Maybe one of the greatest novelists in the language; both for his early career, capped by the magnificent Portrait of a Lady (in every way of Middlemarch proportions); and for his later novels from ‘What Maisie Knew’ through pinnacle after pinnacle of prosaic refinement in ‘The Ambassadors’, The Wings of the Dove’ and ‘The Golden Bowl’; Henry James cut his teeth and made his name with this little novella: a simple take of a simple and naïve girl who comes up hard against the traditional morality of the society of her time. In James’ own words, Daisy (not her real name, but a gloriously and unintentionally apt one) is a “light, thin, natural, unsuspecting creature” sacrificed to a “social rumpus” that goes on either “over her head or beneath her notice”. Daisy’s innocence is at the centre of the story; and if Daisy is innocent then society is guilty, but of what exactly?
‘Daisy Miller arrives in Frederick Winterbourne’s staid world the way that an angel arrives at an Annunciation, as both promise and challenge. From their first meeting at Vevey, to the story’s dramatic conclusion in Rome, Winterbourne’s interest in Daisy is subject to constant censure from his carefully “exclusive” aunt, Mrs Costello, and her forensically respectable social circle: the girl is “not nice,” they say, she is overly familiar with her family’s courier, she has been observed in inappropriate situations with dubious young “gentlemen” and Winterbourne would clearly do well to distance himself, before the inevitable scandal unfolds. At first sight, it seems that Winterbourne is genuinely torn between romantic attachment and his suffocating social milieu – and that might have made for an engaging, but not uncommon study of love versus convention; however, James’ keen observation reveals something deeper than that, for even as he protests his aunt’s attacks on Daisy’s character (yes, she is uncultivated, he admits, but she is not the reprobate for which the entire world has decided to mistake her) he is less disappointed than relieved when a nocturnal encounter with the girl and her suitor, Giovanelli, appears to prove Mrs Costello right: “Winterbourne stopped, with a sort of horror; and, it must be added, with a sort of relief. It was as if a sudden illumination had been flashed upon the ambiguity of Daisy’s behaviour and the riddle had become easy to read. She was a young lady whom a gentleman need no longer be at pains to respect.” Though the novel’s final act has yet to unfold, we cannot help but conclude that the real tragedy lies here, in Winterbourne’s relief.’
John Burnside, writing for The Independent
Indeed, what is most interesting perhaps for a modern reader is that it is Winterbourne rather than Daisy who is in James’ sights: it is Winterbourne whose approach to Daisy, his capriciously shifting opinions of Daisy, and his rather crass romanticisation and objectification of her, which are all ridiculed. On the other hand, Daisy is something of a light mystery flitting through the piece, one that both James and Winterbourne try but fail to capture, “anayse”, hold down or call to account. She cannot be tamed. She is the “rather wild” thing the “Comanche” and the “savage” she is labelled, as well as being none of these things, because ultimately the story fails to delineate Daisy Miller; the story’s shallow protagonist, in whose viewpoint the reader is stuck, cannot begin to know her.
So what of James’ representation of a female character in 1878?
- There is a flitting hither and thither of “stylish” young girls, a rustling of muslin flounces, a rattle of dance music in the morning hours, a sound of high-pitched voices at all times.
- [Winterbourne] was at liberty to wander about.
- She was dressed in white muslin, with a hundred frills and flounces, and knots of pale-colored ribbon. …she was strikingly, admirably pretty.
- [Winterbourne] wondered whether he had gone too far, but he decided that he must advance farther, rather than retreat.
- [Winterbourne] had a great relish for feminine beauty; he was addicted to observing and analyzing it
- [Winterbourne] thought it very possible that [Daisy Miller] was a coquette; he was sure she had a spirit of her own; but in her bright, sweet, superficial little visage there was no mockery, no irony.
- She sat there with her extremely pretty hands, ornamented with very brilliant rings, folded in her lap, and with her pretty eyes now resting upon those of Winterbourne, now wandering over the garden, the people who passed by, and the beautiful view.
- …she was looking at Winterbourne with all her prettiness in her lively eyes and in her light, slightly monotonous smile. “I have always had,” she said, “a great deal of gentlemen’s society.”
- Poor Winterbourne was amused, perplexed, and decidedly charmed.
- …she was only a pretty American flirt. Winterbourne was almost grateful for having found the formula that applied to Miss Daisy Miller.
- “But, my dear aunt, she is not, after all, a Comanche savage.”…Evidently she was rather wild.
