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Amber Paulen

Daisy Miller by Henry James

Henry James

Daisy Miller

It’s impossible not to run into Henry James in Rome, where he lived for many years at the end of the nineteenth century. A wealthy American, he left the States and moved around this continent with apparent ease. James wrote Daisy Miller after his 1877 sojourn in Rome, sparked off by a comment of a friend about a young American lady who had made the acquaintance of a dodgy looking Roman. He wrote the novella, sent it to the States to rejection, so had it published in England. It bit too hard on the social conventions of the times.

Daisy Miller is seen through the eyes of Mr. Winterbourne, also an American, but one who has been living in Geneva for a long time. He meets Miss Miller at a hotel where they are both staying and is at once taken by her free and easy conversational manner, very distant from the proper young ladies of Europe. A little American flirt is what he calls her right away and Winterbourne is very happy with her disarming intimacy as long as it continues to come in his direction. They go visit the Château Chillon alone together, something a European girl would only do if accompanied.

But once they meet again in Rome, Daisy’s attentions have drifted to Giovanelli, a young good-looking Italian who could only be after money. In Rome, her penchant for going out alone with gentlemen—is Giovanelli even a gentleman?—gets badly talked about. Winterbourne defends her in public while inside himself he thinks things like this:

It was impossible to regard [Daisy Miller] as a perfectly well-conducted young lady; she was wanting in a certain indispensable delicacy.

And so Winterbourne oscillates between his belief in her innocence that comes from “uncultivation” and his belief that she isn’t so innocent as she seems.

In contrast to Miss Miller there’s Mrs. Miller, Daisy’s mother, a waif of a woman with no desires or curiosities of her own. She makes no attempt to stifle Daisy’s pleasure in the company of gentlemen; she shies away from the young men Daisy introduces her to with the embarrassment Winterbourne would like to see in the younger lady. Yet in Mrs. Miller he finds the personality trait a flaw and weakness.

It’s the wonderful contradictions of the novella that make Daisy Miller a quick, great read. Daisy Miller is a heroine more along the lines of Edna Pontellier in The Awakening and less similar to Emma Bovary. Her youth adds a delightful twist to the questions brought up by Victorian literature about women’s “place.” Even now, with Rome full of Americans studying abroad, it’s easy to find Daisy Millers in bars at night, surrounded by plenty of Italian men eager to know about their easy intimacies.


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