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Henry James's Europe

Dennis Tredy
Annick Duperray
Adrian Harding

II. French and Italian Hours

7. French as the Fantasmal Idiom of Truth in What Maisie Knew

Agnès Derail-Imbert

Texte intégral

1Simultaneously published in England and in the United States, What Maisie Knew is set in end-of-the-century London and winds up in Boulogne, making France the place ’abroad’ where she achieves an ultimate form of knowledge which the preface calls ”the full ironic truth” of the novel. While the novel’s Victorian backdrop has received much critical attention, the choice of France as the location of the spectacular dénouement has not been thoroughly interrogated.

2Maisie’s cognitive predicament can be traced back to a deficiency in linguistic command, preventing her from making sense of the punning and cunning use of language practised among the adulterous adults she lives with. If Maisie is exposed to deceptive words because she is caught in an entangled web of illegitimate relationships, this ’adulteration’ of speech is also symptomatic of the corruption of English in decadent London— London as the hub of the Empire, the centre of monetary and sexual transactions marked by a lack of discrimination resulting in a debasement of meaning. In this context of pervasive falsification, France appeals to Maisie’s imagination as the fictional land of truthful love. Scattered throughout the novel in preliminary fragments, the image of France finally coheres in Maisie’s expanding consciousness as the epitome of her quest for knowledge and wonder. Her increasing awareness is matched by her growing understanding and even her bold uttering of a few French words that the ’English’ text incorporates in their original version.

3Whereas James’s non-fictional considerations on the erosion of American English may have conservative, almost nativist overtones, my assumption is that the sum of Maisie’s knowledge, which encompasses nothing less than the whole novel, obscurely gestures toward a foreign or strange idiom, a fantasised language capable of accommodating its untranslatable, fictional truth. French, in the book, would then be the figure of this circumlocutionary language—in other words, the secret name of James’s own ’un-homed’ literary English.

4The dramatic knot of the novel can be identified as a cognitive and linguistic crisis: how and what does one know when one does not master language? As a child, which she remains till the end of the story, Maisie, is, metaphorically at least, an infant, a ”register of impressions” deficient in words. Those words, as the preface argues, are supplied for her by a narrator who acts as a ’translator’ whose role is supposed to be limited to the transcoding of her thoughts and affects into an elaborate English prose, akin to that of James himself. This cognitive issue is caught in a network of social transformations affecting Maisie’s London at the turn of the century. These mutations create an environment in which the new instability of signs can only add to the confusion already entailed by Maisie’s linguistic limitations, and thicken the maze (encoded in Maisie’s name) in which she tries to find clues on her way to knowledge. The historical context, accessible obliquely through Maisie’s restrictive prism, constitutes a reservoir of tropes which shape the action and the unfolding of Maisie’s consciousness: the new cultural context conditions the opening of a narrative stating the legal account of the parents’ divorce case, made possible only through recent changes in the laws regulating marriage and subsequently patrimony, procreation, filiation, etc. Among other things, Maisie’s initiation requires her understanding of the conventions ruling the social microcosm, namely upper-class Kensington, where she grows up. Her fate, decided at the end of an ”interminable litigation” (13), is the result of new marital laws allowing Maisie’s parents to divorce on the ground of flagrant infidelities. Not only does the trial publicise sex as illicit, but the financial settlement of Maisie’s case overtly correlates sexual transactions with monetary dealings. Even if both parents remarry their sexual partners, they remain involved in a round of notorious adulterous affairs that are all determined by economic interest. She will meet some of her mother’s partners—some of them men of the City, who can become bankrupt overnight, others who are involved in international business, like the last lover, possibly of Jewish origin, that she will join in South Africa. As for the father’s last mistress, an American woman, ironically designated by the non-American title of ”Countess” (a brown, ”almost black” lady), she is said to have ”great interests in America” and ”no end of money” (137, 155, 151). The proliferating economic allusions testify to the narrator’s indictment of a general loss of faithfulness—both conjugal and financial— as it becomes impossible to discriminate between real countesses and false ones, real governesses and fake ones, wealthy lovers and frauds.

