Orphaned from its larger family of prose, the dialogue in James's plays can seem precious, a silken music for cloth ears. Whatever the reason, popular success in the theater was never to come his way. In 1894 he published four unproduced plays—something of an admission of failure for a writer as distinguished and famous as James then was. By February of 1895, a month after the Guy Domville collapse, James had abandoned the theater and was beginning to speculate about how he might turn his recently acquired knowledge to fresh use. He wrote The Spoils of Poynton over the next several months (it was serialized in this magazine from April to October of 1896) and immediately afterward began work on The Other House, which was developed from a discarded play scenario. What Maisie Knew followed a year later, The Turn of the Screw (not part of this collection) in 1898, and The Awkward Age in 1899.
The four novels in this collection are indeed peculiar ones—and very peculiar ones to come from Flaubert's great (if critical) disciple, because they are distinctly anti-Flaubertian. Exposition, for example, is starved to a thin dramatic minimum, though people—or certain people—are flamboyantly and sharply described. The formidable and morally questionable women who dominate most of these novels—Mrs. Gereth in The Spoils of Poynton, Maisie's mother and stepmother in What Maisie Knew, and Mrs. Brookenham in The Awkward Age —are painted with fitting luridity. But James has hardly any interest here in setting up characters in the usual visual way, by piling details of clothing and gesture and face on top of one another. Instead he selects one or two attributes and then works them until a strange, grotesque essence is achieved.
He was clearly influenced in this by Dickens's genius for caricature, though he affected to have little time for Dickens. Thus Maisie's mother, Ida Farange, is seized, descriptively, by her eyes: "like Japanese lanterns swung under festive arches." Later in the book we read that "her huge eyes, her red lips, the intense marks in her face formed an illumination as distinct and public as a lamp set in a window." One of her lovers, the unfortunate, heavily moustached Mr. Perriam, is seen as a Dickensian gargoyle: "He seemed also to have moustaches over his eyes, which, however, by no means prevented these polished little globes from rolling round the room as if they had been billiard-balls impelled by Ida's celebrated stroke." (Ida is known in society for her skill at billiards.)
If James's characters are allowed the odd descriptive donation, his settings are not. As in a play, most of them are domestic rooms, and these rooms are hardly mentioned. Only when an object, such as a picture, is important to the action is it included in the visual sweep. Poynton, a great house full of immaculate treasures, has hardly any physical presence in the novel; we have to infer the beauty and preciousness of these "spoils" from the intensity with which the characters battle over them. In What Maisie Knew, Maisie is taken to the great Exhibition at Earl's Court, an event that Flaubert would have researched, as he researched the agricultural fair in Madame Bovary, to get the many details exactly right. But James tosses off the entire spectacle in one sentence, as "a collection of extraordinary foreign things, in tremendous gardens, with illuminations, bands, elephants, switchbacks and side-shows." That's it, essentially. He is interested in what his subjects make of this show, not in what he, the writer, can make of it.