- Fear of Falling and the Rise of Girls:Lamarck’s Knowledge in What Maisie Knew
1. Lamarck’s Plot
To the extent that living things diverge from type, are they abnormal . . . or are they inventors on the road to new forms?Georges Canguilhem, The Normal and the Pathological (1989)
What if [Woman] were no longer trained to marry, but trained to live? She would be, as a being, very other than she is now.Elizabeth Oakes Smith, Woman and her Needs (1852)
In The Study of Dolls (1897), the psychologist G. Stanley Hall observes that when children hold conversations with their dolls, the “doll is taught those things learned best, or in which the child has the most interest” (51). In Henry James’s What Maisie Knew, published in the same year as Hall’s study, we overhear Maisie Farange’s tête-à-tête with her French doll, Lisette. After Maisie has been away for a while, Lisette “tried hard to discover where she has been.” “Maisie replied to her . . . as she, Maisie, had once been replied to by Mrs. Farange: ‘Find out for yourself!’” (419–20). A child of divorce who shuttles between her parents’ houses, Maisie often wonders where her mother, Ida Farange, has been or where she is going. At the close of the novel, Ida seems to be off, again: “I’m thinking of going to South Africa,” Ida announces, “but that’s none of your business.” “No, I won’t tell you. You can find out for yourself’” (550). [End Page 246]
Maisie’s mother is an awful mother; here, Maisie seems to have “learned best” how to be an awful mother in turn. But what would it be like to read Ida’s response differently, and take her harsh dismissal as inadvertent advice? As Maisie exercises the “freedom to make things out for herself,” she evades the patriarchal education of the Girl (467).1 This Girl is the unknowing Aggie of James’s The Awkward Age (1899), a novel that “draws excessive attention to the social forms impressed upon female adolescents” (Mizruchi 120), but that also reminds us that the biocultural making of the Girl begins by conscripting the child. It deprives her of childhood. Kept in private enclosures, fed only the “small sweet biscuit of unobjectionable knowledge,” cultivated for an exchange in marriage, Aggie “the other day was about six” and “is now practically about forty” (The Awkward Age 808, 940). But Maisie grows from about six to about 12 years old in her novel, and she recoups the terrain of childhood for girls. As divorce sends Maisie on a path more like that of Lewis Carroll’s adventurous Alice than James’s engineered Aggie, Maisie diverges from type.2 She is not trained to “repe[l] knowledge” (Bernstein 6). She must actively seek it to meet her needs. James spotlights “that vivacity of the intelligence by which she indeed does vibrate in the infected air” (Prefaces 1164).
Much commentary on What Maisie Knew fixes on whether the adults who expose Maisie to what in the 1897 edition of the novel James calls a “wild game of ‘going round’” corrupt her “moral sense” (25, 605).3 But the novel’s concern with the fallen girl is a very material one. In the “rushing to and fro and changing of places” that newly constitute her manner of life, Maisie nearly tumbles into London traffic; down the stairs at her mother’s house; off the boat on a Channel crossing; and out of the treetops on a broken swing (464). As Maisie’s parents keep her “fiercely . . . flying between them,” she risks falling to the “bottom of a hole” (405, 615). If the “fantastic diversion of energies” created by divorce releases Maisie from a coercive system, it also leaves her knowing the “want of something—of what could they call it but a footing?” (Vermeule 96; Maisie 638). Throughout the course of her story, Maisie is reminded of the fate of Mrs. Wix’s daughter, Clara Matilda, “knocked over and crushed by the cruelest of hansoms” (412). (Was Clara raised with no street smarts, like the cloistered Aggie? Or did she...