“Well,” said Winterbourne, “when you deal with natives you must go by the custom of the place. Flirting is a purely American custom; it doesn’t exist here. So when you show yourself in public with Mr. Giovanelli, and without your mother — ”
So goes an exchange between the protagonist Winterbourne and the titular Daisy Miller, a young American woman of means vacationing with her mother and little brother through Europe. The novella explores the nature of customs and gender roles in Europe — but even more notably, of how Europeanized Americans perceive their not-so-naturalized compatriots.
As an earlier work of Henry James, Daisy Miller is a unique story that examines the correlation of expectations, manners, and gender norms from behind a Europeanized lens. Daisy Miller was such a hit that James became a literary celebrity both in Europe and in North America. But even after such masterpieces as The Portrait of a Lady and Turn of the Screw, James seemed unable to escape the long shadow of Daisy Miller. It had struck such a chord among clashing Old World and New World sensibilities, highlighting a certain kind of woman, that it stimulated a universal debate about the true intentions of his famous heroine.
Was Daisy Miller a harmless flirt or some filthy harlot, according to such standards? From the comfort of today’s vantage point, Daisy appears plainly innocent — however, because of our place in time, the question changes entirely. Certainly now we all accept a new idea, one where women have full autonomy of themselves. However, as an integral work for its time and, one might easily assume, also ahead of its time, we’re going to try and commit to the time and space for when the work was originally conceived and written.
Behind the scenes of Daisy Miller
Before we dive deeper into Daisy Miller, we recommend that you get your hands on the Penguins Classics edition with the introduction by David Lodge. Lodge does an exceptional job not only dissecting the novella but its author.
Daisy Miller was first written in 1878 and updated by an older and more seasoned Henry James in 1909. With a little over 30 years between the two works, some have said the novella was reworked to fit James’s more mature, later works, however, Lodge himself argues that the updates that James had made consequently removed ambiguity that was part of what made the original draft so alluring.
As Lodge puts it, “Although the 1879 text is shorter, sparer and stylistically simpler than the 1909 text it is paradoxically richer in meaning — but the meaning inheres as much in what is implied as in what is stated. One might almost say that in ‘Daisy Miller’ James anticipated Ernest Heminway’s theory of the short story: that ‘you could omit anything if you knew what you omitted, and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood’.”
That seems to make sense enough. A story that over-examines or over-contextualizes certain features or scenes doesn’t permit the reader as much leeway to pull their own meaning and therefore establish their own connection to the story.
The ‘germ’ for Daisy Miller
Henry James writes in his Preface for the 1909 version of how he came up with the “germ” that spawned the story of Daisy Miller. And just in case you didn’t know, the term germ was used by James when referring to ideas. Imagine an idea germinated, growing, and adapting into a full-fledged work that’s capable of standing on its own.
Here’s how the germ for Daily Miller began:
“It was in Rome during the autumn of 1877; a friend then living there… happened to mention — which she might perfectly not have done — some simple and uninformed American lady of the previous winter, whose young daughter, a child of nature and of freedom, accompanying her from hotel to hotel, had ‘picked up’ by the wayside, with the best conscience in the world, a good-looking Roman, of vague identity, astonished at his luck, yet (so far as might be, by the pair) all innocently, all serenely exhibited and introduced: this at least till the occurrence of some small social check, some interrupting incident, of no great gravity or dignity, and which I forget.”
There is much from this germ that James retained in his publication 2 years later. Let’s break it down, there was an American lady vacationing with her daughter. The daughter was “a child of nature and of freedom,” or otherwise a woman of a new generation who bucked the status quo. Her daughter formed a companionship with an Italian man. Interject Winterbourne, a possible surrogate for James himself, and a cast of Europeanized Americanized characters like Mrs. Costello and Mrs. Wallace and this episode becomes a portrait about the new modern American woman and her questionable values.
Old World vs. New World
Daisy Miller is set in two European cities — Vevey, Switzerland, and Rome, Italy — across two distinct time periods, months apart. The novella is told through the narrative perspective of Frederick Winterbourne, an American who has fully accepted the norms of Old World European society. Winterbourne has become accustomed to a frustrating distance between European women and himself. Keep in mind, this was during a time when dating required the presence of a rational adult, like your aunt or grandmother. So, it’s only natural that Winterbourne was attracted to not only the beauty of Daisy Miller upon first meeting her in Vevey but also her accessibility. However, ironically, Daisy is hardly accessible to Winterbourne. Daisy is always just outside the grasp of Winterbourne, close enough to attract but constantly rebuffing him for his “stiffness” or conservative comportment.
Daisy is vacationing with her little brother Randolph and mother Mrs. Miller. The Millers are from Schenectady, New York, and if you trust her little 9-year-old brother, he alludes to a vast wealth on more than one occasion. Winterbourne notices almost immediately how talkative Daisy is — and remember, this is completely alien to him — and he’s quickly taken by such an oddity. The way in which James balances out the narrative with the inner workings of Winterbourne places the reader into a unique headspace where he expresses the norms of proper society while simultaneously rendering Daisy’s conduct in a way to satisfy fully Europeanized Americans like his aunt Mrs. Costello, who rebukes Daisy for ignorance and shamelessness all the same.
In his pursuit of Daisy, Winterbourne attempts to gain Mrs. Costello’s approval to meet Daisy before he accompanies her to the Chateau de Chillon. But she refuses. In the orderly world of Mrs. Costello, where everyone and thing has a place, she dislikes how the Millers treat their courier Eugenio as an equal rather than treating him like a conventional servent. When Winterbourne meets Mrs. Miller, she seems withdrawn and, in fact, it appears Daisy holds authority over her.
