At a dinner party in 1892, Henry James heard about an unusual divorce settlement in which the child was not, as was usual given to one parent to bring up, but was to alternate between them. Interested in the potentialities of this situation, the seed thus planted grew via a short story, into a novel published in 1897.
The narrative voice telling the story is filtered largely through the child Maisie's perceptions of events and allows her to be the innocent observer, to see all the moral inadequacies, failings and deviousness of adult life without any clear understanding of what it all really means. The reader, however, older, wiser and no doubt more cynical than Maisie, can see the reasons for her perpetual changes of residence between parents, step-parents, nurse and governesses and all the games they play with her life and happiness, for what it really is. This is novel is about the lust and the selfishness that James perceived to be at the centre of London life at the turn of the century.
It is a humorous, warm story, despite the subject matter and it is written with a wit and lightness of touch that allows the reader to observe these deviousand morally frail grown-ups who exert power over Maisie as not without charm. They themselves are buffeted by forces beyond their control. Money, or the lack of it, is central to the experience of all the main characters, all of whom feel entitled to be rich or acquire riches through their own sexual attractions.
The delightful Sir Claude who has real affection for Maisie, the narrowly moral Mrs Wix and Maisie herself, are all great comic creations. The style, as always with James is demanding, slow paced and needs to be read slowly. The pay-off however, is a novel of great richness and satisfaction for the reader. It anticipates later novels such as Atonement and Lolita, both of which, of course, are sexual explicit. Nonetheless, James' novel's acknowledgement that sexual trading is the basis of his society's currency is still shocking, even for readers today, who might have expected otherwise from innocent and more distant days. Plus ca change...