Summer Selections: Epistemology in Henry James

by Jodie Reed

‘she is a blank slate, ready and waiting for knowledge to impact upon it’

James’ novel, What Maisie Knew (1897), has been the cause of countless debates and contrasting interpretations since its first publication to present day. The book depicts the journey of James’ young protagonist from the time of her parents’ acrimonious divorce in her early years, to, arguably, the close of her childhood at the end of the novel. As the title suggests, the novel focuses not simply on what Maisie experiences, but what she then learns and comes to know from them. This is part of the novel’s intrigue as, surely, one can never truly know what another knows. Whilst having been commended for making ‘important claims about actual childhood experience and its relation to more general problems of epistemology’, there has also been much argument to counter this; opinion over whether childhood can honestly be depicted once one has left it (and thus entered adulthood) is divided.[i] Knowledge is typically regarded as a by-product of experience, and so, in this sense, it may seem as though there is little point in attempting to depict what a child may know. On the other hand, as James himself argues in his preface, ‘[s]mall children have many more perceptions than they have terms to translate them; their vision is at any moment much richer, their apprehension even constantly stronger, than their […] at all producible, vocabulary.’[ii] In other words, while children may struggle to convey what they see and know, it is vital that they are not altogether discounted because their perceptions of the world are more vivid, and not yet tainted by the knowledge and burdens of adulthood.

Both knowledge and childhood can be identified as abstract concepts and so their use and functions within a text are always primarily subject to how one first epitomises them. The former is often linked with experience. As the saying goes, one must learn from experience and this, therefore, evokes several implications when applied to childhood. By this reasoning, as a child has less experience of life than an adult does, they must therefore know significantly less – but this does not necessarily mean that there is nothing that can be learnt from them. This is a point that has been repeatedly disregarded in much literature. As adults have already experienced childhood for themselves they may be tempted to dismiss the value of a child’s knowledge. In fact, typically, a child’s lack of knowledge, their innocence and ignorance of the world, is its allure and function in a text. What Maisie Knew subverts this as Maisie’s knowledge, albeit sometimes inaccurate or half-formed, is the focus of the narrative. The idea and ‘image of childhood is a cultural construct that changes over time and within societies’; what defines a child in one place and time may be wildly different from another.[iii] This also applies to opinions concerning what knowledge a child should or should not have, and what they therefore should be exposed to. Attempting to protect childhood innocence is usually the cause for knowledge to be withheld. James’ unique interpretations and skilled handlings of the relationship between childhood and knowledge, his portrayal of ‘the child as central intelligence’, is partly what makes the novel stand out as an important, impactful text of his time.[iv]

At this time of writing, it is now a hundred and twenty years since the original publication of What Maisie Knew. As a modern-day reader, with this in mind, it is therefore vital that one takes into account the ideas that governed the society in which it was written, as well as the literature that preceded it. By doing this one can begin to fully appreciate why James’ novel was regarded as pivotal, and why it is still spoken about today. As Muriel Shine explains in the introduction to her book, The Fictional Children of Henry James (1969), ‘it may be difficult […] to think of a time when the theme of childhood had no place in literature. […] [Children] were not considered thematically important, nor were they rendered as individual personalities.’[v] Considering previous depictions of the child, readers of the late 1880s would’ve been ‘likely to envision Maisie’s reward in Dickensian terms’ thus believing that Maisie would eventually ‘assume her rightful place at the heart of a loving family.’[vi] Yet What Maisie Knew undermines such expectations. Instead, James instils ‘the blank image of Victorian childhood with the active element of knowing and wanting to know’.[vii] Rather than creating a passive creature, someone who must wait for her goodness and innocence to affect those around her, Maisie plays an active role in her life and the social relations around her, thus culminating in her final, transformative choice at the close of the novel. With this in mind, James’ handling of a child’s developing consciousness could be regarded as being ahead of his time. In fact, as Ellen Pifer argues, ‘[s]o up-to-date is James’ rendering of human nature and consciousness that critics […] tend to forget how many years were to pass before Freud’s work would be available in English.’[viii] However, despite this, reviews of the time were somewhat mixed. The over-arching feeling was that, while it proved to be an interesting and original insight into a child’s mind, it was more of a ‘study, not a story or a drama’ and contained a ‘monotony [that] presses hard on the reader before the close.’[ix] Nevertheless it should not be overlooked that, by ‘the end of that century the fiction of Henry James marked a crucial turning point in the development of both the novel and the image of the child.’[x]

