The donnée for ‘Daisy Miller’ was an anecdote told to Henry James (1843-1916) by his friend Alice Bartlett in Italy a year or so before its first publication in 1878. James transformed this wisp of narrative into a vividly realised comedy of social manners which ends with a delicately sketched scene of pathos and loss. He subtly evoked the tourist haunts of Vevey in Switzerland, where the story opens one June, and Rome, where it ends the following January, having spent several years of his life in these places that were so fashionable with the new waves of moneyed Americans dutifully following their Baedeker guides to the tourist honeypots of old Europe.
John Singer Sargent’s portrait of James (1913), National Portrait Gallery website
James knew that recently-appeared type: the ‘American girl’ from Schenectady (home of the newly self-made rich, not of those with ‘old money’) disembarking from her transatlantic liner full of brash confidence, in the ‘tournure of a princess’. With their air of regal independence such ‘stylish young girls’ are ‘not the least embarrassed’ to find themselves unchaperoned in the company of strange young men. When Daisy encounters the story’s protagonist, the wealthy Frederick Winterbourne, a twenty-seven year old dilettante, on the terrace of the Trois Couronnes hotel, noted for its air of ‘luxury and of maturity’, on the shores of Lake Geneva, ‘she was evidently neither offended nor fluttered’ to be engaged with in familiar conversation by this suave stranger to whom she had not been formally introduced, and without the protection of her unvigilant mother.
Winterbourne is visiting his formidably proper aunt, Mrs Costello. He is said to be ‘studying’ in Geneva, that ‘little metropolis of Calvinism’, though it is apparent he expends very little effort on academic pursuits: he is in reality ‘extremely devoted to a lady who lived there – a foreign lady – a person older than himself’, about whom ‘some singular stories’ were told. Our omniscient narrator hints that he is having some kind of illicit dalliance, distinctly at odds with Calvinistic puritanism. Therefore when he is clearly attracted to this ‘beautiful young lady’ on the terrace, the description of her as ‘strikingly, admirably pretty’ is evidently filtered through his consciousness:
‘How pretty they are!’ thought Winterbourne…
He is thinking approvingly of the ‘type’ just noted. Her name is Annie P. Miller – a pointedly artisanal surname – but is known as Daisy. If Winterbourne’s name is redolent of his frigidly Europeanised nature (though he is not averse to clandestine affairs), then hers signifies her spring-like, blooming freshness.
In buttoned-up Geneva, he reflects, ‘a young man was not at liberty to speak to a young unmarried lady except under certain rarely-occurring conditions’. But here at Vevey the ‘pretty American girl’ shows no signs of constraint. On the contrary, her glance towards him is ‘direct and unshrinking’, though ‘not immodest’ – her eyes, he notes admiringly, are ‘singularly honest and fresh’, and ‘wonderfully pretty’; the word ‘pretty’ is used a remarkable 38 times in the story, most of them with reference to Daisy or her ‘type’ (she is described as ‘beautiful’ three times).
Winterbourne is ‘addicted to observing and analysing’ feminine beauty: that is to be his problem. Like so many of James’s detached, observing male protagonists, he is incapable of committed action or decision-making. He is from the start enchanted but also puzzled by the liberties taken by this young charmer. Like Eveline in the Dubliners story which I wrote about here recently, it’s indecision and inability to discriminate morally and emotionally that’s at the heart of this story.
He notes, on this first encounter, with candidly critical perspicuity, that her face is ‘not exactly expressive’, with ‘a want of finish’. She showed bland ignorance of the culture and history of the place, and he thinks it very possible she is a ‘coquette’. Although she is coltishly spirited, he also observes, with another telling string of derogatory adjectives and negatives, that ‘in her bright, superficial little visage there was no mockery, no irony.’
Her equally precocious little brother Randolph tells him their father is a rich businessman from Schenectady. She ‘chattered’ expansively and unselfconsciously. He ‘found it very pleasant’, but our taciturn narrator conveys a simultaneous sense that she is hardly articulate and certainly uneducated, with her frequent low idioms (as the fastidious Jamesian narrator would say) such as ‘I guess’ and ‘ever so many’.
The narrative voice is then distinctively Jamesian: detached and ironic, it notes at this point Winterbourne’s mixed reaction to all this superficial flirtatiousness: he ‘was amused, perplexed, and decidedly charmed,’ but had never seen anything like this without sensing ‘laxity of deportment’.
He goes on to wonder whether he had spent so long in Europe he had become ‘dishabituated to the American tone’: maybe it would be wrong to accuse Daisy of what passed in Geneva as ‘actual or potential inconduite’. In a revealing passage of narrated thought he weighs up the possibility that ‘they were all like that’, the pretty girls of New York: or ‘was she also a designing, an audacious, an unscrupulous young person?’ His ‘instinct’, along with his ‘reason’, had deserted him (as Eveline’s were to). She ‘looked extremely innocent’, and he’d heard both that ‘American girls were exceedingly innocent’, and that they were not. ‘Innocent’ appears twelve times in the story, nine times in relation to Daisy (twice, interestingly, to Winterbourne himself; he is perhaps the truly innocent party in this tale, in the sense that he doesn’t fully know himself as Daisy does herself); ‘innocence’ appears in relation to Daisy six times.
