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Henry James

Jeanne Delbaere-Garant

III. The Novelist

What Maisie Knew (1897). The Madonna and the Bible

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  • 1 What Maisie Knew, p. 252.

“Is it a crime?” Maisie then asked.
Mrs. Wix was as prompt as if she had been crouching in a lair. “Branded by the Bible.”1

  • 2 Ibid., p. 9.

1The “crime” referred to in the quotation above is sexual love and this is what Maisie does not know in the novel. Her knowledge of life is anterior to sexual experience and her garden of Eden is a little phantasmagoric world, a “great dim theatre” with “strange shadows dancing on a sheet.”2 Like Hyacinth Robinson, Maisie is an extremely sensitive girl who above all wants to live and who responds to life with joyful eargeness. She is the youngest of James’s free spirits. In the great gallery of the writer’s artistically-minded characters Maisie stands quite at the beginning, immediately after her French doll Lisette, whose consciousness is still more rudimentary than her own and for whom things are still more incomprehensible than for herself.

  • 3 Ibid., p. 5.

2In spite of her ignorance of evil Maisie is a precocious child because nothing is spared her by her vulgar and immoral parents who quarrel in front of her and do not care to conceal from her the ugly facts of their lives. They use her and want her “not for any good they could do her, but for the harm they could, with her unconscious aid, do each other.”3 When they separate and marry again they whirl the girl from one house to the other, and she thus becomes the link between her step-parents, whom she finally brings together. She is very proud of having done so and naively rejoices in the beauty of her little “creation.” Indeed Maisie succeeds only too well: with a symmetry as dear to James as to Maisie herself Sir Claude, Ida Farange’s new husband, falls in love with Mrs. Beale, Maisie’s former governess and now her father’s wife. Quite unaware of the irony of the situation the child protects their adulterous love and finds their union beautiful. Maisie only judges from appearances. She trusts her eyes and has not yet learned to penetrate behind the façade of human personality. Sir Claude and Mrs. Beale are both young, refined and smart while Maisie’s real parents, though handsome, were vulgar and an ill-sorted pair. Mrs. Beale is more distinguished than Ida, a “gemmed idol with huge painted eyes,” and Sir Claude would never accept to receive money from such a figure of Carnival as Mrs. Cuddon, one of Beale’s mistresses.

3Maisie thus becomes involved in evil without knowing it. Her presence between the two lovers is something more than a mere convenience: she is the only right thing in their lives and they want to keep her. The ugly facts indeed did not constitute the whole appeal of the subject for James, who wrote in the Preface:

  • 4 Preface to What Maisie Knew, p. vi.

The light of an imagination touched by them couldn’t help, therefore, projecting a further ray, thanks to which it became rather quaintly clear that, not less than the chance of misery and of a degraded state, the chance of happiness and of an improved state might be here involved for the child, round about whom the complexity of life would thus turn to fineness, to richness—and indeed would have but so to turn for the small creature to be steeped in security and ease.4

  • 5 What Maisie Knew, p. 25.

4But for Mrs. Wix’s interference something good might have come out of that wrong. Mrs. Wix is Maisie’s governess, “as droll as a charade or an animal toward the end of the ‘natural history’—a person whom people, to make talk lively, described to each other and imitated.”5 She is plain and rather stupid but she loves Maisie, who has taken the place in her affections of Clara Matilda, the little daughter she has lost. At the end, Maisie will follow her, for this Dickensian character, poor, ugly and uneducated though she is, is the best she can find in the corrupt world of the grown-ups.

5Here again it is to France that James takes Maisie in order to set her against the most proper background. As soon as she lands in Boulogne with Sir Claude she feels “the ecstasy of a larger impression of life,” she is in a world which she immediately recognizes as her own and in which she feels, like Hyacinth Robinson, that she can live more in an hour than for the rest of her life in dull grey England:

  • 6 Ibid., pp. 206-7. My italics.

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... she recognised, she understood, she adored and took possession; feeling herself attuned to everything and laying her hand, right and left, on what had simply been waiting for her.6

6Her vocation is to live as much as she can, and she opens herself with gratitude to the swarm of impressions offered her by the new country. What has been waiting for her, what she now discovers is life. The veil of the English grey fog had prevented her from seeing it as she now does in the bright air of France. Though, unlike Hyacinth Robinson, she has no ancestor in the country, she immediately feels at home in France because her natural disposition makes her react to life more intensely than other people. Everything around her is a picture that appeals to all her senses:

  • 7 Ibid., p. 207.

