Academic journal article Style

Handing over Power in James's What Maisie Knew

Academic journal article Style

Handing over Power in James's What Maisie Knew

Article excerpt

Henry James's What Maisie Knew is, in Paul Theroux's felicitous phrase, "a novel of thrusting hands" (7). Many critics have observed the importance of the novel's extensive hand imagery, yet no one has done a systematic study of that imagery. The hidden significance behind the repeated patterns of hand images in What Maisie Knew, however, justifies a particularly close analysis of those patterns. The shifting dynamic of power relations between Maisie and the other characters in What Maisie Knew may be charted and interpreted, for example, by focusing on a particular gesture that recurs throughout the book: the laying of one's own hand upon that of another person. The curious repetitions and variations of the verb-phrase "to lay one's hand upon" suggest that in the novel power and possession are communicated through touch. It is therefore significant that Sir Claude and Maisie more frequently act as the subjects of the verb-phrase in its various mutations than do any of the novel's other characters. Sir Claude's frequent resting of his hand upon Maisie ultimately empowers her, for his gesture subverts the code of power established by the other adults in the book.(1)

Claude's laying-on of hands confers authority and blesses, for when he performs the gesture it routinely stimulates and consecrates Maisie's growth as an individual. The touches of all the other adults, however, communicate their attempts to control and manipulate Maisie. While all the hands that fall on Maisie make some claim to possess her, Claude's hand alone conveys freedom. By contrasting the body language used by Claude in his primarily positive relationship to Maisie with that of the other adults in their fundamentally destructive relationships to her (including, of course, Maisie's parents), James reveals the moral limitations of nineteenth-century family law.

James criticizes such law by focusing on the adults' treatment of Maisie as an object to be possessed, for English law traditionally considered the child to be a servant (and hence a possession) of the father (Presser and Zainaldin 519-20).(2) The laying of an adult hand upon Maisie represents a kind of claim which, given the legal definition of the child as possession of the father, can be interpreted as an expression of legally sanctioned power. James articulates and criticizes the enduring legacy of the legal ideology that equated the child with a possession through his distinctive repetition of the phrase "to lay one's hand on _________" throughout the narrative of Maisie's development.

The novel opens with a prologue that relates the post-divorce battle for custody of the only child produced by the marriage of Ida and Beale Farange. Although the account of the settlement reached between the two parties indicates that the father wins custody, the fact that the divorce court did not unreservedly favor the father's petition for this custody suggests that the action of the novel occurs in a period of the nineteenth century when the legal protocol for awarding custody of children in England was changing: from the Middle Ages until the modern era (including well into the nineteenth century), the common law preferred "the father, and not the mother, in the matter of guardianship of the child" (Einhorn 123). In the period in which the events of the novel occur, the traditional judicial prejudice which favored the father in awarding custody of children has thus begun to be abandoned (Presser and Zainaldin 537).

The development of the principle of "the best interest of the child" as the guiding factor in the determination of custody rights is a specifically modern legal precept. (3) An early articulation of this precept occurs in British law in 1839. In that year,

the British Parliament modified . . . father-centered rules of child custody, in an act which authorized English equity courts to enter orders for the access of the mother to her young children and, if the child was under seven years old, to require that it be delivered to and remain in the custody of the mother until reaching the age of seven. …

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