Another Dodge in a System of Dodges: Evasion of Responsibility in What Maisie Knew, Book and Film

By Daniel Garrett

“Rock a Bye Baby” is sung at the beginning of What Maisie Knew (2013), by a mother to a daughter, and it is both soothing and ominous: “…when the bough breaks, the cradle will fall / and down will come baby, cradle and all.”  The film What Maisie Knew (2013), directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, with a screenplay by Carroll Cartwright and Nancy Doyne, is a rather bracing interpretation of Henry James’s fiction of marriage, divorce, and the misuse of a child.  The little girl, Maisie (Onata Aprile), whose oval face seems to be filled with so much sweetness and promise, is soon seen accepting a pizza delivery with her young nanny, Margo (Joanna Vanderham), as a parental argument goes on—and the nanny and girl eat on the patio.  We see Maisie at school, then at home making her own sandwich, while the parents argue.  The mother, Susanna (Julianne Moore), a rock music singer, changes the apartment door locks; and the father, Beale (Steve Coogan), a businessman, is heard outside shouting to be let in.  The child listens, watches.  The emotions are brutal.  What does that say about the parents; and what effect can that have on a child?

The motion picture What Maisie Knew was made by two friends working together, Scott McGehee and David Siegel, the directors of Suture (1993) and The Deep End (2001), among other works: “After The Deep End(2001), a startlingly effective update of Max Ophuls’ The Reckless Moment (1949) with Tilda Swinton and Bee Season (2005), a star studded adaptation of Myla Goldberg’s celebrated novel, they embarked upon a series of projects that proved difficult to make a reality.  In the interim they conceived and quickly made Uncertainty(2008), a film that conjoins the formalistic and genre elements of Suture and The Deep End with the familial drama of Bee Season,” wrote Brandon Harris in an article for Filmmaker magazine (November 11, 2009). When the directors spoke to Brandon Harris at the time of Uncertainty, a film that imagines two ways in which a couple might spend a holiday—a film of metaphysical speculation—David Siegel said, “We didn’t go to film school.  I was a painter.  Scott was going to be an academic.  We were finishing graduate school when we started working together.  It was quite a long time ago.  There was no institution to say, maybe one of you should do this and one of you should do that.  We were so ignorant and naïve about what filmmaking was, what the process of making movies was.”  Each must find it good to have someone with whom to share vision and work.  When the directors spoke to David Fear of New York’s Time Out magazine about What Maisie Knew, David Siegel said of the original Henry James’s novel and the film, “It is surprisingly contemporary in its attitudes towards divorce, though.  And to be honest, we thought of it less an adaptation than a riff on the novel” (April 29, 2013).  The Carroll Cartwright-Nancy Doyne screenplay, of course, contained changes: Ida, an exceptional billiards player, became Susanna, a rock star—and the treatment of the child Maisie was bad but not as terrifying as in the book.  Scott McGehee said, “It’s not about casting blame.  We talked with Julianne and Steve early on about the importance of not losing sympathy for these characters; though there’s a good deal of horrible behavior going on in how they deal with the disintegration of their marriage and their personal lives, there’s a fundamental love they both have for this child.  That doesn’t go away even if their relationship with each other does, and we really wanted viewers to feel that, selfish of not, these two people had a bond with Maisie.”  I am not sure a reader of James would have said that of the original parents.  (In the novel the names that Maisie is called by parents and associates—in both anger and affection—are chilling; and everyone seems to know that her parents do not want her.)  “There’s always a distance to travel between the source material and the movie you think you want to make, or the movie that you see in your head vividly enough when you take on a project,” said Scott McGehee.  The source is a significant one.