  • 1 In “Technologies of Vision,” Christina Britzolakis shows how James imbricates modernist narrative (...)

5The erosion affecting the criteria of truth also involves a blurring of distinctions between the sexes. Sir Claude depicts himself as an old grandmother; women, who are masculine and flirtatious, do not want babies anymore, and Maisie herself is repeatedly called ”my dear boy” (108, 183), ”old boy” (69, 198), or ”old chap” (73, 253). Genders are as shifting as national and racial identities or places of residence, in the cosmopolitan setting across which Maisie is dragged along according to the adults’ passing whims. In this variety of places of entertainment, museums, exhibitions, parks, shops, cafés, which serve as the sole unfit substitute for school, she is exposed to ”an abuse of visibility” (16). Her ”sense of spectatorship” (90), meant to compensate for her lack of verbal command, is sharpened by an exposure to degraded forms of visibility that characterise the modern metropolis. One of the novel’s crucial scenes takes place in the gardens of Earl’s Court, which was the setting of one of the Great Exhibitions in London. These exhibitions with their optical gadgets accompanied the rise of a Victorian ”mass visuality,” which also served as a medium of propaganda for the Empire at a time when the United States was taking the lead of a globalised capitalistic world order.1 The decadent subtext of the novel’s London is implicitly linked with the Americanisation or the vulgarisation of British manners and institutions. This degradation affects art as well–art, which is notably absent from the characters’ preoccupations. One scene, set in the National Gallery, revealingly stages Sir Claude and Maisie equally bored by the quattrocento paintings of ”ugly Madonnas.” While Maisie submissively endorses Sir Claude’s statement that the ”affectation of admiring such ridiculous works” is only ”silly superstition,” we, readers, are nevertheless aware of the narrator’s dissenting opinion.

Maisie sat beside him staring rather sightlessly at a roomful of pictures which he had mystified her much by speaking of with a bored sigh as a ”silly superstition.” They represented, with patches of gold and cataracts of purple, with stiff saints and angular angels, with ugly Madonnas and uglier babies, strange prayers and prostrations; so that she at first took his words for a protest against devotional idolatry—all the more that he had of late often come with her and with Mrs. Wix to morning church, a place of worship of Mrs. Wix’s own choosing, where there was nothing of that sort; no haloes on heads, but only, during long sermons, beguiling backs of bonnets, and where, as her governess always afterwards observed, he gave the most earnest attention. It presently appeared, however, that his reference was merely to the affectation of admiring such ridiculous works— an admonition that she received from him as submissively as she received everything
(Maisie 94).

6This rampant fictitiousness contaminates the language Maisie is steeped in. The adults’ speech is cryptic, not only because she is too young to understand, but because it is voluntarily deceptive since most of the time exchanges revolve around sexual transactions. What Maisie, as any child brought up in a Victorian background, is supposed not to know, is sex itself. But as the book’s title teasingly suggests, the suspicion is strong that she knows more than she ought to, that such knowledge is potentially available for purposes of seduction. Hence the inevitable distortion in a discourse that is contrived with a view of hiding what it nevertheless tries to convey. Witnessing improper behaviour, Maisie is required to listen to emphatic claims of decency or to false avowals of affection, aimed at enrolling her as a lure for lustful games. Conversely, she is used as a messenger of hard-edged words that serve as missives or missiles in the never-ending warfare between members of ever-splitting couples. Language keeps swinging from euphemism to overstatement. The protagonists of Maisie’s world continually resort to conflictual hyperboles, increasing the strain of her life. Sir Claude is at once ”an angel” and ”an awful fraud,” or an ”idle beast” (58, 77). Her mother is termed an angel by one of her lovers, while Sir Claude calls her ”a damn old b––” (118), a word either unknown to Maisie or one at least she refrains from repeating verbatim, filling the dash with the hardly more decent ”brute.” Overstatements are especially salient as they emerge from a general evasiveness of discourse that equally bars access to meaning. Unspecification, abstraction, and equivocation produce in Maisie, and in the reader as well, a sense of elusiveness that defeats the securing of a consistent meaning. From her young age, Maisie gathers that ”affairs are involved” (182), that women may be ”compromised” (267), that her mother is likely to ”come down” on her husband (38, 86), that people have to ”square” their former partners (94, 100, 105, 110, 133), that they may ”bolt” with (89, 149), ”settle” (21, 203), ”dodge” (47), or ”funk” one another (255), and that they do not want her to be ”mixed” (135) while expecting her, as Mrs. Beale says, to ”save us—from one thing and another” (106). If her governess copies for her the big easy words that the girl might clutch to, in order to soothe the strain of her removal from one parental house to the other, Maisie finds that the words she overhears are actually not easily attachable to meanings. The ”childish dusk” (20) of her consciousness is a dark closet where meanings and forms are kept separate waiting to be rightly connected. In this general drift, anything might come to mean anything, in an endless series of permutations, just as the adulterous round opens a potentially unlimited series of substitutions.

