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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.

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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, promising never to abandon Maisie, although he seems to have returned to Ida, who, presumably, has no desire to have her gay life interrupted by the duties of caring for a young child.

The novel takes a pathetic subject and treats it with extraordinary tact and splendid comedy. James claimed in the preface to this text in the New York edition that the entire interest of the tale lay in its being told as if from the point of view—though not in the language—of the child. This consciously imposed constraint makes for occasionally difficult going, as while Maisie’s consciousness demonstrably matures in the course of the novel, it is not always immediately clear what she beholds, because her knowledge of adult relations is for quite some time rather inexact. Still, What Maisie Knew remains among James’s minor masterpieces, perhaps the first of the mature texts that someone new to the Jamesian manner should attempt.

Summary

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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,...

(The entire section contains 1492 words.)

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