Delightfully, What Maisie Knew starts before chapter one as James describes the circumstances of the bitter divorce between Maisie's father and her mother which leads to Maisie, like Persephone (is this whole book a metaphor for the seasons?), spending six months with one followed by six months with the other. When Chapter One begins, it is told from Maisie's point of view.
Of course Maisie is a child so her understanding is imperfect and James is able to use this device for developing an increasing understanding in the reader of the characters. Thus we are early introduced to Maisie's nurse Moddle, who protests to her father: "You ought to blush, sir, for the way you go on!" We realise, though Maisie does not, that her father is a bit of a philanderer and this is confirmed when her mother's companion, Miss Overmore, meets Maisie's father in the park, subsequently defects to his household (protesting that she is doing this because she cannot bear to be parted from Maisie) and later marries Maisie's father. At which discovery we also discover that her mother, while abroad, has married a Sir Claude.
All of this is told with very little dialogue and long paragraphs of description. But then the first act of the story (25% of the way through) is complete.
At which point things become more exciting. As Maisie gets older she learns more about the actions (though not the motives) of the actors. She is very scared of having no one to look after her so she attaches herself to Sir Claude, her new step-father. At the same time her governess, Miss Wix, realises that without Maisie she will have no position and so begins to manoeuvre herself to end up with Maisie no matter what; Miss Wix also seems to fancy Sir Claude. But Sir Claude has met Mrs Beale (who was Miss Overmore) and possibly begins an affair with her. At the same time Maisie's father and mother, swiftly growing bored of their new spouses, spend more and more time away. This leaves Maisie more and more with Mrs Wix and Sir Claude; whilst with Sir Claude she meets one of her mother's transient lovers in Regent's Park; whilst at Earl's Court she meets the Countess, her father's latest squeeze (and funder).
There are parts of this novel when you really get a sense of Maisie as a poor little girl shunted from pillar to post between fickle adults, becoming a little precocious as a result. But then James spoils it all with another chapter of page-long paragraphs. And in the end, given that Maisie doesn't understand fully what is going on, and given that nobody states their position fully but only hints at improprieties, I found the intricacies too complex to appreciate. On page 166, Mrs Wix admits: "I hope then, he understood you. It's more than I do!" and I have added 'Me too.'
There are delightful moments. Maisie realised that Mrs Wix "had sidled and ducked her way through life" (p 51)(although she doesn't seem to appreciate what that means so that she can use that knowledge later; lower class is still lower class). She also realises "Mamma doesn't care for me" (p 57) and can usually use this knowledge to discern humbug in an adult. Mamma's neckline indicates urgency: "the lower the bosom was cut the more ... she was wanted elsewhere" (ie not with Maisie) (p 59) And Mamma has a delightful male friend whose eyebrows are so bushy that Maisie thinks they are moustaches! (p 61) The fact is that all the adults Maisie knows, even the adored Sir Claude, are weak and lie.
James understood the psychology of the unwanted child: she is desperate for love, is easily taken in by the protestations of love from adults, and is ready to accept that it is she who is at fault for being unloveable. The psychology of the adults who profess to adore Maisie is rather more difficult to understand, except for the real parents who view Maisie simply as a weapon to hurt their ex.
There were times when I really enjoyed the book but there were times when the complicated sentences swamped me. There were times when I saw it all from Maisie's point of view and there were times when I thought that no child could possibly say things and do things with this level of awareness.
Spurgin, 2006 (lecture published by The Great Courses; The Teaching Company) suggests that James is influenced by George Eliot (especially Middlemarch), Ivan Turgenev (Smoke; Fathers and Sons; James
"admired the sharpness of Turgenev's character studies, praising the author's minutely psychological attitude"; they both started with a character rather than a plot) and Gustave Flaubert (Madame Bovary). He thought that novelists should be (high brow) artists rather than entertainers or moralists. His final phase "helped to pave the way for modernist novels" by Joyce, Woolf, and Faulkner.