7In this respect, it is not by chance that the adulteration of language is connected to the adulterous games of the plot. The cleavage between the parental couple at the origin of Maisie’s existence initiates a split between signifiers and signifieds, which in turn obfuscates the possibility of knowledge. The first thing in the book Maisie knows she feels is a sense of inadequacy. This ’strain’ is first marked on her body, precisely in something wrong with her legs whereby, as her nurse says, she differs from other children: ” ’Oh my dear, you’ll never find such another pair as your own,’” adding the cryptic, but ”terribly truthful,” ” ’you feel the strain— that’s where it is; and you’ll feel it worse, you know’” (19). This pair of too skinny legs induces a sense of being inadequate—inadequate, possibly, to satisfy male desire. First located in or between the pair of legs, the strain, obviously referring to the sexual self, might also concern the strain between another ’pair,’ this time the pair of parents, the embattled, dislocating origin of Maisie’s life. Knowledge, in that case, amounts to the perception of an original strain. Seeking to reestablish a continuity between adults (either parents or parental substitutes), Maisie’s strategy consists in literalising the dubious metaphors she hears, or in conveying messages strictly identical to their initial utterance, for instance, scrupulously repeating to her mother that her father calls her a ”nasty horrid pig” (21). Making herself an obedient signifier faithful to the others’ spurious statements, she incorporates the discordance she wishes to smooth out. The truthfulness of her language only increases difference and discord. This emanates however from a constant wish that words might speak the truth, the truth of love, or even truth as love.

  • 2 For other generic divisions in the novel, see Martha Banta, ”The Quality of Experience.”

8My assumption is that such language is imagined as a fantasised French idiom, assumed to be markedly different from the adulterated British English which is the only medium available in the novel. Maisie’s resistance to the trauma of this degraded medium, through which she is to rescue or idealise ”the vulgar little comedy” that unfolds about her, involves a recourse to fiction—a fiction that would redeem the fictitiousness of sordid experience. France, as the ultimate location of Maisie’s initiation, plays a major role as a counterpart to decadent London, as it nurses the dream of a language of truth. I would argue that idioms in the novel are distributed along a demarcation line that makes London the stage of bourgeois comedy involving vile intrigues of adultery, while France early looms in Maisie’s fancy as the homeland of romance, medieval romance, set in châteaux, the land of chivalry, of courteous love, or fin’amor.2 Cast off against the English spoken by the theatrical society of fashionable London, the French of the novel would then rather be the language of high (or genuine) literature, poetry, romance, tragedy, a literature that could extend to the vernacular idiom spoken by the fishermen or native old women in Boulogne, or again the roman made of the ’stories’ of all the lives she has encountered including her own, of her discovery of love, and ultimately of the impossible life with the man she knows she loves.

