died in horrible ways (yeah, the olden days were messed up). James gives us a psychologically complex character with little Maisie. He challenged the sentimental versions of youth that prevailed in his day and surprised readers—and still surprises readers—with a heroine who is wise beyond her years, a protagonist who combines two qualities that might seem incompatible: innocence and experience.
James is famous for writing books about lost innocence. In novel after Jamesian novel, youngsters get caught up in secrecy, adultery, and other kinds of betrayal. But what's remarkable about Maisie is that, despite all that she has to give up—parent after parent, stepparent after stepparent, and governess after governess—she gets to keep her goodness. She remains a gem even while she's surrounded by lots of adult losers.
There's a moral lesson here that transcends Maisie's particular tale. What Maisie Knew shows readers that with the right instincts and honesty, we, too, can get through pretty much anything.
All Maisie, All Online
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Henry James Central
A home for the truly James-obsessed and their friends.
Henry Himself on His Maisie
Click here to read James's own account of the origins and meanings of Maisie.
Maisie at the Movies
No way, you say? Henry James for the 21st century, finally? Well, yes, but don't get too excited. The adapters take a lot of liberties with James's novel. They even wrote out poor Mrs. Wix!
"What 'Maisie' Doesn't Know"
We love this recent think piece on the difference between novel readers' expectations in James's day and in ours. This article also includes thoughtful reflections on young adult fiction versus full-grown lit. Agree or disagree, you'll find food for thought, we promise.
Moore on Maisie
We already knew Julianne Moore was a rock star, but in the Maisie movie, she plays one, too: As Maisie's mom, she's a musician who's too cool for parenting. Check out Moore talking about updating the James classic.
Hear Maisie Here
Check out this free recording of What Maisie Knew, unabridged and read by a talented volunteer.
Maisie Recorded, This Time Read By a Pro
And here's a recording of Maisie unabridged, this time read by a real pro. Compare this to the volunteer's reading and see which one you prefer as accompaniment for your next epically long road trip.
The Masterful Master Henry James
Check out this article for a great, super-serious photo of Henry James himself. He doesn't seem to be one for saying cheese—maybe because he knows what Maisie knew.
Kensington Gardens as Seen in 1897 by Painter Paul Maitland
Here's a painting of Kensington Gardens, where Maisie and Sir Claude go for a stroll. This is also the place where they run into—gasp—Ida and her new beau, the Captain. The painting is from the year that Maisie was first published, so it gives you a feel for what Maisie's London was like. We suspect it was a little less blurry in real life, though.
James introduces Maisie's father by saying that "contemporary history had somehow had no use for him, had hurried past him and left him in perpetual Piccadilly" (Preface.7). Translation: Mr. Beale Farange spent every waking minute living it up in the part of London shown here, in an image from the year of Maisie's publication. Looks like a barrel of laughs.
Boulogne Harbor in 1897
Two fine ladies out for a stroll along the waterfront in Boulogne, France. Looks nice, right? No wonder this coastal town was such a breath of fresh air for James's young heroine.