In James’ own words, the ‘subject [of the novel] was the girl’s childhood’ and its ‘climax […] was marked by, and consisted of, the stroke of the hour of the end of that childhood.’[xi] The narrative concerns itself with her development, which thus implies that she changes between the beginning and ending in what could be described as a bildungsroman style. Therefore, scrutinising the ways in which knowledge and experience affects her childhood would be futile without first investigating her character in the beginning, before learning so much. At the opening of the book, before the reader is introduced to Maisie, the narrator first sets out her situation – how ‘the little girl was disposed of’.[xii] Throughout the first chapters the narrator continually directs the readers’ attention to Maisie’s childlike innocence. For example, she is described as being ‘at the age for which all stories are true and all conceptions are stories.’[xiii] The notion that she is a blank slate, ready and waiting for knowledge to impact upon it, is repeatedly reinforced. By portraying Maisie as a blameless, uncorrupted child, the reader becomes increasingly emotionally invested in her plight, for, after all, ‘[n]othing could have been more touching at first than her failure to suspect the ordeal that awaited her little unspotted soul.’[xiv] This conjures a sense of foreboding. Without this initial emotional investment, the novel would have a drastically different feel. In fact, the immorality of Maisie’s four parents and her governesses could lead one to regard the narrative as something closer to a comedy. However, Maisie’s presence and her perceptiveness elicit a more provocative and attentive read; the reader is constantly lead to wonder how Maisie is affected by what she experiences. In addition to noting examples of the protagonist’s initial innocence and ignorance, one should also consider how the narrative is told. James writes with an obvious awareness of the reader and their knowingness and, as his novel concerns itself with a child’s knowledge, for the adult reader this has a unique effect. Cecily Havely perhaps sets this out best. In her study of the novel, she puts forward that James,

‘presents us with a kind of double vision: he shows us what Maisie sees, and how far she understands, but he shows it to us within the context of hints and intimations of how much more there is beyond her seeing and understanding.’[xv]

While it would be fair to consider knowledge to be a theme of What Maisie Knew, in the same way a lack of knowledge can also be attributed; innocence, ignorance and the acquisition of knowledge are equally as intrinsic to the plot as knowingness itself.

While we may like to believe a child’s innocence is something people strive to protect, it is also something that can be mistreated and manipulated. This idea forms one of the base elements of the book. Throughout the novel, Maisie’s lack of knowledge and understanding is appropriated for the benefit of other characters. This theme is introduced right from the beginning. Splitting her time between her father’s and mother’s, Maisie becomes a ‘little feathered shuttlecock’ that her parents use to pass insults and hateful messages to one another.[xvi] Neither seem grateful for time spent with Maisie. On the contrary, as the narrator illustrates, ‘the only link binding her to either parent was this lamentable fact of her being a ready vessel for bitterness’.[xvii] There is repeated imagery of Maisie’s innocence becoming besmirched and polluted by the adults around her; Ida and Beale shamelessly take every ‘evil they had the gift of thinking […] of each other,’ and pour it ‘into her little gravely gazing soul’.[xviii] However, this is when the plot evolves, when the reader can begin to recognise why What Maisie Knew was so pivotal and distinctive; Maisie develops a ‘complete vision, private but final, of the strange office she filled […] the idea of an inner self’.[xix] Maisie becomes aware of the part she plays in her parents’ games and sees that she had become ‘a centre of hatred and a messenger of insult, and that everything was bad because she had been employed to make it so.’[xx] She realises she ‘cannot afford to wait patiently for rescue. Nor […] continue […] to play the passive role of little victim.’[xxi] The reader is lead to understand that Maisie is not the only character who can be ignorant and unknowing in the novel. In the same way other characters conceal and alter information for Maisie, as she comes to see herself as an autonomous being, she too learns this skill. The situation, from then on, becomes distorted;

