Monday, April 14, 2014

James, What Maisie Knew

This can be filed, along with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, as fiction that I excuse myself for reading because it is Relevant To My Dissertation, as opposed to fiction I have no excuse to read because I should be dissertating instead. According to the democratic reviewers at Goodreads, the primary import of this book is that it contains very long sentences, so there you have it. On the other end, Withywindle, aristocrat, has mentioned it as among the most memorable books he's read.

I'm not sure what to think of it. Some essential piece of common understanding about character or morality seems to have been lost in the pipeline from James's writing to my reading. I didn't quite see how Maisie comes to understand anything that she is discovered in the end to know from all the mysterious conversational innuendo to which she's exposed, nor what it is that she finally does know. In the movie - which I watched for clarification-by-comparison purposes (plus, it's streaming on Netflix now) - Maisie seems to know primarily that her parents are unreliable and maybe selfish. But Movie Maisie has loving step-parents who simply take the place of bad natural parents and all ends well and the goodness of family (broadly-conceived) is redeemed. Book Maisie's situation is much more stark - all the adults around her are somewhere between utterly reprehensible and, at best, well-meaning but spineless, and the only one who has any moral merit has no other merits to speak of. The family is not salvageable; Maisie is better off without one. This was also the case in the only other James novel I've read, Washington Square, where I also ground my teeth over being forced to sympathize with an upright dullard for total lack of brighter alternatives.

The problem is that I'm not quite sure what exactly makes all the adults in the novel so bad that's more complex than just selfishness. James Bowman, in his review of the movie, says "we have now to see what started out as a story about divorce as a story about bad parenting." That seems right; divorce is more central to the novel, which is much more concerned with domestic propriety and propriety generally than the movie. In the book, propriety as either itself a moral quality or as indicative of the morality underlying it. To breach propriety - by speaking to a child openly (and the way Maisie is spoken to is hardly open by present standards) about adultery, for example - is not just a matter of poor breeding in the novel, but really a serious moral crime. Maisie's rescue in the end is really only from further impropriety, but it's treated as a momentous moral triumph.

It's this link between the forms of conduct and the intentions behind it that I can't quite grasp. Is it that it's possible to be inwardly craven so long as you carry out your social offices correctly? Or that carrying them out according to these standards all but demands internal moral uprightness? If I try to draw a parallel to our own social proprieties, almost all of which have to do with public speech, it's hard to see how they do more than mask duplicity - you have to say the right things first to gain the freedom to think through them on your own later. But this does not seem to be James's point. I don't think, however, that my lack of understanding arises out of James's unclarity and long sentenciness, but rather that some unstated understanding about the "moral sense" so much spoken of at the end of the book that was abroad in 1897 holding this book together has up and left the room in the intervening years.


Withywindle said...

I think true aristocrats would not call me such.

I don't know if I'd have the same reaction a second time--I've never cottoned on to James so much for anything else he wrote. But, yeah, riveting. I think the subject matter more than the style

You make me wonder now about how typical my moral sentiments are. But, yes, the casual way Maisie's parents and their acquaintances assume she is already as corrupt as they are, and thus talk openly of their corruption, is horrifying. Is it really so strange to think that you shouldn't talk of such matters to 6 year olds? Or even 12 year olds? That to make them understand would be a horrifying, cruel corruption? This didn't seem to me, reading it ca. 1995, to require any great historical sense on my part--it seemed just as applicable now as then.

But as I say, my sense of how typical I am may be exaggerated.

Miss Self-Important said...

But their omissions of frankness were also cruel. For example, she naively confides in and is deeply persuaded by some man her mother is temporarily with, out of ignorance that he'd be out of the picture within a few weeks. So I see that it's bad to reveal all to children, but two things remain unclear: 1) what proprieties could these people have observed to cover up what they were doing right in front of her, and 2) James's world is populated only by craven people, and given that, isn't there some use in doing away with a child's naivete about their goodness?

There is a way that the book still resonates b/c we believe in the innocence of children and everything bad is worse when inflicted on a child, but what is there in the story to justify preserving innocence? What good purpose would Maisie's preserved innocence serve, except to make her a victim of some future Sir Claude whose charm outstrips his "courage"?

Withywindle said...

I think the presumption is that there is a proper time to learn about the world as it is--say as a teenager, slowly--which will leave you neither corrupt nor vulnerable. Which, surely, is how millions of people are raised, successfully? I would even call it normal, more fool I.

I suppose better people wouldn't need to cover up how horrible they are, which is part of the point. And better people would realize instinctively that they shouldn't assume corruption on the part of children. I think James would be saying "Be Decent,", not "Cover Up Your Indecency In Front of the Children"--I'm not sure he would think it possible. I'm not sure James is trying to make this a "typical case"--more a horror story.

I think that a world where there is some use in doing away with a child's naiveté counts as a world that is a horror story.

Miss Self-Important said...

But this is why the understanding of propriety is puzzling to me. There is no one who is simply decent and made happy by it. Decency is totally divorced from charm and wit. Charm and wit is Sir Claude. Decency is Mrs. Wix's dullness and grim poverty. And everyone else is just, I don't know, spoilage. But the right thing to do is still, for some reason, to insist on propriety and the outward forms of good conduct. If James hopes for the preservation of innocence, then shouldn't we get a glimpse of the world for which that preservation would be suited? Instead we get only what - a defense of correct empty-shelldom?

Withywindle said...

I suppose James assumed everyone knew what it was to raise a child decently. I confess, it still doesn't seem like esoteric knowledge. Surely your own experience, your own common sense, tells you when things are being done to Maisie that are not right?

Miss Self-Important said...

Well, have you seen the movie? There too, the bad parent angle shines through. It's the bad person part that gets buried. In the movie, the main failure of Maisie's parents is that they're self-absorbed and neglectful, which is only a moral problem b/c they have a child. But were she out of the picture, they'd just be regular selfish types. There is no trouble about exposing Maisie to what she should not know, b/c it is necessary and useful for her to know that relationships are complicated and shifty. Divorce is itself not a corruption, nor is remarriage, b/c love is fluid. The only really immoral thing is child neglect.

That seems to be the remaining relatable chord that the novel strikes: child neglect is bad. But what's so bad about divorce and remarriage is in itself not clear anymore. If the adults remained all quite as corrupt as they are but tread softly around the child, it would be hard to indict them for anything more than personal mediocrity or lack of nobility. They're only bad insofar as they violate the harm principle by inflicting it on the child, but alone with each other, they're run of the mill. That does not seem to be James's point, however. He wants their defect to be more than not being good parents, and their poor parenting to be a symptom of a disease, not the whole ailment.

Withywindle said...

Didn't even know there was a movie.

I like to think Hollywood is a bit more hopelessly amoral than society at large, but I ever was an optimist.

I should add: what makes the novel dramatic is that James makes Maisie actively avoid corrupting knowledge--to know and not know at the same time, to keep herself free from the corruption. I have no idea if that is remotely plausible, although I sure believed it at the time. But I think part of his point is that you have to have a terrifyingly brilliant dance, winking in and out of knowledge, to keep yourself from being corrupted--and even if it's possible, obviously many children--most?--couldn't possibly keep it up. The hint is that this is a fairy-tale story, and the realistic description is where the children sink into corruption.

You could make a comparison with Don Quijote, about winking in and out of awareness of the world as it really is.