Swanson Milton 4
Side Shows for Maisie
Farange, from Henry James's What Maisie Knew, has experienced love and
kindness from adults when she is alone with these adults. However, once money
and sex "rear their ugly heads," these adults change and Maisie
finds them so involved with each other--in either hating or loving the other--that
there is no room for her. An example of this rejection occurs at the
Exhibition which is, not ironically "a place full of side shows"
(142). For Maisie, life has been full of dramatic exhibitions in which she has seen all
sorts of human behavior. James presents these vignettes as a series of side-shows to
create a picture of the adult preoccupations with sex and money that leave Maisie only as a curious onlooker, ". . . present at her history in as
separate a manner as if she could only get at experience by flattening her
nose against a pane of glass" (101).
The first side-show involves Maisie, Mrs. Beale Farange (Maisie's stepmother), and Sir Claude (Maisie's stepfather). The situation is that of a woman coming to an exhibition with her stepdaughter to meet her stepdaughter's stepfather who is still married to her stepdaughter's mother while he is carrying on an affair with his stepdaughter's stepmother who is still married to her stepdaughter's father. Maisie's initial role in this show is as the excuse for Mrs. Beale's coming to see Sir Claude. With Maisie along, Mrs. Beale can feel that she's doing nothing wrong since she is bringing her stepdaughter to see her stepfather, of whom Maisie is fond. However, her earlier record of having used Maisie for the same purpose in meeting Beale Farange before they were married makes her excuse suspect, particularly when it's learned that once Maisie has fulfilled her purpose, Mrs. Beale doesn't come home until the next morning.
Sex, not Maisie, is the real reagent in the combination of Mrs. Beale and Sir Claude. Mrs. Beale is not looking for a husband so she can make a family for Maisie; she is looking for someone to replace Beale who has jumped from her bed to another. And as for Sir Claude, his desire to be a father is not so strong that he
The second side-show consists of Beale Farange (Maisie's father), who is supposed to be making chemistry somewhere else besides the Exhibition, and his colorful companion Mrs. Cuddon, who with her brown skin and enormous scarlet plume, is such appropriate sideshow material that Maisie mistakes her for one of the Flowers of the Forest, a show at the Exhibition. The reagent in this case is money--with sex as a nice bonus. For Beale, Maisie has no role at all in his life, except as an economic burden, and we see him tend to that issue after the climax of the scene when he hustles Maisie off to get her to reject him so that he can reject her. In this instance, he and his wife are quite similar--both use Maisie to ease their own consciences over their sordid behavior. Beale wants some economic security, and he can get that and a little more from Mrs. Cuddon who in return gets the company of a handsome man--and probably a little more.
The third side-show occurs when the first two shows merge, and Beale and his wife meet. Here the reagent is hatred bred out of both sexual jealousy on the part of Mrs. Beale (who seems to forget for the moment that she is there for the same purpose as Mrs. Cuddon) and economic jealousy on the part of Beale who needs a woman with money more than he needs an attractive wife. The climax of the side‑show is when the whole mixture boils over into a battle‑royale, appropriately described in sexual terms. Mrs. Beale attacks Mr. Beale's profligacy, he counterattacks by accusing her of the same, Mrs. Cuddon appropriately ejaculates sounds of shock, and Sir Claude stands in the background merely "poised there in surprise."
Maisie's role at this point is that of curious onlooker. She really has no choice. These side-shows are not for her; they're games for adults. Her method, then, of dealing with all this sexual play is literally to do that--treat it all as a story or a show. Her method is self-protection since by seeing the relationships between the adults as a show, she doesn't have to look at reality through her plate glass window and see that as far as the adults are concerned, compared to sex and money, Maisie isn't important. As readers, we can see what Maisie sees and judge these people because they don't hold our lives in their hands. But they do hold Maisie's life, and for her to judge them could be disastrous.
What we see then in this exhibition are two things: the nastiness of adults caught up in the network of sexuality and money and the necessity of Maisie to fictionalize what she sees. Her life is in the hands of others who, as shown in this scene, are self-centered, vicious, or cowardly, characteristics of which Maisie has seen enough to recognize in others. However, she is a child and has to take what adults give her. Therefore, to make this show more palatable, she has created for herself a fiction in which she can make the people what she wants them to be. Thus, when her father whisks her away from this scene, Maisie's defense tactic is to see it as a story: "The child had been in thousands of stories--all Mrs. Wix's and her own, to say nothing of the richest romances of French Elise--but she had never been in such a story as this" (145). The characters are no longer her father with another woman, her stepmother acting like a fishwife, and her stepfather cowering in the background. They now become part of Maisie's Arabian Nights. Maisie has found a way to cope with her situation and her "adults"--for the moment, at least.
Eventually, of course, Maisie must face the history that has been played out before her eyes. She must become involved, even if she has to force involvement, all of which happens when at the end she chooses the honorable Mrs. Wix who hasn't entangled herself in love and money. However, the Exhibition comes before Maisie is ready to do this, so she must still be an onlooker who should at least be able to create her own show more pleasing to her than the burlesque the adults are putting on.
James, Henry. What Maisie Knew. 1897. New York: Penguin, 1985.