He was inclined to think that she was just ‘a pretty American flirt,’an ‘unsophisticated’ girl: ‘she was only a pretty American flirt.’ His repetitive, looping, inconclusive internal monologue over, he wonders (ungallantly) how far he can proceed with this new, ingenous kind of coquette.
His flirtation is not approved of by his aunt; she held great social ‘sway’ in New York, and admitted that she was ‘very exclusive’ (another recurring term in the story, one that Daisy predictably scorns). Mrs Costello was, to Winterbourne’s mind, almost ‘oppressively’ adept at negotiating the ‘minutely hierarchical constitution’ of that city’s society. He realises that she adheres to similar proprieties in the expatriate community in Europe. Her view of Daisy was that her ‘place in the social scale was low.’ One does not ‘accept’ such ‘common’ girls, she advises him, no matter how pretty or charming, or how perfectly they dress: ‘I can’t think where they get their taste’, she remarks acerbically. She disapproves of Daisy’s democratic familiarity with the family’s courier, and her mother is no more socially discerning or proper, and she lets her children do as they please. They lack the discrimination, taste or social awareness to be able to distinguish an outward appearance of gentlemanliness from that of the real thing. Winterbourne later realises Daisy and her mother lacked the ‘culture’ to rise to the idea of ‘catching’ an aristocratic husband for her; they were ‘intellectually incapable of that conception.’
She thinks Daisy is not respectable; her nephew agrees that she is ‘rather wild’ and ‘uncultivated’ – but ‘wonderfully pretty.’
‘What a dreadful girl! [Mrs Costello exclaims:] You had better not meddle with little American girls that are uncultivated…You have lived too long out of the country. You will be sure to make some great mistake. You are too innocent.’
When he denies this, she retorts with delicious paradoxical wit: ‘You are too guilty, then!’
She’s not just being snobbishly malicious: he’s revealing himself, she means, with shrewd insight, as hypocritical: attracted to Daisy, while aware of her genuinely vulnerable, bourgeois innocence.
The stage is set. If Daisy exceeded even the ‘liberal licence’ of his aunt’s granddaughters then ‘anything might be expected of her’. Unaware of the unflattering sexual ambiguity of such a notion, he realises he is impatient to see her again, and yet, more to his credit, ‘vexed with himself that, by instinct, he should not appreciate her justly.’ This is the lesson he is to learn by the end.
I have given this detailed outline of the story’s early expositional stage to indicate that it is really as much a narrative of Winterbourne’s slow-growing awareness as of Daisy’s, who hardly changes. A typically ambivalent James protagonist, he feels attracted to this beautiful figure with her ‘delicate grace’, but simultaneously repelled by what he perceives as her ‘commonness’, vulgarity and duplicity. This renders him emotionally, culpably impotent. She’s the ‘unprotected daughter’ of a wilfully indulgent mother and absentee father, and this makes him painfully aware of being tempted by what could be perceived as cynically selfish exploitation of her ‘habitual sense of freedom’. She simply doesn’t realise that ‘nice girls’ don’t flirt with their couriers, imperiously demand unquestioning devotion and attention from every new man they meet with ‘frank persiflage’ and coquettish chaffing, or flaunt their innocent conquests in public.
The denouement shows Daisy’s subsequent, inevitable disgrace in Rome. Winterbourne’s glacially sophisticated American friend there, Mrs Walker, tells him with horrified disapproval that Daisy had been ‘going about’ alone with foreigners and had ‘picked up half-a-dozen of the regular Roman fortune-hunters’. She and her mother were ‘dreadful people’ for behaving with such ill-mannered licence (Mrs Miller is equally reprehensible for failing to control her daughter, in the eyes of this morally corrupt world where being seen to do the ‘right thing’ is more important than actually behaving with moral probity). Winterbourne feebly defends them, calling them ‘very ignorant – very innocent only’, but Mrs Walker is unforgiving in her condemnation: ‘They are hopelessly vulgar’, she insists.
When Daisy insists on introducing her ‘lovely’ avvocato with the charming manner and beautiful moustache to her compatriots’ salons she refuses to accept that she is violating not only European codes, but also those of upper-class Americans who lived there. She delights in having handsome Romans dance attendance on her; Giovanelli (whose name signifies the generic young man he represents) for his part can’t believe his luck, failing initially to understand her flirtatious nature.
