Travelling in Europe with her family, Daisy Miller, an exquisitely beautiful young American woman, presents her fellow-countryman Winterbourne with a dilemma he cannot resolve. Is she deliberately flouting social convention in the outspoken way she talks and acts, or is she simply ignorant of those conventions? When she strikes up an intimate friendship with an urbane young Italian, her flat refusal to observe the codes of respectable behaviour leave her perilously exposed. In Daisy Miller James created his first great portrait of the enigmatic and dangerously independent American woman, a figure who would come to dominate his later masterpieces.
Emily Ennis, Third Year English Student, The University of Leeds.
Having always been a fan of Henry James after picking up The Turn of the Screw a few years ago, when I was afforded the chance to read his novella Daisy Miller I was very excited. Within a very short sixty pages Mr. James manages to take you into the world of the American abroad and explore the sexual morals of the burgeoning nouveau riche. In this world where morals and manners are inexplicably linked, the tale charts Mr. Winterbourne’s growing confusion over the behaviour of the young Daisy Miller, allowing Henry James to simultaneously critique the notion of culture and female sexuality.
It is a testament to the literary mastery of Henry James that he manages to explore so many different ideas within such a short story. In this edition of the text the reader is provided with helpful appendices which relate how James had heard of a young American girl falling into society with a young Roman, openly flaunting this intimate relationship unaware of the social implications; the story which eventually became Daisy Miller. James dramatises reality and makes it a critique on female innocence and the spacelessness which Americans on the continent inhabit – a world of crossed wires and social checks, and perhaps the inability never to do what one ought. His most successful literary work in terms of numbers sold, James is very cleverly creating a story everyone should read.
Henry James in his own restless travelling and varied European schooling felt never at home in the America in which he was born, creating a veritable mélange of cultures and thought in his writing. However, a question able to address throughout the western world in the 1870s is the notion of female desire and female innocence, and the figure of the Fallen Woman. Daisy Miller’s unrelenting flounting of social convention is seen to be a result of her naivety of European social custom. James asks the question whether a girl can be ‘innocent’ of social misunderstanding but perhaps not innocent sexually. Daisy Miller openly admits she is a ‘flirt’ and that in America she is used to male company, yet as Mr. Winterbourne and Mr. Giovanelli stand around her grave, the latter proclaims she ‘was the most innocent’. Henry James addresses the woman question through the lens of culture rather than through the lens of gender. Are we to understand Daisy’s fall as a consequence of her being abroad and being unaware of custom or as a result of her inherent destructive female sexuality?
Proto-feminist in his writing, James highlights the contemporary hypocrisy of men and their pursuit of sexual satisfaction (Winterbourne, it is hinted at, is kept in Geneva by a mistress), while women are openly chastised for sexual misdemeanour despite not knowing what they do. Critical of culture, James asks the nineteenth-century reader to examine the morals that society instils within them. Yet even in the twenty-first century the tragic fall of Daisy Miller has the power to capture the mind of the reader and in such a short space Henry James takes them through Europe on Winterbourne’s mad pursuit of the unobtainable, ‘innocent’ Miss Miller.