Skip to main content

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.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

More Moomins

A friend once said that the thing she loved about Japan was that the Japanese loved every season, and made a great effort to celebrate holidays and seasons with specific rituals. As a person who enjoys holidays, and who finds meaning participating in the ritual of the Christian year, I feel a kinship with the Japanese. As humans, we respond to the larger, uncontrollable mysteries of life with stories, with food, with a renewed sense of connection to each other and to the world around us.

It is easy, with the early darkness and the frost on our windshields and the necessity of coats and thicker socks, to complain about the dying of the year and the coming of winter.

Here is a must-read this time of year: Tove Jansson’s Moominvalley in November. Where her other Moomin books have been characterized by happy bohemianism and quirky, midsummer adventures, this book is not afraid to deal with the stark and empty season that comes once a year.

It is raining steadily upon the tall dark trees. D…

Blast-beruffled plumes

I’ve returned to Minnesota to find it transformed into a Brueghel painting.



Our hunters are gone north or even south, wherever there are more deer. This has been a bad year for deer, threatened by the cold of last year’s polar vortex and the high population of coyotes, which now carry a bounty on their heads.

So, while it’s still autumn in England (I’ve been assured), winter has come. The nights are long, the wreaths are out. I’ve been reading restlessly – Robert Walser and GB Shaw. But some nights, Thomas Hardy feels just right for November melancholia. Here’s ‘A Darkling Thrush’:

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land's sharp features seemed to be
The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
Th…

Cassandra at the Wedding - Dorothy Baker

The perfect airplane read for a person en route to a wedding, this tautly written 1962 novel about a woman falling apart, coming home to her family’s ranch to derail her twin sister’s wedding. That’s the summary – but obviously it’s about so much more: about the nature of love and obsession, about identity and the self.

Cassandra Edwards, named for the doomed wailer at the gates of Troy, is a student at Berkley, an “Existentialist-Zen-Marxist, Freudian branch. Deviation, rather.” The reader is fully aware from the beginning that Cassandra feels antagonistically about the wedding – she anticipates duties of “tak[ing] over the bouquet while [Judith] received the ring, through the nose or on the finger, wherever she chose to receive it…” She purposefully gets the groom’s name wrong. She plans to stage a “last-minute rescue.”

The isolated family ranch the Edwards family as a self-sufficient unit – emotionally and intellectually. Her alcoholic father, a retired skeptical philosopher who act…