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.