Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Little Girl Lost

Henry James is a man I met by an extension of an accident involving the television.

During the summer of 2006 (I say as though it were fifty years ago) I lived with my parents in our house in George, living the luxurious life of a waitress terrified to death by a tyrannical Italian who had the power to turn me into a cross between a mouse and a jellyfish by requesting a cup of coffee. Most mornings I spent leaning against my bed with a book in hand, hiding from the inevitability that Work Would Happen.

But I caught several colds, a reprieve from the late hours, meager tips, and humiliating wine-bottle-opening incidents of the restaurant. One orange-juice-sodden morning, I caught a showing of Edith Wharton's House of Mirth on e-tv with Gillian Anderson and Eric Stolz. It promised lame mid-morning period drama, but I watched the whole thing with increasing fascination and then limped to the library to read the book. It was followed by Age of Innocence (not as good, though it won the Pulitzer). One fin de siecle drama led to another and I was introduced to Mr. James himself with his dazzlingly rich and complex Portrait of a Lady

It's been over a year since I read a James novel and clearly I'm out of shape. What Maisie Knew required a constant retracing of thought and description, demanding that I read the sentence out loud so that I could follow the dense psychology and convoluted moral atmosphere.

Maisie is the unfortunate baggage shipped between her freshly divorced parents; she is to stay with each for six months. Though initially her parents demand her promptly, seeing her as a vessel of revenge, a carrier-pigeon to wound the other, when her parents sense she is not likely to continue delivering their darts, she becomes the weighty ballast each parent desires to shrug off.

Maisie is the victim of gross instability; she is denied continuous, dependable affection, her education is irregular, and promises and plans are easily explained away. Her mother remarries abroad, her father remarries her governess. Maisie adores her step-father, Sir Claude, and who can blame her for hoping this avuncular man will make a home with her instead. Of course, the initial warring pair is replaced by two more couples-at-arms and Maisie eagerly gives her loyalty to whoever demands it. Her only constant is a sad sack of a governess called Mrs. Wix who begins feebly but grows in moral strength throughout the novel until the climax.

James is rigorous in the pursuit of Maisie's mind and her comprehension of the puzzling behavior of the adults who refuse, consciously or unconsciously, to do their duty by her. The reader is restricted by her limited view of the world, but is also able to see the sexual intrigue she is too young to recognise - which motivates the constant disruptions, the promises made and broken, the secret compacts and affected fondness - something that might be called "moral depravity."

A child is a puzzle. As is the book. As do most books (I now discover), it demands a re-reading in the near future.

I am winging my way home from the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing, which I've attended by assisting Greg Wolfe, the editor and publisher of Image. More to come.

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