I had to laugh reading Carrie’s post last week about a young, precocious reviewer taking Louisa May Alcott to task for, among other sins, this cardinal one:
We are utterly weary of stories about precocious little girls. In the first place, they are in themselves disagreeable and unprofitable objects of study; and in the second, they are always the precursors of a not less unprofitable middle-aged lover.
The spectre of some of James’s future novels, notably What Maisie Knew, looms a bit smirkingly over this sweeping pronouncement. And the spectre of his yet later preface to the New York edition of Maisie? Pretty much rolling around on the floor in hysterics. It’s in the preface that James finds ample good reason to center a story on a little girl, especially of the precocious variety:
My light vessel of consciousness…couldn’t be with verisimilitude a rude little boy; since, beyond the fact that little boys are never so ‘present,’ the sensibility of the female young is indubitably, for early youth, the greater, and my plan would call, on the part of my protagonist, for ‘no end’ of sensibility…
[Maisie] has the wonderful importance of shedding a light far beyond any reach of her comprehension; of lending to poorer persons and things, by the mere fact of their being involved with her and by the special scale she creates for them, a precious element of dignity. I lose myself, truly, in appreciation of my theme on noting what she does by her ‘freshness’ for appearances in themselves vulgar and empty enough. They become, as she deals with them, the stuff of poetry and tragedy and art; she has simply to wonder, as I say, about them, and they begin to have meanings, aspects, solidities, connexions–connexions with the ‘universal!’–that they could scarce have hoped for.
I know, I know–not only does this come decades later, but it comes in the thick of James’s experiments with point of view, and his enthusiasm is accordingly at least as much for the technical challenge he faced in the novel (and met, if he does say so himself) as for the endlessly rich potential of little girls as subjects for novels. But it’s still fun–and fitting–to provide Alcott with a little vindication.
I wrote about Maisie a while back here, noting that the character is a favored Jamesian type: “Small children, working-class men and women, the ill, the dispossessed: when such characters crop up in James, they tend to share this combination of heightened receptivity–a marked capacity for taking things in, for knowing–and an instinctual or strategic disinclination to be known. A form of self-protection, the latter.”