Henry James created characters able to embody his concern for elegance, intelligence, morality, and social ritual; and his work attains intellectual and spiritual dimension of a high degree—and his style, thoughtful, textured, teasing, can be complex to the point of profound obscurity, requiring attention, consideration, and deep understanding.  The drama is increased for all that.  His work demands, and rewards, the most exacting taste.  The beloved, incomparable Henry James (1843 – 1916), a New York boy who traveled through more European countries than most adults ever do, the son of an intellectually alert father and philosopher brother; Henry James, a connoisseur of painting, a Harvard student, an admirer of Balzac and Hawthorne, a friend to William Dean Howells, Ivan Turgenev, and other literary folk; Henry James, a writer of essays and novels, was a man who loved tradition for the inspiration it gave to writers, an investigator of spirit, society, and symbols, an innovator whose wonderful novels included The Portrait of a Lady (1881), The Bostonians (1886), The Tragic Muse (1890), What Maisie Knew (1897), The Ambassadors (1903), and The Golden Bowl (1904), books that would inspire a wide range of literary artists, such as Louis Auchincloss, James Baldwin, Peter Cameron, Willa Cather, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, David Lodge, Cynthia Ozick, Tom Stoppard, Gore Vidal, Virginia Woolf, and Richard Wright.  Henry James wrote about friendship, love, and marriage, as well as art and business.  An American who would live in England for forty years, and die an Englishman, Henry James belongs to world civilization.

Henry James wrote of consciousness and ethics—of European accomplishment and decadence, of American possibilities and force, and the challenges to heart, mind, and spirit (often his characters discover themselves alone, misunderstood, betrayed).  Speaking of Henry James to the Paris Review (“The Art of Biography,” Winter 1985 issue, Number 98; interviewer Jeanne McCullough), the biographer Leon Edel said, “James wore an extraordinary mask.  He presented himself and thought himself the quietest of men, all meekness and acceptance and resignation.  He wrote and read and talked for fifty years; it was a sedentary writer’s life with some social life on the side, during which he displayed much wit and charm.  From the beginning, he announced he would not marry.  He lived by himself, but in one respect he met the world grandly—he gave of his work in abundance; that abundance in itself was a part of his hidden drive to power.  His novels are about power, not love.  He gives an impression of involvement in personal relations, but he is distant and cool, and seems to possess the kind of wisdom in which an individual never flounders; he knows where he is going.  He needed money and success.  He earned enough to live decently and stylishly.  Society accepted him.  He tried for years—he was tenacious—to earn theatrical success, and failed.  This was a man who wanted and achieved greatness.”

Henry James cared about kindness and manners, but What Maisie Knew offers his consideration of the rude, scandalous behavior.  The beginning of the 2013 film What Maisie Knew is different from that of its source, in the text of Henry James, who begins not with intimacy between parent and child but with a legal case for child custody, as James writes, “The litigation had seemed interminable and had in fact been complicated; but by the decision on the appeal the judgement of the divorce-court was confirmed as to the assignment of the child.  The father, who, though bespattered from head to foot, had made good his case, was, in pursuance of this triumph, appointed to keep her: it was not so much that the mother’s character had been more absolutely damaged as that the brilliancy of a lady’s complexion (and this lady’s, in court, was immensely remarked) might be more regarded as showing the spots,” and, of course, James elaborates on the soiled reputations, before telling the reader the judge’s decision in light of the father’s inability to refund the mother’s expenses for child care: “His debt was by this arrangement remitted to him and the little girl disposed of in a manner worthy of the judgement-seat of Solomon.  She was divided in two and the portions tossed impartially to the disputants.  They would take her, in rotation, for six months at a time; she would spend half the year with each.  This was odd justice in the eyes of those who still blinked in the fierce light projected from the tribunal—a light in which neither parent figured in the least as a happy example to youth and innocence” (What Maisie Knew, Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1954; page 15 and 16).

