This novel charts the moral and emotional development of Maisie Farange, from a neglected childhood bouncing around between the homes of her divorced parents, to a young adulthood where she finds herself faced with choices that will shape the rest of her life. Maisie is six when we first meet her. Her parents, Beale and Ida, are in the midst of a bitter divorce. Petty and callous, they care little for Maisie beyond how they can use her against the other parent; the judge, though, splits custody equally between them. This does not end their psychological and emotional warfare against one another. Maisie continues to be neglected as her parents are consumed with only two things: themselves and their hatred for their former spouse.
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Maisie's care becomes largely taken up by governesses in each household. Miss Overmore, who is young and attractive but rather superficial, is the governess at her father's home, while plain, spinsterish Mrs. Wix takes care of her when she's with her mother. Out of the two, only Mrs. Wix seems actually devoted to Maisie.
In time, both of her parents remarry. Her father marries the young governess, Miss Overmore. Her mother marries Sir Claude, who is kind and attentive to Maisie and her mother, but also weak, allowing Maisie's mother to walk all over him. Despite these new marriages, both of Maisie's parents – being generally terrible people – eventually spend more and more time out of their respective homes in their pursuit of fresh sexual conquests. This causes Maisie, who is still legally obligated to shuttle back and forth between the two homes, to spend even less time with her parents than before.
To complicate matters, Sir Claude and Miss Overmore (the new Mrs. Beale Farange), left to their own devices, strike up an affair of their own. Sir Claude, being relatively honorable, tries his best to keep Maisie protected and cared for, but Miss Overmore sees her as a nuisance and continually overrides Sir Claude's warmhearted but weak overtures. Eventually, Maisie's mother and father abandon their new marriages (which were little more than facades at this point anyway), but in so doing also abandon Maisie. Permanently.
Sir Claude tries once again to be noble and takes Maisie and Mrs. Wix to France, to try to start a new life. Maisie genuinely likes and admires Sir Claude, and begins to think that maybe she will finally get to have a family. But then Miss Overmore joins them and the situation becomes far less tolerable, as the two resume their affair and settle into an unmarried (and for the time, scandalous) domesticity. The novel ends with Maisie facing a monumental choice about her future: stay with Sir Claude and Miss Overmore in a faux familial arrangement, or brave an uncertain future with Mrs. Wix back in England. Maisie chooses to go with Mrs. Wix, and the two embark on their new journey together.
Best part of story, including ending:
A novel about a dysfunctional household, bitter divorce, and a child neglected in the ensuing custody battle is fairly common (and borderline cliche) today. But considering this was written in 1897, it's incredibly fascinating seeing James grapple with the first hints of what the modern world could do to the modern family.
Best scene in story:
The scene where the young Maisie, with Mrs. Wix, visits the grave of Mrs. Wix's daughter and we see -- in Maisie's wrestling with the perverse incongruity of the dead daughter being both in heaven and there, in the ground, in front of her -- both the incongruity of her own life and the psychological depth of her character.
Opinion about the main character:
Maisie is abused but never seems pitiful. She's hyper aware but never comes across as preciously precocious. James does a great job balancing her so she serves the plot and yet always feels like a real, breathing, complicated little girl.