Midway through What Maisie Knew, as Maisie sits with her Beale Farange, her father, in his new American paramour's lodgings, James describes the Maisie's sense of the scene in the following words: ‘and for a time, while they sat together, there was an extraordinary mute passage between her vision of this vision of his, his vision of her vision, and her vision of his vision of her vision’ (chapter 19). This is an extraordinary passage indeed and shows James at once incisive and playful. My paper will examine James's staging of Maisie's visionary experience and highlight the ways in which James's text, with its emphasis on the stories children are told and on point-of-view, shows James acutely aware of the complex discourses constructing childhood at the end of the nineteenth century.
James followed his friend Robert Louis Stevenson in highlighting the gap between the stories children are told, those they tell themselves and those in which the adult world casts them as actors. Fin-de-siècle culture cast children in the role of intermediaries or go-betweens, not only between the realms of adulthood and childhood but between earlier, primitive developmental stages of the race. The prurient gaze that late nineteenth century science and culture turned upon fin-de-siècle children sought knowledge about the past and to control the future. James’s text stages the struggle for the child subject and shows his sophisticated awareness of the range of contemporary scientific and sociological characterisations of children and childhood.