The place and the people were all a picture together, a picture that, when they went down to the wide sands, shimmered, in a thousand tints, with the pretty organisation of the plage, with the gaiety of spectators and bathers, with that of the language and the weather, and above all with that of our young lady’s unprecedented situation.7

7Like most of James’s receptive characters, what strikes her most is the light, the light that James had seen rendered to perfection on the canvases of the French Impressionists and that was always associated in his mind and work with experience. Here the brightness of the air and the shimmering light of the sand are in perfect harmony with Maisie’s eager young sensibility. She is not yet completely satisfied, however. She wants more, and her dearest wish is to go to Paris, which for her is the real thing. She hopes that Sir Claude will take her there but the young man hesitates and postpones.

  • 8 Ibid., p. 237.

8Mrs. Wix follows on their heels, sent by Maisie’s mother to look after the child, and she lands in Boulogne soon after their arrival. From the first moment of her stay the homely governess with her flushed face is a discordant note in the general beauty and harmony of France. She is still more so when she walks with Maisie to the fortifications that hang over the town. There James once more figures synthetically and by means of concrete symbols the meaning of the whole. The old bench on which Maisie and Mrs. Wix sit on the rampart of the haute ville and the image of the Virgin which they see from there, have the same function in the book as the Place de la Révolution for Hyacinth Robinson or the Castle of Fossy for Gabrielle de Bergerac and Coquelin. There Mrs. Wix and Maisie “appeared to have come furthest in the journey that was to separate them from everything objectionable in the past,”8 and from a distance they can see more clearly the reality of the world in which they are both involved. But their reaction is quite different. The passage is important and worth quoting in full:

  • 9 Ibid., pp. 236-237.

To drive on the long cliff was splendid, but it was perhaps better still to creep in the shade—for the sun was strong— along the many-coloured and many-odoured port and through the streets in which, to English eyes, everything that was the same was a mystery and everything that was different a joke. Best of all was to continue to creep up the long Grand-Rue to the gate of the haute ville and, passing beneath it, mount to the quaint and crooked rampart with its row of trees, its quiet corners and friendly benches where brown old women in such white-frilled caps and such long gold earrings sat and knitted or snoozed, its little yellow-faced houses that looked like the homes of misers or of priests and its dark château where small soldiers lounged on the bridge that stretched across an empty moat and military washing hung from the windows of towers. This was a part of the place that could lead Maisie to inquire if it didn’t just meet one’s idea of the middle ages; and since it was rather a satisfaction than a shock to perceive, and not for the first time, the limits in Mrs. Wix’s mind of the historic imagination, that only added one more to the variety of kinds of insight that she felt it her own present mission to show. 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.9

9Nothing is lost on the child, who relishes the sight with her little consciousness full to the brim. Distant in space the old rampart is also distant in time and Maisie’s imagination expands into the past as far as the long-forgotten Middle Ages. But at the same time she also notices the limits of Mrs. Wix’s imagination. Quite ironically the parts are reversed and it is Maisie who wants to teach her governess. She wants to make her see all that she herself sees and enjoys, she wants to make her use her senses and her imagination. But in Mrs. Wix a strong, narrow, and restrictive moral sense takes the place of imagination and she twice asks Maisie whether she has really no moral sense. She draws the girl’s attention to the evil lying behind the beautiful surface of Sir Claude’s liaison with Mrs. Beale. She tries to make the girl understand that Sir Claude must give up Mrs. Beale if he wants to keep Maisie.

  • 10 Ibid., p. 240.
  • 11 Ibid., p. 244.

10The child, however, refuses to “see” otherwise than with her eyes and she can think of no renunciation while she sits there on her bench with the bright sea and the golden Madonna before her and an amenable old French woman by her side. Mrs. Beale’s radiant beauty is quite in harmony with the “prospect of statues shining in the blue and of courtesy in romantic forms,” and her image so perfectly matches the general beauty of the place that Maisie has more than ever “the vision of what it was to shut out from such a perspective so appealing a participant.”10 She does not want to shut out anything or anybody but on the contrary to take in as much as she can. Mrs. Wix’s severity strikes Maisie in the same way as Madame de Mauves’s had struck Longmore while he walked in the French country: it was also a discordant note. Seeing that she is arguing in vain and that nothing can soften the governess’s narrow puritanical view Maisie finally exclaims in a fit of passion and protest: “She’s beautiful and I love her! I love her and she’s beautiful!”11 In her subconscious Maisie even associates—another stroke of irony on James’s part—her stepmother with the gilt Virgin, as appears clearly from another passage towards the end of the book. Maisie has just told Sir Claude that she is willing to give up Mrs. Wix if he accepts to give up Mrs. Beale. If he does she will let her old governess go back alone to England and they will remain together in an ideally beautiful world:

  • 12 Ibid., pp. 308-309.

