Daisy Miller by Henry James

The novella Daisy Miller was published in 1878, the same year James published his novel The Europeans and two years before the publication of Washington SquarePortrait of a Lady came a little later, in 1881. It’s a pure coincidence that those are exactly the books by Henry James that I’ve read so far. Plus, the novella Madame de Mauves, which is from 1874. Madame de Mauves is the only one I’ve read while blogging. You can find the review here.

Henry James was very fond of novellas and as soon as you look at his extensive bibliography, you can see just how fond of them he was. Maybe I’m wrong, but I got the impression that Daisy Miller might be his most famous novella. That’s not surprising as it’s James at his most readable. People often complain that he’s not accessible, that his sentences are difficult. None of this is the case here. The writing is fluid and elegant, never clunky, never overcomplicated. And the story is engaging too.

Winterbourne is a young American who lives in Geneva most of the time. At the beginning of the story, he’s visiting his aunt in Vevey. While out on a walk, he meets a peculiar boy who is followed by his older sister. Winterbourne can’t take his eyes off the young woman. She’s so beautiful and elegant. But very different from the other young American women he met in Switzerland. She walks around without her mother or another chaperone, openly flirts with Winterbourne, teases him and is very capricious. Flirting is something young American girls, unlike the Europeans, do a lot. But not exactly with as much liberty as Daisy.

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. 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

His aunt tells Winterbourne right away, that she’s beneath him, even though it’s obvious she’s extremely rich.

But don’t they all do these things–the young girls in America?” Winterbourne inquired.

Mrs. Costello stared a moment. “I should like to see my granddaughters do them!” she declared grimly. This seemed to throw some light upon the matter, for Winterbourne remembered to have heard that his pretty cousins in New York were “tremendous flirts

After a trip to Château de Chillon, Winterbourne returns to Geneva and Daisy and her mother and brother travel to Rome.

The following winter, Winterbourne meets Daisy again in Rome. She’s the talk of the town. People gossip because she’s always seen alone with men, most of the time with one very good looking Italian.

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.

While Winterbourne found many excuses for her when he first met her, surprising her, in the middle of the night, in the Colosseum alone with the Italian, disgusts him.

Since Daisy Miller is a novella, writing more would give away the ending. Let’s just say – it’s tragic.

Daisy Miller is such a strong creation. She’s free, she’s witty, she doesn’t care about what people say. But Winterbourne and the reader wonder why. Is it because she is so innocent or is it because she’s without morals? The ending reveals which of the impressions is right.

James is always interested in the different attitudes of Europeans and Americans and how these change through travel and living abroad. It seems that Daisy Miller puzzles them all. She’s entirely her own person. The little brother is very unusual too and so is the mother who doesn’t seem to be able to guide her two children. I would have loved to be introduced to the dad, but we never get to see him as he stayed in the US.

The society James describes in this novella, is very cruel. They have their rules and if you don’t play by them you get shunned or ostracized. No matter how rich you are.

Because the book is called Daisy Miller, one could assume its eponymous heroine is the main character, which in a way she is. But Winterbourne is just as important because we see the story filtered through his eyes. This filtering, and the way he interprets everything, tells us a lot about him and the society he lives in.

As I said, Daisy Miller is highly readable and very accessible. Even though the end is tragic, it’s neither sombre nor depressing as so many of James’ other books.

16 thoughts on “Daisy Miller by Henry James

  1. This was my entry point to Henry James – and it’s him at his most playful and accessible, I would argue. I first saw the film starring Cybill Shepherd and thought she was so beautiful that I really wanted to read the book. As you say, Washington Square, Turn of the Screw and Daisy Miller are great places to start with James.

    • My first was Portrait of a Lady which is one if my ten favorite novels. It worked for me but I think Washington Square is the best entry. This is so much lighter than he usually is. I’m glad you mention the movie as I was wondering whether it’s worth watching.

    • Of course, The Turn of the Screw. Somehow had that filed under “novel”. I’m not surprised Daisy Miller, book and character were that popular. Thanks for the link. That’s so interesting .

  2. Ah, Marina’s comment reminds me, Edith Wharton’s story “Roman Fever” (1934) is an outstanding semi-sequel to “Daisy Miller,” decades later, sort of about the daughters and granddaughters of the “Daisy Millers.” Wharton directly addresses some of the points you mention in your post.

  3. As far as I’m aware, I’ve only ever read The Turn of the Screw and The Aspern Papers – so both short works from James! I found him a little impenetrable, but that *was* a long time ago Bearing in mind what I’ve read since, I reckon I should give him another go!

    • I did not like The Turn of the Screw one bit but haven’t read The Aspern Papers. I love his novels. Especially Portrait of a Lady. If you want to just dip your toes Washington Square isn’t too long and very typical for his writing. Portrait if a Lady is much longer but it’s so wonderful.

  4. Wonderful review, Caroline! I read Daisy Miller a few years back, but can’t seem to remember much about it. After reading your review, I want to read it again. I haven’t read much of Henry James. Only this and The Aspern Papers. I want to read Portrait of a Lady sometime. The first passage from it on afternoon tea is one of my alltime favourite passages. I didn’t know that there was a film adaptation of Daisy Miller. I want to watch that. Thanks for sharing your thoughts 🙂

  5. Thank you, Vishy. He’s one of those authors I’d like to read everything of just because I loved Portrait of a Lady so much. I got The Aspern Papers here as I bought it after Max mentioned it once. I would love to watch the film too, especially because of the setting. 🙂

  6. Henry James is a massive gap for me — I’ve only read The Turn of the Screw, which I liked very much — but this sound like a good (re-)entry point. I’m glad to hear you say that it’s very accessible as that’s always been my concern with his fiction – the idea that it might be too challenging or oblique, particularly in terms of the prose style.

    • I didn’t like The Turn of the Screw. I don’t find it very typical for him. This is a good entry point even though it’s weaker as Washington Square or The Europeans. Those are both short and not oblique. Maybe his later work is more impenetrable – syntax wise. Frankly, some of those sentences should have been edited as they occasionally don’t even make sense. Like the worst of Elizabeth Bowen times two. I think you would love Portrait of a Lady. Possibly anything by him really.

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