Maisie turned to Sir Claude, who struck her as having been removed to a distance of about a mile. . . But at the child’s words Mrs Beale had fairly bounded. ‘Come away from me, Maisie?’ It was a wail of dismay and reproach, in which her stepdaughter was astonished to read that she had had no hostile consciousness and that if she had been so actively grand it was not from suspicion, but from strange entanglements of modesty . . . Maisie surveyed – for the idea of a describable loss – the immensity of space.
This arresting moment in What Maisie Knew – where emerges, arguably, the only ‘moral sense’ worth mentioning – is startling, not least, because it makes us realize that we, like Maisie, have failed to consider Mrs Beale’s perspective: it offers a moving intimation of all the many worlds that we not only do not, but cannot, consider as we go about our lives, if only because our perspective is not infinite. Until this moment, Mrs Beale has registered only as the mirror image of Maisie’s desires; these ‘strange entanglements of modesty’ intimate motives not simply unopposed but, more radically, unrelated, to Maisie’s imaginings or yearnings. No less striking, neither the novel nor Maisie pursues the revelation beyond this mere registered intuition of another perspective. In this novel of (ostensible) development, here is a realization that is neither the culmination of a narrative nor the beginning of future insight: a crucial epiphany – and a strangely unassimilable hiatus.
Not least important is its potential to remove ‘perspective’ from a developmental narrative. The dominant reading of Maisie might not need rehearsal: the child’s limited understanding is captured by a narrative ascesis whose gradual eclipse represents the child’s expanding perspective – until it corresponds with our own, ‘adult’, view. This moment suggests, however, that limitation is not the child’s special provenance; rather, to have a perspective at all is to be limited. The novel does not progress from limitation to an increasingly expansive view: it moves from one form of blindness to another.