Women in Lit – Daisy Miller by Henry James (1878)

Daisy Miller by Henry JamesMaybe 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?

Opening

A – Male View

  1. The young lady meanwhile had drawn near. She was dressed in white muslin, with a hundred frills and flounces, and knots of pale-coloured ribbon. She was bareheaded, but she balanced in her hand a large parasol, with a deep border of embroidery; and she was strikingly, admirably pretty. “How pretty they are!” thought Winterbourne, straightening himself in his seat, as if he were prepared to rise.

 

B – The Male Approach

 

  1. It seemed to Winterbourne that he had been in a manner presented. He got up and stepped slowly toward the young girl, throwing away his cigarette. “This little boy and I have made acquaintance,” he said, with great civility. In Geneva, as he had been perfectly aware, a young man was not at liberty to speak to a young unmarried lady except under certain rarely occurring conditions; but here at Vevey, what conditions could be better than these?—a pretty American girl coming and standing in front of you in a garden. This pretty American girl, however, on hearing Winterbourne’s observation, simply glanced at him; she then turned her head and looked over the parapet, at the lake and the opposite mountains. He wondered whether he had gone too far, but he decided that he must advance farther, rather than retreat.

 

C – Physical Description of Daisy 

 

  1. The young girl glanced over the front of her dress and smoothed out a knot or two of ribbon. Then she rested her eyes upon the prospect again.

 

  1. The young lady inspected her flounces and smoothed her ribbons again

 

  1. …her charming complexion

 

  1. They were wonderfully pretty eyes; and, indeed, Winterbourne had not seen for a long time anything prettier than his fair countrywoman’s various features—her complexion, her nose, her ears, her teeth. He had a great relish for feminine beauty; he was addicted to observing and analyzing it; and as regards this young lady’s face he made several observations. It was not at all insipid, but it was not exactly expressive; and though it was eminently delicate, Winterbourne mentally accused it—very forgivingly—of a want of finish

 

  1. 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.

 

D – Male Judgement of Daisy

 

  1. she gradually gave him more of the benefit of her glance; and then he saw that this glance was perfectly direct and unshrinking. It was not, however, what would have been called an immodest glance, for the young girl’s eyes were singularly honest and fresh.

 

  1. He thought it very possible that Master Randolph’s sister 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. Before long it became obvious that she was much disposed toward conversation.

 

  1. She talked to Winterbourne as if she had known him a long time. He found it very pleasant. It was many years since he had heard a young girl talk so much. It might have been said of this unknown young lady, who had come and sat down beside him upon a bench, that she chattered (x3) …Europe was perfectly sweet.

 

  1. I’m very fond of society, and I have always had a great deal of it. I don’t mean only in Schenectady, but in New York. I used to go to New York every winter. In New York I had lots of society. Last winter I had seventeen dinners given me; and three of them were by gentlemen,” added Daisy Miller. “I have more friends in New York than in Schenectady—more gentleman friends; and more young lady friends too …I have always had,” she said, “a great deal of gentlemen’s society.”

 

  1. Poor Winterbourne was amused, perplexed, and decidedly charmed. He had never yet heard a young girl express herself in just this fashion; never, at least, save in cases where to say such things seemed a kind of demonstrative evidence of a certain laxity of deportment. And yet was he to accuse Miss Daisy Miller of actual or potential inconduite (bad behaviour), as they said at Geneva?

 

  1. Was she simply a pretty girl from New York State? Were they all like that, the pretty girls who had a good deal of gentlemen’s society? Or was she also a designing, an audacious, an unscrupulous young person? Winterbourne had lost his instinct in this matter, and his reason could not help him. Miss Daisy Miller looked extremely innocent. Some people had told him that, after all, American girls were exceedingly innocent; and others had told him that, after all, they were not. He was inclined to think Miss Daisy Miller was a flirt—a pretty American flirt. He had never, as yet, had any relations with young ladies of this category.

 

  1. He had known, here in Europe, two or three women—persons older than Miss Daisy Miller, and provided, for respectability’s sake, with husbands—who were great coquettes—dangerous, terrible women, with whom one’s relations were liable to take a serious turn. But this young girl was not a coquette in that sense; she was very unsophisticated; she was only a pretty American flirt

 

  1. Winterbourne was almost grateful for having found the formula that applied to Miss Daisy Miller.

 

‘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?

Part 1

  1. 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.
  2. [Winterbourne] was at liberty to wander about.
  3. She was dressed in white muslin, with a hundred frills and flounces, and knots of pale-colored ribbon. …she was strikingly, admirably pretty.
  4. [Winterbourne] wondered whether he had gone too far, but he decided that he must advance farther, rather than retreat.
  5. [Winterbourne] had a great relish for feminine beauty; he was addicted to observing and analyzing it
  6. [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.
  7. 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.
  8. …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.”
  9. Poor Winterbourne was amused, perplexed, and decidedly charmed.
  10. …she was only a pretty American flirt. Winterbourne was almost grateful for having found the formula that applied to Miss Daisy Miller.
  11. “But, my dear aunt, she is not, after all, a Comanche savage.”…Evidently she was rather wild.
  12. 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.
  1. 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.
  2. [Winterbourne] felt then, for the instant, quite ready to sacrifice his aunt, conversationally;
  3. …[Winterbourne] had never yet enjoyed the sensation of guiding through the summer starlight a skiff freighted with a fresh and beautiful young girl.
  4. 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.
  5. “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.
  6. 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—
  7. “You look as if you were taking me to a funeral.”
  8. “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.
  9. She seemed to him, in all this, an extraordinary mixture of innocence and crudity.

 

Part 2

 

  1. 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.
  2. “I have never allowed a gentleman to dictate to me, or to interfere with anything I do.”
  3. Daisy …continued to present herself as an inscrutable combination of audacity and innocence.
  4. “The poor girl’s only fault,” he presently added, “is that she is very uncultivated.”
  5. “She is naturally indelicate,” Mrs. Walker declared.
  6. “I think every one knows you!” said Mrs. Walker pregnantly,
  7. 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.”
  8. …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.
  9. “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
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. “Well, he looks at us as one of the old lions or tigers may have looked at the Christian martyrs!”
  13. 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.
  14. In America there’s always a moon!
  15. 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.
  16. “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!”

  1. [Winterbourne] stood staring at the raw protuberance among the April daisies.
  2. “I was booked to make a mistake”. – Winterbourne