“I won’t even bid her good-bye,” Maisie continued. “I’ll stay out till the boat has gone. I’ll go up to the old rampart.”
“The old rampart?”
“I’ll sit on that old bench where you see the gold Virgin.”
“The gold Virgin?” he vaguely echoed. But it brought his eyes back to her as if after an instant he could see the place and the thing she named—could see her sitting there alone.12

11Maisie naively imagines that life will fall beautifully into the little pattern she has herself woven and in which the gilt Virgin is a substitute for Mrs. Beale. The statue, which is evoked three times in the novel, is its central symbol and has different meanings for each of the characters. For Maisie the Madonna of the Catholics is the ideal mother: unlike Ida she is motherly and loving, unlike Mrs. Beale she is innocent and good, unlike Mrs. Wix she is beautiful and sympathetic to life. For the Low Church governess the Virgin is associated with another kind of worship for which she cannot help feeling a kind of vague nostalgia when she visits the church in Boulogne. For Sir Claude at last, the golden Madonna, standing alone in front of the sea, is Maisie herself, a twelve-year-old virgin on the border of life and of experience.

12The scene on the rampart anticipates another, similar in tone and with the same meaning. Maisie has stood for a long time on her balcony—a distant place again—enjoying the beautiful warm night, the chatter in the animated street, the life on the quays and the general brightness and amenity around her:

  • 13 Ibid., p. 252.

She hung 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 too, and wondered if Mrs. Wix did: Mrs. Wix remained within, as still as a mouse and perhaps not reached by the performance. After a while, but not till the musicians had ceased and begun to circulate with a little plate, her pupil came back to her. “Is it a crime?” Maisie then asked.
Mrs. Wix was as prompt as if she had been crouching in a lair. “Branded by the Bible.”13

  • 14 Ibid., p. 25.

13Mrs. Wix is not—“perhaps not”—reached by the performance but her attitude is fundamentally different from that of the Dossons in The Reverberator, whose minds were a mere blank and who did not react at all simply because they were not used to considering the sensuous surface of life. Mrs. Wix does not move but James’s “perhaps” implies that she does hear the performance and disapproves of it. She is not merely unaware and unreceptive: she clearly condemns beauty, lightness, and physical love. Her “moral sense” is comically symbolized at the beginning of the book by her glasses which “in humble reference to a divergent obliquity of vision, she called her straighteners.”14 The repeated allusions to these glasses emphasize the total absence in Mrs. Wix of moral imagination. She has no grace, no beauty, no manners.

  • 15 Ibid., p. 106.

14She is anxious at the idea that Maisie might be taken away from her but a touch of selfishness is discernible in her attachment to the girl and she cannot conceal it: “They’ll take you, they’ll take you, and what in the world will then become of me?”15 she exclaims, foreseeing a whole empty life of poverty and unemployment. With her rigid ethical code she is narrow-minded and prejudiced and she can become very fierce when she feels in danger. While she herself tries to kill Maisie’s sense of life, she reproaches Sir Claude with having killed Maisie’s moral sense. But the young man rejects the charge:

  • 16 Ibid., p. 314.

“I’ve not killed anything,” he said; “on the contrary I think I’ve produced life. I don’t know what to call it— I haven’t even known how decently to deal with it, to approach it; but, whatever it is, it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever met—it’s exquisite, it’s sacred.”16

  • 17 Though I do not find as much evidence as Marius Bewley does (The Complex Fate, pp. 96-144) of the (...)
  • 18 What Maisie Knew, p. 321.

15The intensity of her feelings for Sir Claude has enlarged Maisie’s consciousness of “life” as nothing else had done before. The young man is aware of this, and though he does not know “how decently to deal with it” he shows an occasional sense of responsibility towards the girl that makes up for his usual moral weakness. He is a prey to the women around him, and Mrs. Beale is the one who finally keeps him because of the sexual tie that makes him a puppet in her hands. He likes Maisie’s rich personality and sheer vitality but his feeling for the little virgin in love with him is one of tenderness and he misses the train to Paris on purpose. He is not entirely deaf to Mrs. Wix’s exhortations and he quite agrees that there is something wrong in his life, but he is afraid of her “love” which her “moral sense” threatens to make even more possessive than Mrs. Beale’s.17 He is weak and incapable of converting his principles into action. In spite of his childish insistence on his freedom before leaving England we realize that in fact he is less free than ever. Only Maisie is, but it doesn’t help her: her departure with Mrs. Wix is not a free choice and she waits in vain for a sign from Sir Claude, hoping till the last moment that he will give up Mrs. Beale and keep her. They separate without a word and “their eyes met as the eyes of those who have done for each other what they can.”18 Mrs. Wix seems to be stronger and stronger as the book draws to its close but she does not really impose anything on Maisie: there is nothing else for the child to do but go back to England. She has come to know that life is not the pleasant game she imagined it was, that it is far more complicated and far less beautiful. In her dream she had seen herself on the old rampart looking at grey Mrs. Wix going back alone to grey England. She had imagined herself there waiting for Sir Claude with the golden Madonna as a substitute for all the other women. She had built a kind of ideal future and imagined an ideal beauty and an ideal morality in a Paradise created on purpose for Sir Claude and herself. Instead of that she is with the old woman on the boat to England looking at the empty balcony. Although she has not gone to Paris, Maisie knows more than before. In Boulogne she has experienced at the same time the beauty of life and the reality of suffering. She now understands that joy and pain, beauty and evil are the two sides of the same coin. She leaves the world of her blue and golden childhood behind. She has tasted of the Tree of Knowledge and can go back to England. France has played her part.