Daisy and Winterbourne
On their outing to the Chateau de Chillon, Winterbourne tips the janitor extra for privacy, but unfortunately, Daisy is unimpressed — and quite honestly — a bit of an ugly American. The outing doesn’t go well and Winterbourne informs Daisy that he must depart for Geneva the following day, which news Daisy doesn’t take well. She brushes him off while telling him to visit her in Rome.
Months later, Winterbourne ventures to Rome. He yearns to pay her a visit but decides to see his friend Mrs. Walker first. Upon his visit to Mrs. Walker, Winterbourne finds that through mere happenstance, Daisy, her mother, and little brother are already being received by Mrs. Walker. In fact, she and Daisy seem to be well acquainted as Daisy tells rather blithely of her new Roman companion Mr. Giovanelli.
The way in which she talks about Giovanelli, it’s difficult to discern if she had fallen for him or she’s attempting to make Winterbourne jealous. When she tells of an outing she has planned with Giovanelli that afternoon, Winterbourne insists on accompanying her. This leads to a gentlemanly standoff between the two; Giovanelli being a well-dressed, handsome, although according to Winterbourne and his ilk, faux-gentleman whose interest is wedding a beautiful girl with means.
The scene of the three is broken up by Mrs. Walker. An unwed woman walking the streets of Rome with two men on either side was simply scandalous and too much for the city to bear. Word was already spreading of Daisy Miller and her uncouth behavior. Mrs. Walker demands that Daisy gets in her buggy at once but Daisy refuses. When Mrs. Walker loses her temper and informs Daisy what the Roman society thinks of her, Daisy still refuses to budge and outright rejects a society that would see her in such a way. Mrs. Walker essentially forces Winterbourne to get in the buggy, which he begrudgingly does. Like his aunt Mrs. Costello, Mrs. Walker angrily rebukes Daisy and her mother, affirming that they should abide by the norms of the society in which they reside.
An ill-fate plagues the memory of Daisy Miller
The last time Winterbourne sees Daisy Miller is in the Roman Colleseum one night. She’s with Giovanelli and they appear intimate. Winterbourne attempts to leave without being noticed but is spotted by Daisy. She chides him until he angrily calls Giovanelli out for taking Daisy to such a place where she had the risk of contracting “Roman Fever,” malaria endemic to the streets of Italy circa 19th century. Giovanelli insists that it was Daisy who persisted in venturing to the Coliseum and he was only escorting her.
Daisy soon after contracts the Roman fever. After a short battle, she makes her mother promise to deliver a message to Winterbourne, subtly showing her affections for him over that of Giovanelli, thus preserving her innocence — at least in his mind.
How was Daisy Miller viewed by contemporaries?
But what did women of the time think of Daisy Miller? Younger women who were of a more flirtatious persuasion and dressed a certain way became known as Daisy Millers. The portrait of Daisy Miller poetically articulated the proto-type for the modern American woman but there was one voice in particular that pushed back against this new kind of woman.
English novelist and journalist, Eliza Lynn Linton, like most women of the time was bound by the role of women in society. She once argued progressive values and women’s rights during a time when women served as second-class citizens. However, by the 1860s, she did a complete 180 and in the Saturday Review, claimed how there was a decline in values and women must return to traditional roles of wife, mother, and housekeeper.
Linton went on to write how contemporary women desired to imitate the demi-monde, a term derived from the French play Le Demi-Monde by Alexandre Dumas fils published in 1855. What’s of particular note is how the play involves the marriage of elite men and women and the pleasure they seek outside its institution. The term was used to label prostitutes but was quickly attributed to contemporary women viewed as hedonistic or trying to buck traditional norms.
Linton alludes to as much in one of her articles The Girl of the Period. When referring to women who imitate the demi-monde by wearing revealing clothes, she writes:
“She cannot be made to see that modesty of appearance and virtue indeed ought to be inseparable; and that no good girl can afford to appear bad, under pain of receiving the contempt awarded to the bad.’
To the credit of Henry James, he wrote a scorching, yet unsigned, review of Linton’s work for the Nation, where he reasoned, “The whole indictment represented by this volume seems to us perfectly irrational. It is impossible to discuss and condemn the follies of ‘modern women’ apart from those of modern men.”
When James relocated to London in the 1870s, he soon found himself making the acquaintance of Linton. Luckily she wasn’t a reader of the Nation, not that she would have known that James was the writer behind the haughty critique of her work.
Ironically, afflicted by the nature of Daisy Miller as the fictional Mrs. Walker, Linton wrote to James to try and understand the intentions of his heroine.
“Did you mean us to understand that Daisy went on in her mad way with Giovanelli just in defiance of public opinion, urged thereto by the opposition made and the talk she excited? Or because she was simply too innocent, too heedless, and too little conscious of appearance to understand what people made such a fuss about; or indeed the whole bearing of the fuss altogether? Was she obstinate and defying, or superficial and careless?”
Henry James’s verdict
Now, if you consider the artist’s intention for their work, you may find solace in Henry James’s response.
He writes, “Poor little D.M. was (as I understand her) above all things innocent. It was not to make a scandal — or because she took pleasure in a scandal — that she ‘went on’ with Giovanelli. She was a flirt — a perfectly superficial and unmalicious one; and she was very fond, as she announced at the outset, of ‘gentlemen’s society’.
In Giovanelli she got a gentleman who to her uncultivated perception was a very brilliant one — all to herself; and she enjoyed his society in the largest possible measure. When she found that this measure was thought too large by other people — especially by Winterbourne — she was wounded; she became conscious that she was accused of something of which her very comprehension was vague.”