‘[h]er parted lips locked themselves with the determination to be employed no longer. She would forget everything, she would repeat nothing, and when, as a tribute to the successful application of her system, she began to be called a little idiot, she tasted a pleasure altogether new.’[xxii]

Maisie’s decision to withhold information and portray herself as a ‘precious idiot’ implies that, rather than being a helpless child in amongst undesirable circumstances, Maisie is choosing to be in control.[xxiii] She deliberately misrepresents herself as more ignorant than she really is, actively repurposing the expectations adults have of children to benefit herself and her situation. While parts of the adult world remain hidden from her understanding, she equally hides her own knowledge of the world from others. This implies that, despite her childhood being disagreeable, Maisie has adapted to it. As Peter Brooks suggests, ‘[through] Maisie’s premature but necessary education in “handling” people whose motives and intentions she may not understand […] she most uncannily masters and by the end manipulates.’[xxiv]

So distorted and subverted is Maisie’s childhood experience that one may begin to wonder whether she has a childhood at all. Whilst it can hardly be debated that she matures from ‘a mite of a half-scared infant’ to ‘a self-contained, mature little person’ by the book’s close, when compared to the ways in which childhood is typically understood, Maisie’s is far removed.[xxv] For example, as Havely points out, ‘does Maisie ever run?’[xxvi] Maisie is predominately static throughout the book. In the same way, there are few instances of Maisie actively pursuing physical affection from her parents, pseudo-parents, governesses – or even strangers. She is rarely held, although, it may be crucial to highlight that, on the occasions she is held, it is usually to the benefit of the other person. Other characters use Maisie as a source of comfort, validation for a point of argument, and as a messenger. Despite being the character who displays the most affection for Maisie, even Mrs Wix’s seemingly selfless behaviour could be considered self-serving. Maisie is her replacement for ‘little dead Clara Matilda’ and, in truth, the source for Wix’s income.[xxvii] Also, her love and apparent desire to protect Maisie gives her a moral high ground where she lacks economic and intellectual authority. Another way in which Maisie’s childhood departs from other depictions is her lack of school-room education. This a result of constant interruptions and Wix’s general simple-mindedness. Instead, her ‘exposure becomes her education.’[xxviii] This idea is arguably the crux of the novel and, notably, part of James’ original intentions. In his plan for What Maisie Knew in his notebooks, he states, ‘EVERYTHING TAKES PLACE BEFORE MAISIE’.[xxix] His decision to make Maisie ‘understand much more than any little girl […] had perhaps ever understood before’ impresses upon the reader that the knowledge Maisie gains during her childhood is inescapable, and, once again, provokes them to wonder how Maisie will be affected.[xxx] In answer to the question “does Maisie have a childhood at all?” one must first establish what they consider a childhood to be; whether it is a period of time in one’s life or whether societal opinions connote its meaning. In terms of the latter it can be argued that Maisie does not have a childhood, that childhood itself has let her down.

