Daisy Miller
by Henry James (1878)
Penguin Classics (2007)
79 pp

I always enjoyed reading and read a lot growing up. Still, I think one of my first truly literary experiences was when I first read Daisy Miller. Though I had read some excellent books from excellent authors, Daisy Miller, for whatever reason, was the first one where I was truly cognizant of the writing itself. I’m sure I was impressed by a turn of phrase before, but in Daisy Miller suddenly I was struck by the arrangement of a sentence and how that in an of itself can help reveal the consciousness of a character. I have since read Daisy Miller many times, and it doesn’t get old.

Before I read it the first time, had someone told me the premise of the novella I probably would have been discouraged. Perhaps that’s exactly what happened; I don’t remember. But Henry James prose brings the story to life. It is so fluid without sacrificing precision and depth. Consequently, I am at a loss at how to convey my thoughts here. Oh well, that hasn’t stopped me before. Perhaps I can introduce it with one of my favorite lines, a funny line that, I believe, proves James’s ability at observation and wit — and it’s certainly not stuffy:

Mrs. Costello was a widow with a fortune; a person of much distinction, who frequently intimated that, if she were not so dreadfully liable to sick-headaches, she would probably have left a deeper impress upon her time.

That was just for fun. No need, at this point, to worry about who fusty Mrs. Costello is.

This story has two principal characters, each American. The story is told from a close third-person narrator, the character this narrator is close to is a Mr. Winterbourne. Winterbourne has spent many years in Europe, particularly in Geneva. He’s gotten used to European customs and is struck by the glaring presence in the European landscape of a young, very foreward American girl named Daisy Miller (actually, as her little brother would tell you, her name is Annie), an “inscrutable combination of audacity and innocence.”

He felt that he had lived at Geneva so long that he had lost a good deal; he had become dishabituated to the American tone. Never, indeed, since he had grown old enough to appreciate things, had he encountered a young American girl of so pronounced a type as this. Certainly she was very charming; but how deucedly sociable! 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.

Daisy Miller is unlike the continental girls, in disagreeable ways. She and her mother disregard all of the proper modes of conduct: they don’t understand wealth, they are unsophisticated, they dine with their servant, Daisy goes about with men without an escort — she flirts openly. It is this flirting that surprises and attracts Winterbourne (he obviously has an appetite). He’s perplexed: Is this young American girl innocent in her flirting? Or does she have schemes? He goes back and forth, most often settling on innocence. Afterall, this flirting might be proper for some women — Winterbourne has had experience with them — but they are dangerous; Daisy is not:

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.

Winterbourne spends much of the story trying to pin down Daisy Miller, constantly offering to be at her service and escort her to the various places she’d like to go. This distresses his proper aunt, but, because he has some license as man, he doesn’t fret. He must know who Daisy is. He must decipher this young flirt.

Let’s step back a minute; I’d like to bring up my first experience with Daisy Miller. I was much younger. I was probably attracted to Daisy for the same reasons as Winterbourne (James is so good at her characterization), so I felt I understood Winterbourne. He was pleasant to her, didn’t seem to judge her as much as others, and, I thought, had her own interests at heart. As the years have passed I’ve come to despise the man. The following passage gives some insight into why I now understand why Winterbourne bears the name Winterbourne.

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. It must be added that this sentiment was not altogether flattering to Daisy; it was part of his conviction, or rather of his apprehension, that she would prove a very light young person.

There’s a darkness to Winterbourne’s motives. Though he might not condemn Daisy’s innocent flirtations, niether does he desire them to be entirely innocent. If she is truly innocent, then the complicated social games he finds amusing in all their complexity and in all their secrets are for naught. This is all part of the layers James places in this story.

Daisy, for her part, is wonderfully drawn by James. Though an enigma, she certainly feels like a tangible character we know well. All of our questions about who she is are like the real questions we wonder about those around us in real life who intrigue us.

This is a marvelous short book. Before now, it had been about five years since my last reading. It won’t be that long before I read it again. There is so much here and so many reasons to want to get to know these characters better — it feels as if one has a personal stake in the outcome.

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