- I like a lady to be exclusive; I’m dying to be exclusive myself. Well, we ARE exclusive, mother and I. We don’t speak to everyone—or they don’t speak to us. I suppose it’s about the same thing.
- You needn’t be afraid. I’m not afraid!” And she gave a little laugh.…The young girl walked on a few steps, laughing still. “You needn’t be afraid,” she repeated.
- [Winterbourne] felt then, for the instant, quite ready to sacrifice his aunt, conversationally;
- …[Winterbourne] had never yet enjoyed the sensation of guiding through the summer starlight a skiff freighted with a fresh and beautiful young girl.
- Her face wore a charming smile, her pretty eyes were gleaming, she was swinging her great fan about. No; it’s impossible to be prettier than that, thought Winterbourne.
- “I am puzzled,” …he was indeed puzzled. He lingered beside the lake for a quarter of an hour, turning over the mystery of the young girl’s sudden familiarities and caprices. But the only very definite conclusion he came to was that he should enjoy deucedly “going off” with her somewhere.
- Winterbourne was a man of imagination and, as our ancestors used to say, sensibility; as he looked at her dress and, on the great staircase, her little rapid, confiding step, he felt as if there were something romantic going forward. He could have believed he was going to elope with her. …their little excursion was so much of an escapade—an adventure—
- “You look as if you were taking me to a funeral.”
- “Well, I hope you know enough!” she said to her companion, after he had told her the history of the unhappy Bonivard. “I never saw a man that knew so much!” The history of Bonivard had evidently, as they say, gone into one ear and out of the other.
- She seemed to him, in all this, an extraordinary mixture of innocence and crudity.
- The news that Daisy Miller was surrounded by half a dozen wonderful mustaches checked Winterbourne’s impulse to go straightway to see her. He had, perhaps, not definitely flattered himself that he had made an ineffaceable impression upon her heart, but he was annoyed at hearing of a state of affairs so little in harmony with an image that had lately flitted in and out of his own meditations; the image of a very pretty girl looking out of an old Roman window and asking herself urgently when Mr. Winterbourne would arrive.
- “I have never allowed a gentleman to dictate to me, or to interfere with anything I do.”
- Daisy …continued to present herself as an inscrutable combination of audacity and innocence.
- “The poor girl’s only fault,” he presently added, “is that she is very uncultivated.”
- “She is naturally indelicate,” Mrs. Walker declared.
- “I think every one knows you!” said Mrs. Walker pregnantly,
- “I’m a fearful, frightful flirt! Did you ever hear of a nice girl that was not? But I suppose you will tell me now that I am not a nice girl.”
- …she seemed to him a girl who would never be jealous. At the risk of exciting a somewhat derisive smile on the reader’s part, I may affirm that with regard to the women who had hitherto interested him, it very often seemed to Winterbourne among the possibilities that, given certain contingencies, he should be afraid—literally afraid—of these ladies; he had a pleasant sense that he should never be afraid of Daisy Miller.
- “You may be very sure she thinks of nothing. She goes on from day to day, from hour to hour, as they did in the Golden Age. I can imagine nothing more vulgar.” -Mrs. Costello
- He asked himself whether Daisy’s defiance came from the consciousness of innocence, or from her being, essentially, a young person of the reckless class.
- It must be admitted that holding one’s self to a belief in Daisy’s “innocence” came to seem to Winterbourne more and more a matter of fine-spun gallantry. As I have already had occasion to relate, he was angry at finding himself reduced to chopping logic about this young lady; he was vexed at his want of instinctive certitude as to how far her eccentricities were generic, national, and how far they were personal. From either view of them he had somehow missed her, and now it was too late. She was “carried away” by Mr. Giovanelli.
- “Well, he looks at us as one of the old lions or tigers may have looked at the Christian martyrs!”
- Winterbourne stopped, with a sort of horror, and, it must be added, with a sort of relief. It was as if a sudden illumination had been flashed upon the ambiguity of Daisy’s behavior, and the riddle had become easy to read. She was a young lady whom a gentleman need no longer be at pains to respect.
- In America there’s always a moon!
- Winterbourne stood there beside it, with a number of other mourners, a number larger than the scandal excited by the young lady’s career would have led you to expect.
- “She was the most beautiful young lady I ever saw, and the most amiable;” and then he added in a moment, “and she was the most innocent. Winterbourne looked at him and presently repeated his words, “And the most innocent?”
“The most innocent!”
- [Winterbourne] stood staring at the raw protuberance among the April daisies.
- “I was booked to make a mistake”. – Winterbourne