The Maisie depicted in the closing scenes of his novel is greatly departed from the girl the reader was first introduced to. By investigating these final representations of her character one can more fully appreciate how the knowledge acquired throughout her childhood has affected and changed her. The climactic scene, in which Maisie is granted the opportunity to choose her guardian, is foreshadowed by her earlier choice in the novel. When caught amidst her parents’ feud, instead of choosing loyalty to one, she chooses to help neither, and to, instead, keep her knowledge to herself. Similarly, when Maisie must make her final decision, she discovers that;

‘[s]omehow, now that it was there, the great moment was not so bad. What helped the child was that she knew what she wanted. All her learning and learning had made her at last learn that’.[xxxi]

This implies that she has learnt enough to come to value her own desires over others’. While self-preservation over selflessness typically has negative connotations, in this case, the reader cannot truly condemn Maisie for her decision. In fact, it seems the most logical and fair outcome of the events. The young child has been neglected throughout her childhood and so, by giving into her own desires, by choosing what is best for her, is a just conclusion. As Brooks argues, it ‘registers her arrival at a sophisticated and usable practical knowledge of what is in her best interests.’[xxxii] However, to make this decision Maisie must sacrifice the last of her childish innocence. It can be inferred that, by clinging to Sir Claude she was trying to hang onto her last childish fantasy. Her behaviour implies that she not only wished to stay with Sir Claude, ‘the person she love[d] most’, but that he too would reciprocate her feelings and choose her over anyone else.[xxxiii] Yet, ultimately, ‘she is too good for him.’[xxxiv] Maisie loses faith in childish indulgences. Throughout the entire time the reader is in contact with her there is no period in which she is in the company of anyone else her age. Constantly surrounded by adults it is somewhat remarkable that she had been able to cling to childish innocence for so long. Nevertheless, the reader is abruptly reminded of this fact when Maisie remarks, ‘I feel as if I had lost everything.’[xxxv] Although she has matured to the extent she can make a large decision herself, she is still young. It can be inferred that she is perhaps too young to be making such pivotal choices. There is no way she can reclaim the innocence she has lost and so, whether or not she is ready to, she finally leaves childhood. She cannot yet be independent and so must still rely on adults yet she now knows she can also rely on herself. While her childhood has taught her much it is this lesson, above all, that is most redeeming.

As the novel ends it becomes apparent that the question put forward by both the final lines, and the title itself, is never outrightly answered. Much criticism has been sure to highlight the fact that, in the end, the reader doesn’t get to know what Maisie has learnt; as Susan Honeyman notes, ‘[w]e see what Maisie sees, but we cannot know what Maisie knows.’[xxxvi] The reader is left to make conjectures. For example, it is never made clear whether Maisie truly understands the potential consequences of choosing to stay with her governess. After all, there is virtually ‘nothing in the novel suggest that Maisie can have a bright future with Mrs Wix’.[xxxvii] The only comfort that can be taken from her decision is that she will no longer be neglected; with Mrs Wix, one can infer, she will be loved. It is unclear what exactly Maisie’s knowledge encompasses. Havely suggests Maisie’s lack of traditional education has made her ‘more advanced […] in knowledge of the world’ but it seems unlikely this should be the case.[xxxviii] Although the fact that Maisie has grown and developed throughout the book is irrefutable, it seems to be a mistake to suggest she has knowledge of the world as, in reality, she has seen so little of it. As Brooks set out in his argument, if Maisie ‘has become an expert in human relationships […] she is […] still largely ignorant of their overriding motivation’.[xxxix] Though she has learnt a lot, there is still much to learn – though how much is unclear. On leaving childhood Maisie has become an individual in her own right; one can no longer pretend to know what she is thinking. Although the text encourages the reader to make inferences about what Maisie learns and the reasons for her actions, there remains an aspect of her knowingness that they cannot attain. However, on the other hand, this factor could lead a more realistic quality to the book. The narrative is perhaps more representative of real life as we cannot truly know what another knows. Whilst the ending may be unsatisfying and too ambiguous for some, James’ decision to leave Maisie’s thoughts and motivations to herself seem both realistic and just.

