What do the children of divorce know? Do they close their eyes at the moral messes in which they live, or do they look, listen, and learn? What does the future hold for them? Sociologists' statistics are devastating: The children of divorced parents are more likely than children of two-family households to abuse substances and overeat, suffer from depression and speech impediments, commit suicide, drop out of or postpone relationships, and flag behind their socio-economic group. Separated parents raise children more likely to experience obesity, attention-deficit disorder, oppositional defiance disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and autism.
Stats and syndromes, however, do not fully reveal inner life, quality of soul, the particulars of individual suffering, or possibilities for joy, redemption, and salvation. For these we must turn to literature.
Few have portrayed a child of divorce more acutely than Henry James. What Maisie Knew (1897) is often read as an anti-fairy tale, a story of an innocent victim deserted by cruel adults. But Maisie knows far too much to be innocent, and she is no mere victim, however much the deck of life is stacked against her. The first paragraph of the novel describes Maisie’s life sentence as “worthy of the judgment-seat of Solomon”: Her custody is split down the middle—six months to be spent at her mother Ida Lafrange’s, six at her father Beale’s. Shared custody legalistically divides the child of divorce in two.
James’s story was inspired by a terrible real-life event. At a dinner party, he overheard an anecdote about a “luckless child” who was “practically disowned, rebounding from racquet to racquet like a tennis ball or a shuttlecock.” In What Maisie Knew, James dramatizes the tale: Both of Maisie's parents remarry, and then, taking additional lovers, both abandon their new spouses in turn (and those new spouses themselves become an unmarried couple). It is a game of custody chairs, with one desertion of spouse and child after another. James’s conservative eye is clearly looking ahead to what the nineteenth-century proposals for Anglo-Saxon reforms of divorce laws portended for children.
Rather than making Maisie a pitiful victim requiring salvation by government intervention or charitable do-gooding, James imagines her as equipped with an innate propensity for goodness, approximating synderesis. This moral sense not only protects her from malice but also informs and wizens those who attend to her out of conventional duty. How many children of divorce do we know who care for themselves and for others, taking up neglected roles of mother and father? How many children of divorce, now married themselves, cling to the form of marriage tossed away by their parents? Maisie drives couples apart with her needs but brings them together with her goodness. Her strategy of using virtue (“some stray fragrance of an ideal”) to confound simple evil throughout the novel is “the very principle of Maisie’s appeal, her undestroyed freshness.” In Christian terms, we might call it grace.
Partway through the novel, however, on a trip to Boulogne, France, Maisie's moral sense appears to be failing. Her governess, Mrs. Wix, notices that Maisie exhibits an odd preference for a dubious guardian, Sir Claude, her mother’s estranged second husband. Sir Claude has scandalously taken up with her father’s estranged second wife (and former maid), who wants to be called “Mrs. Beale.” Maisie has chosen him because he is charming. He spends time with her, talks with her, buys her “pink volumes,” shows her the sights, promises a trip to Paris, and disappears with her on strolls for hours. Mrs. Wix loves him too, but as she points out to Maisie, open adultery breaks convention and is “branded by the Bible.” Moreover, Maisie detests Mrs. Beale, despite her extraordinary beauty. Such a household is not fitting in Queen Victoria’s England or James’s moral imagination.
The moral climax comes when Maisie tells Sir Claude that she can live with him only if he can live without his lover Mrs. Beale; she must have him to herself. Sir Claude, not Maisie, is forced to choose. “Sunk as a slave to his passions,” an impoverished noble unable to afford a trip to Paris, he remains in France with Mrs. Beale. Maisie and Mrs. Wix sail back to Victorian England, where divorce is allowed but open adultery is “branded.” Maisie is bitter, but Sir Claude's actions give her a better picture of reality: An adulterous couple's guardianship is not stable. Sir Claude can’t ever be there for her; Paris was a charmer’s failed promise.
Somehow Maisie yields to the cultural wisdom that considers the open scandal of adultery worse than a third-party custody; this wisdom is more powerful than the longings of her own immature heart. Indeed, this wisdom completes the education of that heart. As the long-time French Resistance mayor of Lyon, Edouard Herriot, said, “Culture is what remains when one has forgotten everything.” Can the narrow path of Christian convention, functioning in pre-verbal and post-logical pure form, save Maisie?
James seems to imply that Maisie's insight comes from Mary. One of the salient sights noted by Maisie several times with Mrs. Wix in Catholic Boulogne is what she calls the “high gilt Virgin,” “the great golden Madonna,” “their gilded Virgin,” or “the gold Virgin.” James is perhaps conflating Boulogne's famous Notre Dame Sur-la-Mer and a Marian statue in a Visitation chapel. Edwin Fussel, author of The Catholic Side of Henry James, calls this kind of motif in James “a secular sacred or a sacred secular.” James’s references to Mary as a figure of afflicted purity and acceptance of suffering amid matrimonial messes abound in his greatest late fiction, where his heroines and even heroes, badly deceived, seek nothing for themselves and act for the “Absolute” in radical freedom.
Though she doesn't articulate Catholic moral theology, Mrs. Wix can’t help looking up at the gold Virgin (“she had probably made a fatal mistake early in life in not being a Catholic”). She and Victorian convention together know that she is the more fitting caregiver. James wrote for a more selfless age that placed guardianship above infatuation, propriety above authenticity, and the common good above individual rights. Yet James is not merely yielding to the maternal pressure of his late nineteenth-century audience by thrusting Maisie into Mrs. Wix’s loving but strict hands instead of the loving but feckless Sir Claude’s. Sir Claude would be as fun as a romp through Boulogne, the text argues, but he won’t last. As she departs France, Maisie glances back from the sea to try to spot Sir Claude on the balcony of their hotel, but he has already scurried inside to his consort. The sense of scandal, which we have also lost, protects truth. When conventions are aligned with morality, keeping up appearances is sane. Maisie seems to have had enough of ambiguity.
What do the children of divorce know? Perhaps the determined return of some young Catholics to traditional Catholicism, May Crownings, the family Rosary, and Brown Scapulars owes something to the brutishness wrought in our world by divorce. Cultural iconoclasm has not eradicated every “stray fragrance of an ideal.” Let us pray that all children of divorce look to the Mother Most Chaste for comfort, and strive to live white in the gray circumstances.
Kenneth Colston's essays on literature have appeared in LOGOS, The New Criterion, New Oxford Review, Crisis, St. Austin's Review, and First Things.