What Maisie Knew

by Henry James
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1081

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.

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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 Beale matters no more to his wife than Sir Claude does to Ida. Maisie remains happily with her stepmother after Sir Claude assures her that he will provide for Mrs. Wix and visit her frequently.

After a long absence, Sir Claude visits Maisie again. While they are walking in the park, they meet Ida with an unknown, military-looking man. Both Ida and Sir Claude become terribly angry, and Maisie is sent to talk with Ida’s escort, whom her mother calls the Captain. Maisie, who is by that time thoroughly aware that neither parent loves her, weeps when the Captain praises her mother highly and is eager to agree that she is “good.” Sir Claude, unable to learn from Maisie what the Captain said to her, sends her home alone in a cab.

Mrs. Farange tells Maisie that she meets Sir Claude away from her home but that he is reluctant to visit them and thus compromise Maisie. The three hope to meet at a London exhibition; instead, they unexpectedly encounter Beale. After a subdued but violent quarrel, Maisie is whisked away by her father to the house of his mistress. In a way that is intended to elicit Maisie’s refusal, he offers to take her to America with him.

Encouraged by Mrs. Wix, Sir Claude takes Maisie to Folkestone as the first step toward making a home for them in France. There Ida arrives suddenly and surrenders Maisie to Sir Claude’s guardianship. The following day, they cross to France, where Mrs. Wix joins them. Sir Claude intends to return to England and to Mrs. Beale Farange once Maisie’s father finally leaves. Sir Claude confesses that he fears Mrs. Farange as he formerly feared Ida. Mrs. Wix, still strongly opposed to Mrs. Farange, asks to be sent to England to sever their relationship. Sir Claude refuses this request and goes off to England alone.

While he is away, Mrs. Wix explains to the bewildered Maisie that she refuses to condone the immorality of Mrs. Farange and Sir Claude in living together with them. Also, she declares that she will never again leave Maisie. After several walks and much thought, the full implications of what this situation might mean becomes apparent to Maisie. She realizes, too, that she has no moral “sense,” and having rapidly absorbed the idea of such a sense from vague but emphatic conversations with Mrs. Wix, she decides to show in her future responses that she does indeed possess it.

When they return to their hotel after a morning walk, Maisie is unexpectedly greeted by her stepmother. Mrs. Wix’s own “moral sense” is nearly destroyed by Mrs. Farange’s charm and determination to have the governess-companion as an ally. According to Mrs. Farange, now that the girl’s father has left, Maisie is her own daughter. In this way, she intends to hold Sir Claude through his devotion to the girl. Mrs. Wix wavers, but Maisie declares that she will stay with Sir Claude only if he is alone.

The next morning, Mrs. Wix awakens Maisie with the news that Sir Claude has arrived. When Maisie breakfasts alone with him, he asks her if she will leave Mrs. Wix and live with him and Mrs. Farange. She asks to see Mrs. Wix before deciding. Later, while walking with Sir Claude, she says she will give up Mrs. Wix only if he will give up Mrs. Farange. Maisie makes her decision when the four people confront one another in a final struggle at the hotel. When she fails in her appeal that Mrs. Farange give up Sir Claude, Maisie decides to stay with Mrs. Wix.

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