Her outrageously licentious behaviour, in the eyes of American-Roman society, culminates in her unchaperoned walk in the Pincio gardens with Giovanelli. Mrs Walker’s attempt to rescue Daisy from public scandal fails:
‘I never heard anything so stiff! [a favourite expression of Daisy’s; she laughs at Winterbourne for being ‘stiff as an umbrella’] If this is improper, Mrs Walker,’ she pursued, ‘then I am all improper, and you must give me up.’
Mrs Walker duly snubs the girl when she turns up later at her salon, writing her off as ‘naturally indelicate’. Daisy is undaunted, and continues to disport herself as she pleases with the foppish young gold-digger.
In a scene that echoes his interview with the disapproving aunt, he defends Daisy as just ‘very innocent’ when Mrs Walker expresses how appalled she is that Daisy has been recklessly exposing herself to all the world with her beau and ‘running absolutely wild’. ‘She’s very crazy!’ is her riposte. She warns him to cease flirting with Daisy, and to stop her making a ‘scandal’, but he persists, confused and besotted.
Yet Daisy had defiantly rebutted Winterbourne’s earlier polite attempt to stop her flouting convention by having a public assignation with her Italian:
‘I have never allowed a gentleman to dictate to me, or to interfere with anything I do.’
He sees this as lacking ‘standards’ or a moral code because she has never been given or taught any, but it’s also the typical American girl’s expression of uninhibited independence, the spirit of Huck Finn, arising from a dangerously permissive upbringing as James saw it of the newly rising, over-indulged generations. When snubbed by Mrs Walker Daisy can’t understand why she should behave differently in Rome from how she was accustomed to in New York; ‘I don’t see why I should change my habits for them’, she cries when Winterbourne remonstrates with her about her display in the Pincio, and how it offends ‘the custom of the place’. They are ‘those of a flirt’, he points out.
‘Of course they are,’ she cried, giving him her little smiling stare again. ‘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.’
He cannot decide, when she talks so brazenly, whether she is innocently honest or depraved and spoilt; our narrator presents this with repeated, self-cancelling negativity once again – she lacks ‘indispensable delicacy’, she’s ‘childish’, ‘too provincial’, has ‘an inscrutable combination of audacity and innocence’ or ‘puerility’ – ‘inscrutable’ here signifying his inability to scrutinise with clear perception. These ‘little American flirts were the queerest creatures in the world’, he concludes, his ability to see clouded again. Yet he also wonders whether she has ‘in her elegant and irresponsible little organism a defiant, passionate, perfectly observant consciousness of the impression she produced,’ and whether her ‘defiance came from the consciousness of innocence’ or from her sense of belonging to ‘the reckless class.’ Too late he begins to realise hers is a rebellion against class prejudice, and we realise this is not just another ‘international’ James tale of the familiar collision of naive American democracy with corrupt European decadence. It’s more nuanced than that.
We saw earlier that Winterbourne had engaged in amorous liaisons with high-class older local women. Our narrator points out towards the end of the story that he is nevertheless ‘literally afraid’ of such women; ‘He had a pleasant sense that he should never be afraid of Daisy Miller.’
Colosseum: photo by Dillif, Wikimedia Commons
Winterbourne’s eyes are unsealed too late. Her demise, dying of the ‘Roman fever’ – malaria – by exposing herself to the miasma of the evening air in the Colosseum in one of her flightily dangerous romantic excursions, would be seen by society as just desserts. He has not treated her judiciously, he finally discerns.
He’s chastened when the Italian dandy, at Daisy’s graveside, pronounces her truly ‘innocent’ – he ultimately knew she had no intention of marrying him. Sadly Winterbourne tells his aunt that he had done Daisy an injustice. From her deathbed she had sent him a message saying that she ‘would have appreciated [his] esteem’. But he was ‘booked to make a mistake’, as his aunt had warned him. But not in the way she meant: ‘I have lived too long in foreign parts,’ he adds, acknowledging perhaps that it was he who had been tainted by class and European notions of propriety, and had failed to appreciate Daisy for the free spirit she was. When the narrator concludes by telling us drily that he had returned to Geneva and to was ‘studying hard’ and ‘was very much interested in a clever foreign lady’, the ambiguity is poignant.
Has he learnt a lesson, or has he simply reverted to ‘the custom of the country’? Is he sadder and wiser? Or counting himself lucky at a narrow escape from commitment to Daisy’s recklessly independent individuality? The conflicted responses of his protagonist here raise this story above the apparent ‘flatness’ that caused James to add the phrase ‘a study’ to this story that was immensely popular with a reading public which perhaps relished the superficial charms of Miss Daisy more than it divined the darker impulses in her ambivalent, superficially more cultivated admirer.
Henry James, ‘Daisy Miller: A Study’. From Collected Stories, vol. 1 (1866-91), selected and edited by John Bayley, Everyman’s Library, Alfred A. Knopf (New York, Toronto) no. 244, 1999, pp. 305-64. First published in Cornhill magazine, London, 1878.