9The long French dénouement, which covers about a third of the novel, has been carefully prepared throughout the story. If Maisie’s absence of education has committed her exclusively to fiction, France has occupied a privileged place in this fiction, dangled before her childish imagination as a promise of romance. Besides the thousand stories she has been through with her governess (Mrs. Wix), there have been the ”richest romances” (139) of her French doll, called Lisette or Elise with a possible reference, through a translinguistic pun on lire/to read, to the reading of French books, the books Sir Claude will buy for her at the station in Boulogne. Sir Claude’s incongruous present to Mrs. Wix of a ”history of France” (64), added to the never fulfilled pledge to take Maisie to ’lectures’ on French literature (109, 113, 132), interestingly coupled to ”sacred history” (109), the French ring to Claude’s name, his command of the language—all these scattered clues, in the English context of the book, have contributed to fashion France in Maisie’s consciousness as the desired image of knowledge, pleasure, adventure, initiation, wonder. It is appropriate that it is in France that she gains the freedom of making ”a claim for herself” (199), of choosing her destiny.

10The final phase of the novel deploys the inaugural chord struck by Sir Claude at the end of chapter XXI and repeated by an enraptured Maisie: ”To-morrow we go to France” (179). Once Maisie’s parents have given up their former partners and abandoned her for good, various arrangements are possible for her future. She might consent to live somewhere in France with Mrs. Beale and Sir Claude, offering a cover of respectability to their illegitimate couple, or she might renounce this stepfather for whom she has ”a more than filial gaze” (204) and go back to England for an unpromising future with drab Mrs. Wix. Before she is asked to make a choice, the trip to France has taken the thrilling accents of an elopement with Sir Claude who treats her to seaside hotels and fine restaurants. But mostly, the experience of being ”abroad” is set forth as a decisive move away from both sham innocence and sham guilt, and towards abandonment to enlarged perceptions. Maisie’s first moments in France are depicted in terms of an aesthetic experience, which produces the impression of a larger life, a sense of ’poetic justice’ which redeems the London past, whose last remnants still linger in the character of the ignorant cockney maid, impervious to the charms of France. In Maisie’s heroic mood, crossing the Channel means leaving behind the dangers of England, which recedes in the distance, perceived as the grey horizon held at bay by the French light.

She was ’abroad’ and she gave herself up to it, responded to it, in the bright air, before the pink houses, among the bare-legged fishwives and the red-legged soldiers, with the instant certitude of a vocation. Her vocation was to see the world and to thrill with enjoyment of the picture; she had grown older in five minutes and had by the time they reached the hotel recognised in the institutions and manners of France a multitude of affinities and messages. Literally in the course of an hour she found her initiation; a consciousness much quickened by the superior part that, as soon as they had gobbled down a French breakfast—which was indeed a high note in the concert—she observed herself to play to Susan Ash (180).

11While the sordid English vaudeville goes on in the hysterical dialogues between struggling adults, Maisie’s final quest is pursued in a literary reverie that includes much of French ancient lore and tradition. Walking on the ramparts of Boulogne, in the medieval haute ville, Maisie gives free rein to her ”historical imagination” which recaptures the ”courtesy of romantic forms” enhanced by an aura of sacredness. The full knowledge that she is to achieve is coloured by the purified sense of worship she experiences in the church situated on the bastion and dominated by the statue of a gilt Virgin which is the redeemed version of the National Gallery’s ”ugly Madonnas.”

They sat together on the old grey bastion; they looked down on the little new town which seemed to them quite as old, and across at the great dome and the high gilt Virgin of the church that, as they gathered, was famous and that pleased them by its unlikeness to any place in which they had worshipped. They wandered in this temple afterwards and Mrs. Wix confessed that for herself she had probably made a fatal mistake early in life in not being a Catholic. Her confession in its turn caused Maisie to wonder rather interestedly what degree of lateness it was that shut the door against an escape from such an error (206).

  • 3 In Versions of Pygmalion, James Hillis Miller shows how Maisie’s achievement of knowledge coincide (...)

