I have a favorite passage of What Maisie Knew. Near the end of the book. If you have not read the novel yet, you may not want to read further. I read this part, and reread it. And put the book down for a moment to let its impact ramble around in my head a little. Forgive the length but none of this should be left out.
To drive on the long cliff was splendid, but it was perhaps better still to creep in the shade—for the sun was strong— along the many-coloured and many-odoured port and through the streets in which, to English eyes, everything that was the same was a mystery and everything that was different a joke. Best of all was to continue to creep up the long Grand-Rue to the gate of the haute ville and, passing beneath it, mount to the quaint and crooked rampart with its row of trees, its quiet corners and friendly benches where brown old women in such white-frilled caps and such long gold earrings sat and knitted or snoozed, its little yellow-faced houses that looked like the homes of misers or of priests and its dark château where small soldiers lounged on the bridge that stretched across an empty moat and military washing hung from the windows of towers. This was a part of the place that could lead Maisie to inquire if it didn’t just meet one’s idea of the middle ages; and since it was rather a satisfaction than a shock to perceive, and not for the first time, the limits in Mrs. Wix’s mind of the historic imagination, that only added one more to the variety of kinds of insight that she felt it her own present mission to show. They sat together on the old grey bastion; they looked down on the little new town which seemed to them quite as old, and across at the great dome and the high gilt Virgin of the church that, as they gathered, was famous and that pleased them by its unlikeness to any place in which they had worshipped. They wandered in this temple afterwards and Mrs. Wix confessed that for herself she had probably made a fatal mistake early in life in not being a Catholic.
Like this "creep up" through their new and novel surroundings, Maisie's consciousness, what Maisie knows, is on an ascent. To this point in the book, most of what Maisie perceives of her world is conveyed in the novel through her visual perceptions. This passage continues with that pattern but with the realization of "English eyes," a child's dawning recognition that what is "seen" is susceptible to the filters through which it is viewed. This passage also highlights the imaginative, the artistic qualities of Maisie's temperament that we have seen from the beginning, but which now, in sensing the limits of her keeper's imagination, emerge as uniquely her own. Her identity is forming apart from her circumstances.
This passage also sets the scene for the decision of with whom Maisie will live. Maisie, raised in a highly sexualized environment, serves as James' "high gilt Virgin," removed from the sins of those around her, desexualized as a child, or in the case with Sir Claude, by the his gender re-assignment of her by calling her "my man" and "old boy." Maisie suggests to Sir Claude that they can leave everyone else behind and go live together, but this can never occur. He sees her as that golden virgin also. So Maisie finds herself under the care of a different type of virgin, the frumpiness but security of Mrs. Wix. Maisie has enough imagination for the both of them though.
I am reading What Maisie Knew with Audrey, Darlene and JoAnn this month. We are thrilled to see Tom has joined in as well. I am taking my time, and piecing my thoughts together in a few posts through the last day of the month.