Study Guide

What Maisie Knew

by Henry James

What Maisie Knew Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

When Mr. and Mrs. Beale Farange are divorced, they receive joint custody of their young daughter Maisie. At first, both jealously guard their privileges, using Maisie as a weapon to wreak revenge on each other. Then, as they each become involved with new lovers, Maisie is increasingly forgotten, left to fend for herself with little more guidance and affection that what is to be had from her ridiculous governess, Mrs. Wix.

As it happens, Ida Farange’s new husband, Sir Claude, has some scruples and is genuinely fond of Maisie. It is he who takes over her care—indeed, her entertainment—for the most part, while her selfish and heedless parents all but abandon her. Sir Claude and Ida eventually go their separate ways, however, and he takes up with Beale’s new wife, Miss Overmore. This puts the highly scrupulous Mrs. Wix in a compromising position, which she applies to the hapless Maisie, who would, it seems, be quite content to go on living with Sir Claude and his new mistress.

At this point, the extent of Maisie’s extraordinarily canny grasp of her situation and of the intricate amorous games being played all around her becomes clear. She quite brazenly bargains with various adults to secure her own care, preferably with Sir Claude. He takes her to France with Mrs. Wix, only to be pursued there by Ida, or Mrs. Beale, as she is most frequently called. In a climactic confrontation, Sir Claude dispatches Maisie and Mrs. Wix back to England,...

(The entire section is 411 words.)

What Maisie Knew Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Beale and Ida Farange are divorced with much publicity. At first, each fights to keep their daughter Maisie, but at last it is arranged that the girl should spend six months with each. The first period is to be spent with her father. Maisie is confused by the divorce. At first, she truthfully reports to her parents what each says about the other, but finding that her candor leads to furious outbursts and that she is being used as an innocent messenger, she soon becomes silent on the subject of the absent parent and appears to absorb no knowledge during her visits.

Ida engages Miss Overmore, a pretty governess, whom Maisie is unhappy to leave when it is time to return to her father. Soon, however, to Ida’s fury, Miss Overmore is engaged to be Maisie’s governess at Beale Farange’s house. Upon her subsequent return to Ida, Maisie is placed in the care of Mrs. Wix. She learns no lessons from Mrs. Wix but adores her conversation and feels comfortable and secure with her.

During Maisie’s next stay with Beale, he goes to Brighton for a few days together with Miss Overmore. When the governess returns, she finds Mrs. Wix waiting for her. Mrs. Wix alone is concerned for Maisie’s welfare, and she is outraged by the child’s environment. She announces that Ida is about to remarry, and she gives Maisie a photograph of Sir Claude, her future stepfather. Miss Overmore thereupon announces that she just married Beale.

Some time after his marriage, Sir Claude calls and is received by the new Mrs. Beale Farange. Maisie is delighted by their apparent understanding and declares that she brought them together. Sir Claude wins Maisie’s love by being gentle with her and by declaring that he intends to make her his responsibility. In spite of the pain of leaving the new Mrs. Farange, the girl is pleased to go home with him. Ida’s love for her new husband, however, soon wanes, and she has several lovers. When she accuses Sir Claude of basely stealing Maisie’s affections and threatens to drive Mrs. Wix out of the house for supporting him, Maisie feels that she belongs nowhere. Mrs. Wix is determined to meet her responsibility for Maisie, and she desires to “save” Sir Claude from Mrs. Beale Farange, whom he frequently visits. Fearing for the loss of her livelihood, she wishes that Sir Claude would take a house for himself where she and Maisie will also live.

On one outing, Sir Claude takes Maisie to her father’s new house, which she is afraid to enter for fear of losing him if she remains there. Once in the house, however, she is again enthralled by Mrs. Farange’s beauty and is interested to learn that...

(The entire section is 1081 words.)