I suspect that as he wrote What Maisie Knew, Henry James was not intending it to be a pro-abortion message to the world. However, having read it, this is exactly what I now feel. There are just some people who should never have children – and they are all in this novel.
Essentially, the novel revolves around the divorce of two people – Beale and Ida Farange – and the effects this has on their young daughter, Maisie. These two people are possibly the most terrible parents in the world. While their presence is clearly felt throughout the novel, they are almost never seen, except when they need to convince their innocent daughter that staying with them is better than staying with the other. It is up to the assortment of governesses and step-parents that Maisie acquires throughout the novel to attempt to sort this child’s life out. It is these three people – Mrs Beale (Beale’s new wife), Sir Claude (Ida’s new husband), and Mrs Wix (the governess at Ida’s house) – who, in a sense, become surrogate parents to Maisie. Since her parents almost never see her, she is shuttled between these three people, though even they are not above the politics and drama of trying to keep and raise Maisie. Once again, the characters take side in a battle for Maisie, and they are again drawn on marital lines. The final conflict takes place in France, after Maisie has been kidnapped twice – by two different people involved in this battle. It turns into a moral lesson – should Maisie go with people who will make her happy, or people who will make her morally right. It is interesting to note this, considering the time What Maisie Knew was written – a time when morals were being thrown out the window, making way for the 20th century.
The character of Maisie herself is not perhaps explored as fully as she could be. I can see why James did this, though. She is a blank slate, with no bias towards any of the people trying to get a hold of her. As such, she is easily convinced by the flimsy arguments that are presented to her about the decisions she must make, and we feel her confusion, as well as wide-eyed innocence.
While the concept itself is quite interesting – and certainly appropriate to the modern world – I’m not totally enamoured with James’ writing style. I really think that he needs to be introduced to the comma, and a lesson on how to place them. I also found it hard to keep up with his train of thought – there are pages and pages which contain but one paragraph, which is odd, considering each chapter is only a few pages long. Perhaps this is because of the original serialisation – I find it a little grating, today, however.
Perhaps What Maisie Knew is not about abortion at all. It is, however, certainly a caution to those people who are going through a divorce with children. Make sure they don’t become pawns in a massive game of one-up-man-ship. Oh, and watch out for your new spouses – you’ll never know what they might get up to.