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"Read[ing] the unspoken into the spoken": Interpreting What Mai sie Knew by Randall Craig, University of Wisconsin-Madison In "The Future of the Novel," Henry James laments the prevalence of what he calls "prose fables" or "improvisations mainly so arbitrary and frequently so loose"—a situation dramatized in What Ma i s ie Knew. Mrs. Wix, as governess to Maisie, repeatedly takes "refuge on the firm ground of fiction, through which, indeed there curled the blue river of truth. She knew swarms of stories, mostly those of the novels she had read. . . . They were all about love and beauty and countesses and wickedness. Her conversation was practically an endless narrative, a great garden of romance.1* In the same manner, Miss Overmore, the first governess, regales Maisie with tales of her adventures on the Continent (WM, p. 238). While this course of instruction seems appropriate to the Kensal Green melodramas (WM, p. 36), the Kensington Gardens "Forest of Arden" idyll (WM, p. 119), and the Great Exhibition "Arabian Nights" tale (WM, pp. 145, 160), it inhibits discernment of the rather sordid reality underlying the sentimental or glittering appearance of romance. Hence, Maisie's practical education must take place in spite of her teachers and consists primarily of learning "to read" the text of her life--to penetrate the maze created by the "thousands of stories" (WM, p. 144) she had been in and to discover the saving water of truth amidst the deluge of romance and romantic affairs. In this process she serves as an example not only to James's contemporaries, who likewise risk inundation by fiction that lets them "live the life of others, . . . gives [them] this satisfaction on easy terms, [and] gives [them] knowledge abundant yet vicarious" (FN, p. 338), but also to modern-day readers, who must develop the ability to Interpret "the tangled connexions" of James's narrative. Maisie, then, is at once a reader of her circumstances, a mirror of the contemporary reading public, and a model for all readers of the text. James compares the evolution of the novel and Its readers to the development of a ch i I d in order to suggest that the contemporary novel had In some senses regressed. Originally ingenuous in their treatment of "the incidents and accidents of the human constitution," novelists gradually imposed a puerile censorship upon themselves. The novel became "superficial" as a result of "making it defer supremely, ¡n treatment say, of a delicate case, to the experience of the young" and of assuming that "safety lies in all the loose and thin material that keeps reappearing in forms at once ready-made and sadly the worse for wear." But, maintaining that the "novel is older, and so are the young," James 1. Henry James, "The Future of the Novel," in Theory of Fiction: Henry James, ed. James E. Miller, Jr. (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1972), p. 336, hereafter cited parenthetically in my text as FN. 2. Henry James, What Ma i s i e Knew (Garden City: Doubleday, 1954), p. 37, hereafter cited parenthetically in my text as WM. The influence of Mrs. Wix's romantic vision can be seen in Maisie's tendency to see her world in terms of a story. Sir Claude, for example, "looked at such moments quite as Mrs. Wix, in the long stories she told her pupi I, always described the lovers of her distressed beauties—'the perfect gentleman and strikingly handsome"' (WM, p. 62), and Ida gives Maisie "the stare of some gorgeous idol described in a storybook" (WM, p. 68). The partiality of Mrs. Wix's storytelling is evident from its absorption "in the image of little dead Clara Matilda" (WM, p. 34), her "little dead sister" (WM, p. 35), and its omission of references to Mrs. Wix (WM, p. 37). The limitations of Miss Overmore's tales are equally apparent. Maisie is taught more about her governess's seven sisters than anything else: "she knew very soon all the names of all the sisters; she could say them off better than she could say the multiplication table" (WM, p. 28). 3. Henry James, Preface to What Maisie Knew, in The Art...


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