  • 19 H.W. Wilson assumes (in “What Did Maisie Know” College English XVII [Feb. 56] 279-282) that Maisie (...)

16The part played by France is more or less the same here as in The Princess Casamassima: it is a stimulating presence that quickens the mind and the senses and awakens reactions that might have remained dormant in England. Like Hyacinth Robinson, the girl lives more intensely in France than elsewhere, and her spiritual experience is as dazzling to her consciousness as the light of the country to her eyes. For her France is the country of the free intelligence, of the open mind unhampered by moral pressure and disencumbered of the veil of prejudices. It is the place where her sensitive nature is made aware of the infinite variety and richness of life. But here, as in The Princess Casamassima, France is a rather artificial backcloth placed behind the characters to set them off. There is no real fusion between background and characters as there was in The Tragic Muse or as there will be in The Ambassadors. Hyacinth Robinson and Maisie are taken to France for a few chapters in the novel and we are reminded of the backcloth at each of theirs steps. The main difference between the experience in France in the two novels is that Maisie’s takes place in Boulogne. She is not mature enough to go to Paris and Sir Claude refuses to take her there because he associates the city with physical love. Maisie will have to remain in Boulogne, half way between the moral angularity of England and the sexual solicitations of Paris.19

  • 20 What Maisie Knew, p. 247.

17Maisie turns to Paris as to her Mecca while Mrs. Wix cannot imagine life elsewhere than in England. Although they are left together at the end, it is clear that Maisie and Mrs. Wix are quite different and that their ways will never really meet: the governess will never succeed in restraining Maisie’s free imagination, and it would have been easier for the latter to turn her step-parents’ liaison into something beautiful and purifying than to change an inch of the old woman’s mutilating righteousness. “You’re nobody,” Maisie tells her somewhere in the novel,20 but for the time being the girl has no other choice and she must follow Mrs. Wix as Nanda Brookenham will follow Mr. Longdon in The Awkward Age. In the loose, disintegrated world of the grown-ups the plain and pathetic governess is the only firm ground under the child’s little feet. It is clear, however, that Maisie will not always need her: she is already further than Mrs. Wix on her way to a higher kind of morality which includes suffering but excludes neither love nor beauty.


1 What Maisie Knew, p. 252.

2 Ibid., p. 9.

3 Ibid., p. 5.

4 Preface to What Maisie Knew, p. vi.

5 What Maisie Knew, p. 25.

6 Ibid., pp. 206-7. My italics.

7 Ibid., p. 207.

8 Ibid., p. 237.

9 Ibid., pp. 236-237.

10 Ibid., p. 240.

11 Ibid., p. 244.

12 Ibid., pp. 308-309.

13 Ibid., p. 252.

14 Ibid., p. 25.

15 Ibid., p. 106.

16 Ibid., p. 314.

17 Though I do not find as much evidence as Marius Bewley does (The Complex Fate, pp. 96-144) of the sexual nature of Mrs. Wix’s infatuation with Sir Claude I also disagree with Dr. Leavis’s complete rejection of this hypothesis. If Mr. Bewley s assertion is right and if the governess is physically attracted to the young man it only shows that she is very human, very English—that is, very muddling—and capable of the most comical deviations. It renders her still more pathetic though hardly less stupid with her “moral sense” as necessary as the “straighteners” on her eyes to correct the obliquity of her vision.

18 What Maisie Knew, p. 321.

19 H.W. Wilson assumes (in “What Did Maisie Know” College English XVII [Feb. 56] 279-282) that Maisie is finally aware of sex and ready to offer her virginity to win Sir Claude for herself; Oscar Cargill shares this view (The Novels of Henry James, pp. 244-262). Though sex is very important in the novel as the missing element in Maisie’s knowledge of life, I do not believe that James ever wanted to suggest what H.W. Wilson and Oscar Cargill seem to find so obvious. Their interpretation oversimplifies and empoverishes James’s intention. The interest of Maisie’s story is that the girl is on the border-line between childhood and womanhood. She hungers for love but it is still impossible to say whether her attraction to Sir Claude is that of a child to a father or that of a woman to a lover.

20 What Maisie Knew, p. 247.

© Presses universitaires de Liège, 1970

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