What Maisie Knew by Henry James

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What Maisie Knew by Henry James (1897) tells the story of a young girl torn between two divorced parents. Maisie learns the “games” the parents play and feels the difficulties of not having a steady life throughout her childhood, and eventually she uses her smarts to get just what she wants from life.

So what did Maisie know? Even as a very young child, Maisie learned to play “dumb” when the parents tried to get information about the other from her. She hid what she knew in order to keep the parents happy. They labeled her a “simple” child, but letting them know what she knew would have caused more contention. Maisie’s parents are completely uncaring toward her, even while they fight for rights to raise her. She would live with one parent for six months, and then the other parent for six months. Nannies and governesses raised her, and she learned to not question.

When her mother and father both remarry, it turns out that the step-parents love Maisie and care for her more than either birth parent. Her birth parents have affairs. Maisie’s life becomes even more complicated. Her step-mother, her step-father, and her tutor, Mrs. Wix, are the only constants in her life, and eventually Mrs. Wix becomes the only one she can rely on to some extent. Obviously, Maisie’s story is a fictional story, but the ways that Maisie and her parents interact with the world around them seems like an accurate representation of what relationships can be like today. (For the most part, let’s hope divorced parents are a bit less cruel to each other, though.)

I’m out of practice in analyzing and writing about classic novels written more than 100 years ago (other than rereads). I listened to What Maisie Knew on audio, and I loved the immersion, once more, into a different era as the selfish characters filled the story. Maisie’s story is a character-driven novel, and I only wish I could now continue to see how Maisie’s character develops more as she grows into adulthood. She was a clever one and she knew much more than those around her realized.

It’s been a long time because life is crazy busy while homeschooling, and after my youngest was born, I found I needed lighter reading. So, I feel I’d need another review of the book before I could discuss more. It’s about time I pick up books that make me think a bit more!

Reviewed on May 19, 2023

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

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