What Maisie Knew is one of the stories by Henry James that almost anyone can understand.  It is a novel about marriage, adultery, and the mistreatment of a child.  A battling couple, Beale Farange and Ida Farange, divorce, gaining joint custody of their daughter Maisie—and at first they seem to want to withhold Maisie from the other, then they use her as a messenger of ill will, and then they want to abandon her to the other (whatever each imagines will vex the other most).  The parents were quite a pair: Ida Farange is a player of billiards and often attracts men with titles, and Beale Farange usually lives on what he gets from women.  The malice of the birth parents is worsened by their sexual immorality, creating the worst kind of education for the sentiments for a child.  It is no surprise to see money can be an aphrodisiac but it is dizzying how the erotic fascination, the romance, of the adults turn into contempt.  The new spouses of the Faranges—married to Beale, Maisie’s governess, a pretty but poor lady, Miss Overmore, caring but calculating; and married to Ida, the charming Sir Claude, a man whose only power seems his charm—do not quite match the fundamental will of the Faranges, though the new spouses do have an ability to love, and Maisie is the original bond between Sir Claude and Miss Overmore.  Ida Farange’s husband Sir Claude and Maisie’s elderly governess, a woman of more heart than mind, Mrs. Wix, a shabby but clean woman, seem to like Maisie, softening the blows of her parents’ cruelty—but all their lives become more complicated when Sir Claude becomes intimately involved with Beale Farange’s wife, Miss Overmore.  Even the people who like Maisie tell her too much.  The book draws on suspicion and surveillance, commentary and critique: everyone watches everyone and thinks about what is seen—and there are secrets and they are spoken.  “In telling his story, James uses free indirect style, the merging of a character’s speech with the narrative itself, a technique—used by writers as different as Jane Austen and James Joyce—that allows us constant access to Maisie’s mind,” observed Mira Sethi of Henry James’s treatment of childhood and divorce, What Maisie Knew, in the Wall Street Journal (July 23, 2010), noting how Maisie discovers that she has been used by each parent to hurt the other, as a witness to, and articulator of, the parents’ malice.  The little girl learns to look and listen closely—and to distrust the adults around her.  Maisie learns, too, how to maneuver.  The book was one of the most modern of James’s stories.  James says of Maisie in chapter two (the book has thirty-one short chapters): “She had a new feeling, the feeling of danger; on which a new remedy rose to meet it, the idea of an inner self or, in other words, of concealment.  She puzzled out with imperfect signs, but with a prodigious spirit, that she had been a centre of hatred and a messenger of insult, and that everything was bad because she had been employed to make it so.  Her 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 new and keen.  When therefore, as she grew older, her parents in turn announced before her that she had grown shockingly dull, it was not from any real contraction of her little stream of life.  She spoiled their fun, but she practically added to her own” (page 28).

What Maisie Knew is a film full of the nice things that money can buy, while its characters suffer from the lack of what cannot be bought.  The motion picture, a film of love, pain, and rage, directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel is a contemporary interpretation of Henry James, and while the story’s sexual morality is no longer shocking, the cruelty remains so.  “Maisie’s parents—thanks to the strong performances delivered by Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan—are not only far more nuanced and interesting than their fictional counterparts but dominate every scene in which they appear.  You can see, on Moore’s expressive face, the strain and anxiety of an aging rock star trying to revive her career, and Coogan captures the bewilderment of a middle-aged art dealer beginning to face the fact that his charm can no longer compensate for his deficiencies of character,” said Francine Prose for the online New York Review of Books (June 13, 2013).  Francine Prose finds the book’s Maisie a figure of complexity—blurring the consciousness of the girl with that of the author, and finds the film’s Maisie pleasant but simpler.  She thinks the film’s stepparents are more respectable, and more loving, than those in the book.  Yet Francine Prose thinks the film is less charged with complexity and meaning than the book, something that may have to do with the possibilities for interpretation and multiple views that literature allows, for literature’s explicit thinking, but may have more to do with the times in which we live—in which morality seems to matter less and funkiness is a style.

In Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s film What Maisie Knew, soon after the parental separation, the father arrives to retrieve Maisie (Onata Aprile) from school but her mother arrives there too and forbids it, arguing. When Maisie has a sleepover with another girl, things seem okay for a while—the girls make a large, messy cake with Maisie’s mother, Susanna (Julianne Moore), though the messiness of the cake is strange; and, later, there is a party, with loud music and drinking and smoking, while the mother’s video is on television, leaving the girls with no significant adult supervisor.  Maisie’s friend cries—and the friend’s father comes to pick her up.  It is one more sign of the discord that is to come.  There is a legal hearing for parental custody, after which Maisie sees her father talking with her nanny, a nurturing young woman, humble, intelligent, and pretty. Maisie’s mother Susanna is brusque, frantic, self-centered; and she loses sole custody and must share custody, which she does not want to do.  When Maisie gets to her father’s new apartment, she finds there already the nanny, Margo (Joanna Vanderham).  The nanny helped to decorate Maisie’s new room, which is full of toys—and has begun a relationship with Maisie’s father, Beale (Steve Coogan).  It soon becomes clear that the nanny is expected to bear significant responsibility for Maisie.  (In the book, although Miss Overmore, whose name in the film is Margo, is governess, the father hardly expects her to have that as a principal responsibility: “She was in a false position and so freely and loudly called attention to it that it seemed to become almost a source of glory.  The way out of it of course was just to do her plain duty; but that was unfortunately what, with his excessive, his exorbitant demands on her, which every one indeed appeared quite to understand, he practically, he selfishly prevented,” writes Henry James, insinuating sexuality (page 44).  When the mother Susanna learns of the relationship between Maisie’s father and the nanny, Margo, Susanna is angry and tries to make this a custody issue but the father marries the help—and Susanna marries a young man, tall, sweet, and goofy, and Susanna hires an old woman as her own nanny for Maisie.  One day Maisie’s mother fails to pick her up from school, and Maisie’s new stepmother, Margo, and new stepfather, Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard), are there, two nice people who do not know each other but share decent concern for Maisie.

When Maisie (Onata Aprile) is again with her mother, Susanna (Julianne Moore) gushes how much she loves Maisie—Susanna moves between gushing sentimentality and cool harshness.  Susanna tells Maisie that she married Lincoln for Maisie, as a caretaker—which seems to be exactly what the father did with Margo (Joanna Vanderham).  Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard) is very natural with Maisie, friendly, and he is inquisitive, complimentary, and when Maisie shares her drawing with him, Lincoln is enthusiastic—and Susanna is jealous of their camaraderie.  Lincoln cooks for Maisie, takes her to school.  “You don’t get a bonus for making her fall in love with you,” Susanna tells Lincoln, in front of Maisie.  “Your dad’s an asshole,” Susanna tells Maisie about her father Beale (Steve Coogan), who travels to London for business, abandoning Maisie.  When Maisie is sick, it is Margo and Lincoln, Maisie stepparents, who are with her, concerned.  Lincoln is loving and playful when Susanna leaves Maisie for a music tour.  Maisie, like her parents’ spouses, are treated badly.  Margo finds out that Beale did not put her name on the apartment lease, when she is locked out of the apartment.  “You can’t use people like this,” Margo says.

“You don’t deserve her,” Lincoln says, of Maisie, to Susanna, who is rude and shameless, denouncing both Lincoln and Margo—and yet, again, Susanna attempts to leave Maisie with Lincoln without warning.  Lincoln is not where he is expected to be by Susanna, at work—and one of Lincoln’s colleagues takes Maisie home for the night.  Margo takes Maisie away with her, out of town, to a beach retreat, and then Lincoln joins them there—an accidental family, but a natural family in that it is built on affection.  Like is attracted to like—and love to love.  (Will Lincoln and Margo have the money to take care of Maisie, or will her original parents—gladly!?—provide money?)  One family falls, another rises.