It is not only the reader who is left wondering what comes next for Maisie. In response to a letter, James himself admitted, ‘how very much I don’t know of what Maisie “became”’.[xl] It appears the knowledge of the protagonist has even escaped her maker. In conclusion, it should not be understated that, at James’ time of writing, knowledge and childhood seemed two concepts that contradicted one another, and yet, the various representations of each in What Maisie Knew instead suggest an undeniable relationship between them. How each are defined and understood has evolved over time and continues to do so. 2013 saw a modern cinematic remake of the 1897 novel; though can it do justice to James’ original? A review by The New York Review of Books argues it fails to ‘convey the psychological depth and preternatural maturity that James gives his fictional heroine’.[xli] Despite this, the modern portrayal will hopefully galvanise current and future generations to appreciate how the novel was ‘in every way more daring’ than its modern counterpart and how impactful James’ handling of childhood and knowingness really was.[xlii]


[i] John C. Rowe, The Other Henry James (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998), p.4-5

[ii] Henry James, ‘Preface to the New York Edition, Volume IX, 1908’ in What Maisie Knew, ed. by Christopher Ricks (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2010), pp.289-298 (p.294)

[iii] Ellen Pifer, Demon or Doll: Images of the Child in Contemporary Writing and Culture (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000), p.1

[iv] Muriel G. Shine, The Fictional Children of Henry James (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1969), p.109

[v] Shine, p.3

[vi] Demon or Doll p.28

[vii] Demon or Doll p.34-35

[viii] Demon or Doll p.41

[ix] ‘Unsigned Review, Manchester Guardian, 28 September 1897’ in What Maisie Knew, pp.267-268 (p.267, p.268)

[x] Demon or Doll p.1

[xi] Henry James: A Life in Letters, ed. by Philip Horne (St. Ives: The Penguin Press, 1999), p.300

[xii] James, What Maisie Knew, p.3

[xiii] James, What Maisie Knew p.12

[xiv] James, What Maisie Knew p.5

[xv] Cecily P. Havely, The Nineteenth Century Novel and its Legacy: What Maisie Knew (Bletchley: The Open University Press, 1973), p.9

[xvi] James, What Maisie Knew p.12

[xvii] James, What Maisie Knew p.5

[xviii] James, What Maisie Knew p.12

[xix] James, What Maisie Knew p.13

[xx] James, What Maisie Knew p.13

[xxi] Demon or Doll p.29

[xxii] James, What Maisie Knew p.13

[xxiii] James, What Maisie Knew p.165

[xxiv] Peter Brooks, ‘Chapter 6: Henry James and the Melodrama of Consciousness’ in The Melodramatic Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), pp.153-197 (p.166)

[xxv] James, What Maisie Knew p.8

    Shine, p.118

[xxvi] Havely, p.3

[xxvii] James, What Maisie Knew p.20

[xxviii] Shine, p.110

[xxix] ‘Notebook V, 8 September 1895 - 26 October 1896’ in The Notebooks of Henry James, ed. by F. O. Matthiessen and others (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press), pp.211-260 (p.238)

[xxx] James, What Maisie Knew p.8

[xxxi] James, What Maisie Knew p.260

[xxxii] Brooks, 1995, p.166

[xxxiii] Demon or Doll p.40

[xxxiv] Havely, p.43

[xxxv] James, What Maisie Knew p.257

[xxxvi] Susan E. Honeyman, ‘What Maisie Knew and the Impossible Representation of Childhood’, The Henry James Review, 22 (2001), 67-80 (p.71)

[xxxvii] Havely, p.42

[xxxviii] Havely, p.30

[xxxix] Brooks, 1995, p.166

[xl] A Life in Letters, p.299                    

[xli] What Maisie Knew, Dir. Scott McGeHee, David Siegel. Curzon Film World. 2013

    Francine Prose, ‘What “Maisie” Doesn’t Know’ The New York Review of Books [online] available from [accessed 12th April 2017]

[xlii] Prose, The New York Review of Books [online] available from [accessed 12th April 2017]

Summer Selections is a FalWriting series bringing you a variety of writing produced this academic year by Falmouth students. It's a vibrant and diverse selection of work covering text forms from experimental poetry to forensic literary analysis, from gothic short stories to critical dissertations. This year the selection is guest edited by third year student Jess Hawes.  

Falmouth SOWJ