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The One Hundred Novels You Must Read before You Write Your Own: What Maisie Knew

By Shelly Lowenkopf

What Maisie Knew by Henry James, 1897

A number of contemporary writers whose works I favor—say Cynthia Ozick and Colm Toibin—favor Henry James to the point where each has written a novel framed on one of James’s. How could I favor Ozick and Toibin without holding James in the esteem needed to take some grain of insight or borrow some tool of composition for my own toolkit?

I’d gone through the classic James novels forced on me as a price to pay for my major in literature. James was the statue of the hero in the park, ignored by me, favored by critics and, to my vast amusement, pigeons. Until I read What Maisie Knew, published at the tail end of the nineteenth century. "The litigation had been interminable," Henry James began this novel, "and had in fact been complicated; but by the decision on the appeal, the judgment of the divorce-court was confirmed as to the assignment of the child."

This opening sentence broke down the doors that had for some time kept me from understanding and, thus, learning from Henry James. Among the things I learned: He is the author, placing you in the story at a defining moment, then stepping clear to allow the characters to take over. He has done more with point of view than any author since Jane Austen, stepping forth, retreating, delegating; all this, like an accomplished magician, through seamless diversions within his narrative.

Although young Maisie Farange had not yet set foot on its pages, I knew from its title that she was the major point of view. I also knew I’d see her from other points of view. Although I had no idea how many points, my delight was expansive when I found out.

The final independent clause of that first sentence also assured me that whoever Maisie was, what she knew was going to be informed by the knowledge of a person who had been handed over to the Solomon-as-Judge pragmatism of the culture and society into which she’d been born. You can’t want for a better placement of a character as she is caught between tugging forces.

I was fresh from reading J(erome). D(avid). Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye; Huckleberry Finn was already established as my default source for form, voice, and dialogue. Great Expectations seemed to me to be the same level of extraordinary vision for Dickens as Huck was for Twain. Girls’ voices were few and far between, Alcott’s Little Women a chore because of the sentimentality and precocity beyond the boundary of the characters’ age.

Surely James would have been aware of Little Women, which he could not have abided. He was likely aware of Huck Finn, which would have been another story. The story was Maisie. The implied narrative thrust was the sum total of how Maisie read the world about her, saw through the adults in her life, and without telling us in so many words, how she would lead a life of greater satisfaction and complexity than the Alcott girls or Alcott’s later attempts to do the same thing for boys.

The close reader would come away from Maisie with a picture of what she knew and who she remains, going on a hundred and a quarter years after her appearance.

Maisie is more than a bright, emerging child, treated by the author as an adult; she is a dimensional character, bright enough to convey to the reader the things most young characters could not convey much less discern. Maisie had the ability to piece together from her observation of how adults behaved the things only a most precocious youngster could know.

Later, after my interest grew in this novel, I discovered an unsigned review, written soon after its publication. “[James] deals not in events, but in events as they mirror themselves in the thoughts, the fleeting impulses, of his characters. By a rare psychological intuition, he lays bare the underside of his story…. You follow the story through the mind of Maisie; you see and hear only what Maisie saw and heard; and yet, such is the combined humor and pathos of the presentment, you know so much more than Maisie could possibly know, though Maisie had her childish moral arithmetic whereby she could put two and two together…”

What a young girl knew after being put in the midst of a situation of exquisite moral and psychological stress changed the way I look at the novel, as a writer, an editor, and a teacher.

A distinguished writing teacher and author, as well as the journal's poetry editor, Shelly is presenting the novels that intrigued and mesmerized him into wishing to join the ranks of published writers.

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