“No themes are so human as those that reflect for us, out of the confusion of life, the close connection of bliss and bale, of the things that help with the things that hurt, so dangling before us for ever that bright hard medal, of so strange an alloy, one face of which is somebody’s right and ease and the other somebody’s pain and wrong,” wrote Henry James in his 1908 preface to his novel What Maisie Knew (Anchor/Doubleday, 1954 ; page 8).  Maisie has an education of the sentiments; and that awakening begins to encompass more.  In the book, there is, after so much neglect of Maisie’s mind, finally, a gesture toward formal learning: in chapter seventeen, following a description of the ambiguity in relationships—the mistrust and manipulation between men and women (something the elderly governess Mrs. Wix tells Maisie she can ask her father about)—James writes, “Maisie had, however, at the very moment of this injunction much livelier curiosities, for the dream of lectures at an institution had at last become a reality, thanks to Sir Claude’s now unbounded energy in discovering what could be done.  It stood out in this connexion that when you came to look into things in a spirit of earnestness an immense deal could be done for very little more than your fare in the Underground” (page 137).  Here, briefly, we get the bringing together of the growth of an individual with the possibilities that a city holds.  The film does not give us that much, but looking at the face of Onata Aprile, with her big bright eyes, her calm, her prettiness, her beginning sensuality, her sympathy, one can intuit not only what she knows but what she may come to know—and that she might become the most generous or most cruel of women.

Was Henry James too focused on an elevated mind?  Saul Bellow, a great writer of fiction and essays, the author of The Adventures of Augie March and Humboldt’s Gift, was more concerned with the responsibility of the literary artist to reality—and to presenting reality as he saw it.  Bellow had reservations about the aesthetic styles, as well as the ideas, of even great writers.  Saul Bellow said that while Henry James may have thought Flaubert was too concerned with the common person and the common life, Bellow thought James not concerned enough with them: “Why not have, in art, the largest mind available?  Indeed, why have any other?  Why be middling with the middling subject?  Flaubert was not, but he armored himself too greatly in his art to act freely.  James shunned it; the largest mind cannot be hermetic to reality,” said Bellow, on the writers’ response to reality and the styles they created, in the book There is Simply Too Much to Think About, an essay collection (Penguin Group, 2015; page 45).  Saul Bellow wanted writers to weigh the full complexity of human life, the best and the worst and whatever came in between, high and low, yet not confusing the serious with the trivial.  Bellow would come back to that subject when he wrote, “The insistent aesthetic purpose in novelists like Flaubert and Henry James and Virginia Woolf and James Joyce is tyrannical at times.  It overconditions the situation of the characters.  We are greatly compensated with poetry and insight but it often seems as though the writer were deprived of all power except the power to see and to despair” (page 109).  That aesthetic critique may be an understandable concern regarding some of Henry James’s work, but it seems less so for What Maisie Knew and for The Bostonians, with its feminist struggle—their subjects are accessible, and there is roiling feeling in both books.  Of course, artists do not present simply raw experience—artists interpret; and the creation of beauty and order in their work is art.  Complaints about the restraints of artistry recur in the history of art, and each generation does what it can to expand the range of art—but art is beauty and order.  Time passes and what we notice in what was once radical, rough, and rude art is its form, its beauty and order.

The film What Maisie Knew, a work of hope and horror, gives us characters who do not have the rare nobility James admired, and for which they sometimes sacrificed far, far too much, though the film’s characters, Lincoln and Margo, as well as Maisie, have the decency and sympathy James valued.  That decency is tested and found true.  Yet, one loses a deeper, higher thought, in the translation from book to film—and a more exquisite pain. “What Maisie Knew lays waste to the comforting dogma that children are naturally resilient, and that our casual, unthinking cruelty to them can be answered by guilty and belated displays of affection.  It accomplishes this not by means of melodrama, but by a mixture of understatement and thriller-worthy suspense,” asserted, rightly, the New York Times film critic A.O. Scott, noting the film’s disorientation and dread, but seeing in it a sexual farce too—but the intellectual and spiritual dimensions that James was capable of suggesting are not reached.

Daniel Garrett, a child of the American south, Louisiana, where he grew up reading, taking photographs, and enjoying fishing and a good summer barbecue, Daniel moved to New York and became a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art& Antiques, and organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon.  Long interested in human complexity, intelligence, experiment, and cultural diversity, Garrett has researched various cultures, and he wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader.  His work has appeared as well in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics. He returned to the south, where he worked on philosophical fiction, the novel A Stranger on Earth.