Monday, March 1, 2010

Henry James

March, 2010: When I was packing for my three weeks at the Koorawatha Hotel, via my niece’s school fĂȘte in Melbourne, I knew that at some point in my journey, my back would feel every single gram of luggage. So I eschewed the collection of Henry James’s short stories that I had almost finished (and was a bit tired of), and brought his novel, What Maisie Knew, and also my reliable old travel companion, Charles Dickens - this time, A Tale Of Two Cities.

When I started Maisie, on the XPT from Spencer Street, I first thought, “Argh, I can’t read this!” It’s about a little girl whose warring, divorced parents share custody of her, with Maisie spending six months with one then the other. By no means is it the story of my childhood, but there are enough similarities to give me a personal interest in reading it. But aside from that, it’s a beautiful piece of work. To write, from a child’s point of view, a novel that manages to be engaging for an adult reader, without straying beyond the child’s necessarily limited ken, is a feat; and for a sophisticated writer like H.J. to be interested enough in a little girl to choose her for his principal character makes me like him even more than I already do. I can’t help thinking that he must have been a little bit like Sir Claude, who says:

“The truth about me is simply that I’m the most unappreciated of – what do you call the fellows? – ‘family-men.’ Yes, I’m a family-man; upon my honour I am!”

…and a page later:

“I’m an old grandmother,” Sir Claude declared. “I like babies – I always did. If we go to smash, I shall look for a place as a responsible nurse.”

Maisie, in her charmed mood, drank in an imputation on her years which at another moment might have been bitter; but the charm was sensibly interrupted by Mrs Beale’s screwing her round and gazing fondly into her eyes, “You’re willing to leave me, you little wretch?”

The little girl deliberated; even this consecrated tie had become a cord she must suddenly snap. But she snapped it very gently, “Isn’t it my turn for mamma?”

“You’re a horrible little hypocrite! The less, I think, now said about ‘turns’, the better,” Mrs Beale made answer. “I know whose turn it is. You’ve not such a passion for your mother.”

“I say, I say: do look out,” protested Sir Claude quite amiably protested.

“There’s nothing she hasn’t heard. But it doesn’t matter – it hasn’t spoiled her. If you knew what it costs me to part with you!” she pursued to Maisie.

Sir Claude watched her as she charmingly clung to the child.

I’ve always had trouble, in my writing, in limiting myself to a sensible number of points of view. So I started studying H.J.’s methods of sticking faithfully to Maisie, but not at the expense of any interesting details that might have missed her. For a start, Maisie is not a stupid child stuck in a nursery. He creates a situation where she has extensive access to the adults’ personal lives – he has them confiding in and confessing to her (she’s a child – she won’t judge!), and using her as a chaperone and a “pretext”. At other times, her presence is simply ignored or unnoticed. All of this exposure to adult goings-on makes Maisie exceptionally wise; but also, being a dependent child, gathering information about her unstable world is her survival instinct. H.J. pre-empts any reader who (in his or her ignorance) can’t believe in a child-narrator knowing so much by making Maisie’s knowledge the thesis of the whole novel, as is indicated by the title.

Whenever the maturity of Maisie’s insights risks being implausible, H.J. is there to justify it, saying things like, “It sounds, no doubt, too penetrating, but...” The novel’s point-of-view, or its ‘voice’, manages, against the odds, to be staunch and unwavering. But where (I started to wonder) does an author position him- or herself? The novel is not in the first-person; the author and the narrator are not one and the same. Maisie is told by a strange synthesis of Henry James and a little girl. Does H.J. take the position that he met Maisie and she told him all of this? And then I came across this line, “ I [the author] so despair of courting her [Maisie’s] noiseless mental footsteps here that I must crudely give you my word for its being from this time forward...” And I thought, “Yes, it’s as simple as that. He’s known a little girl, to some degree or another, a bit like Maisie, and he’s imagining what it would be like to be her. He’s ‘courting her noiseless mental footsteps’.” It might not seem like a great discovery of mine, but it’s a relief finally to have gotten it straight.