Following are passages from two mid-late Henry James works that concern things we know but, for reasons emotional and social, don’t quite own. When Henry James’s novel What Maisie Knew opens, Maisie is six, her parents recently divorced, Moddle her nurse.
It seemed to have to do with something else that Moddle often said: “You feel the strain–that’s where it is; and you’ll feel it still worse, you know.
Thus from the first Maisie not only felt it, but knew she felt it. A part of it was the consequence of her father’s telling her he felt it too, and telling Moddle, in her presence, that she must make a point of driving that home. She was familiar, at the age of six, with the fact that everything had been changed on her account, everything ordered to enable him to give himself up to her. She was to remember always the words in which Moddle impressed upon her that he did so give himself: “Your papa wishes you never to forget, you know, that he has been dreadfully put about.” If the skin on Moddle’s face had to Maisie the air of being unduly, almost painfully stretched, it never presented that appearance so much as when she uttered, as she often had occasion to utter, such words. The child wondered if they didn’t make it hurt more than usual; but it was only after some time that she was able to attach to the picture of her father’s sufferings, and more particularly to her nurse’s manner about them, the meaning for which these things had waited. By the time she had grown sharper, as the gentlemen who had criticised her calves used to say, she found in her mind a collection of images and echoes to which meanings were attachable–images and echoes kept for her in the childish dusk, the dim closet, the high drawers, like games she wasn’t yet big enough to play. The great strain meanwhile was that of carrying by the right end the things her father said about her mother–things mostly indeed that Moddle, on a glimpse of them, as if they had been complicated toys or difficult books, took out of her hands and put away in the closet. A wonderful assortment of objects of this kind she was to discover there later, all tumbled up too with the things, shuffled into the same receptacle, that her mother had said about her father.
Maisie is a deep little vessel for knowledge, even knowledge she can’t yet understand. Her eventual strategy for handling the volatile stuff–for both fending off the parental versions and more efficiently capturing the genuine article–is to play dumb, to appear “not to take things in”:
The theory of her stupidity, eventually embraced by her parents, corresponded with a great date in her small still life: the complete vision, private but final, of the strange office she filled. It was literally a moral revolution and accomplished in the depths of her nature. The stiff dolls on the dusky shelves began to move their arms and legs; old forms and phrases began to have a sense that frightened her. She had a new feeling, the feeling of danger; on which a new remedy rose to meet it, the idea of an inner self or, in other words, of concealment.
I think James intends this notion of a necessarily secretive inner self as both general and specific. The idea of concealment is inseparable from the idea of an inner self, but for a character like Maisie the role of concealment is heightened. It is, as well, for the unnamed telegraphist who is the protagonist of James’s novella “In the Cage”:
It has occurred to her early that in her position–that of a young person spending, in framed and wired confinement, the life of a guinea pig or a magpie–she should know a great many persons without their recognising the acquaintance. That made it an emotion the more lively–though singularly rare and always, even then, with opportunity still very much smothered–to see anyone come in whom she knew outside, as she called it, any one who could add anything to the meanness of her function. Her function was to sit there with two young men–the other telegraphist and the counter-clerk; to mind the “sounder,” which was always going, to dole out stamps and postal-orders, weigh letters, answer stupid questions, give difficult change and, more than anything else, count words as numberless as the sands of the sea, the words of the telegrams thrust, from morning to night, through the gap left in the high lattice, across the encumbered shelf that her forearm ached with rubbing. This transparent screen fenced out or fenced in, according to the side of the narrow counter on which the human lot was cast, the duskiest corner of a shop pervaded not a little, in winter, by the poison of perpetual gas, and at all times by the presence of hams, cheese, dried fish, soap, varnish, paraffin and other solids and fluids that she came to know perfectly by their smells without consenting to know them by their names.
The heartbreaking circularity of that opening paragraph has always gotten to me. A few pages later, James puts a finer point on her rough similarity to Maisie:
The girl was blas