12The highly calculated presence of the Virgin in the novel’s ending gives an almost mystic hue to Maisie’s epiphany. Her name, a diminutive for Margaret, which means ”pearl,” a classic emblem for virginity, figuratively connects Maisie to the gilt Virgin, who, according to old legends was said to have come miraculously on a boat (just like Maisie). Maisie’s access to knowledge occurs when she makes the decision to live with Sir Claude alone, asks him to give up his mistress and take her to Paris, fancied as the romantic heart of France. It is no coincidence that the appointment she fixes him is close to the gilded Virgin. What she offers, with the acknowledgment of her love for him, is her virginity. When she urges him to buy the train tickets to Paris, her first and last words uttered in French, ”prenny, prenny” (261), reproduced with her English accent, are charged with sexual urgency. The moment of her awakening, or full awareness, is also a moment of loss, a loss of consciousness, a syncope in which she can only utter ” ’I don’t know.’” Her overflowing knowledge is manifested by bodily responses, the visible jerk of an arm, but also a spasm within her, invisible to the narrator yet reported as an intimate corporeal opening ”of something deeper than a moral sense.” The spasm is here the unrepresentable spasm both of love and knowledge— simultaneously a new birth and the death of her childhood. When Mrs. Wix accuses Sir Claude of having ”nipped [her moral sense] in the bud,” expanding the underlying metaphor of defloration, he can only answer that on the contrary he has ”produced life,” ultimately admitting that he has figuratively taken the offered maidenhood, fathering Maisie’s love, fathering Maisie as ”a beautiful thing” that is as ”sacred and exquisite” as a work of art (268). Maisie’s offered yet untouched virginity, her discovery of a love at once recognized and ignored are images for a knowledge which is not figurable otherwise than in the form of such tropes.3 What Maisie knows is only the totality of what the book What Maisie Knew figures. Such ”full ironic truth” (4) is not convertible into a definite content. Its untranslatability is itself, in turn, presented tropically in the untranslated French of the novel. The final scenes are strewn with French phrases or words which, we may surmise, belong to the list of ”the things of which [Maisie] knew the French name” (215), the plage, the table d’hôte, café complet, omelette aux rognons, poulet sauté, vous n’y êtes pas, or again the humorously apt motto, honni soit qui mal y pense… Hanging over the rail of the balcony in the summer night, dropping ”into the manners of France,” Maisie listens to a serenade sung in the café below:

She hung again over the rail; she felt the summer night; she dropped down into the manners of France. There was a café below the hotel, before which, with little chairs and tables, people sat on a space enclosed by plants in tubs; and the impression was enriched by the flash of the white aprons of waiters and the music of a man and a woman who, from beyond the precinct, sent up the strum of a guitar and the drawl of a song about ’amour.’ Maisie knew what ’amour’ meant […] (218).

13What she knows, called ”amour,” remains untranslated. The foreign word, the letters and the sound of the signifier, are less an equivalent for the English ”love” than the emblem of Maisie’s untranslatable knowledge or again the fiction of her truth. If we know that ”amour,” at any rate, could be translated into English, the novel also signals towards another form of French which, this time, is definitely lost in translation, incomprehensible, even by native French speakers. Sitting by the golden Madonna, Maisie, falling into a reverie, listens to the ”hum of French insects.”

She watched beside Mrs. Wix the great golden Madonna, and one of the ear-ringed old women who had been sitting at the end of their bench got up and pottered away. ’Adieu mesdames!’ said the old woman in a little cracked civil voice—a demonstration by which our friends were so affected that they bobbed up and almost curtseyed to her. They subsided again, and it was shortly after, in a summer hum of French insects and a phase of almost somnolent reverie, that Maisie most had the vision of what it was to shut out from such a perspective so appealing a participant. It had not yet appeared so vast as at that moment, this prospect of statues shining in the blue and of courtesy in romantic forms (209).

  • 4 Interestingly, Marguerite Yourcenar recoils from translating the audacity of the hypallage, which (...)

14How such hum, through a striking hypallage, can be identified by Maisie as French, distinct from the hum of English, or even, for that matter, American insects, may remain puzzling to a reader of any nationality. In the bold weirdness of the phrasing itself,4 the text provides Maisie’s vision with an unintelligible foreign sound track that has no verbal, articulate counterpart but is the imaginary idiom of courtesy in romantic forms, the forms of the novel What Maisie Knew, fantasised as a ’French’ romance which ’un-homes’ and rescues the English in which it is actually written. French in that case will not be translated by ”français” but is only the hum of truth haunting the English novel.

15In the controversial conference known as The Question of Our Speech, addressed to Bryn Mawr’s female students in 1905, James warned his audience against the degradation of American language and manners. He urged the young women to display the same ”conservative interest” ”for the institution of speech as for the institution of matrimony.” He argued that unlike all great European idioms, American English found itself unattended by the protection of ancestry, of tradition, while required, under this ordeal, to give birth to the national community.

[W]hereas the great idioms of Europe in general have grown up at home and in the family, the ancestral circle (with their migrations all comfortably prehistoric), our transported maiden (English in America), our unrescued Andromeda, our medium of utterance, was to be disjoined from all the associations, the other presences, that had attended her, that had watched for her and with her, that had helped to form her manners and her voice, her taste and her genius (39).

  • 5 On a cross reading of Maisie and the 1905 conference and on the parallel between Maisie’s situatio (...)

16Coming over to America, the English tongue experiences, much like Maisie herself, the situation of the young maiden abandoned by her parents.5 This parallel, however, raises a problem: indeed the language undergoing a degradation that can be ascribed to the corruption of institutions, marriage in particular, is not, in the novel, American English but British English, as it is spoken among its family, to continue James’s metaphor. As if the risk of declension were not due to historical conditions, but inherent in language itself, whose fate it is, even at home, to depart from its origin. This contradiction betrays, I think, a double impulse in James towards the question of language: the fear of adulteration, of ”grossness of alienism” (The American Scene [1994] 96), prompts him to conservative responses, but this dream of purity does not eradicate the fascination for the intrinsic foreignness of language, for its unintelligible part, its unknown residuum, which is what the fantasmal French of Maisie gestures towards as the ”best residuum of truth.” Pondering over the facts that make up the ”American character,” the autobiographical writer of The American Scene says that ”he doesn’t know,” that he ”can’t say,” that these facts are as syllables ”too numerous to make a legible word.” This illegible word, which pictures the impossible expression of an American identity, looms in the writer’s imagination as ”something fantastic and abracadabrant” (93). Here again, it is a strange French signifier which is summoned to evoke at once the failure of any language to be adequate to national or personal origin, and its longing to incorporate or to ’fiction’ the fantastic hum of foreign or alien truth.


1 In “Technologies of Vision,” Christina Britzolakis shows how James imbricates modernist narrative technique and the novel’s exploration of the new optical technologies which shape the modernity of the imperial metropolis (Britzolakis 369-90).

2 For other generic divisions in the novel, see Martha Banta, ”The Quality of Experience.”

3 In Versions of Pygmalion, James Hillis Miller shows how Maisie’s achievement of knowledge coincides with her vanishing from the narrator’s and the reader’s circuit of knowledge (Hillis Miller 23-81).

4 Interestingly, Marguerite Yourcenar recoils from translating the audacity of the hypallage, which her French translation simply cancels: “au milieu du bourdonnement des insectes d’un été français” (Ce que savait Maisie 293).

5 On a cross reading of Maisie and the 1905 conference and on the parallel between Maisie’s situation and the English language in America, See Marotta. ”What Maisie Knew: The Question of Our Speech.”


Agnès Derail-Imbert is a tenured Associate Professor (maître de conférences) at the ENS-Ulm and at the Sorbonne (Paris IV) in Paris. In 2000 she published Moby-Dick, allures du corps. She also co-edited and co-translated Melville: Derniers poèmes (2010). She has written numerous articles on nineteenth-century American literature.


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