Monday, July 26, 2010

Daisy Miller by Henry James

Daisy Miller is a novella by Henry James and was first published in 1878.  I thank Mel U at The Reading Life for recommending it to me as one of the more easily digestible of James's works.

Daisy Miller is a bright, lively and enjoyable read.  Daisy is a  wealthy American young lady holidayimg in Europe with her younger brother and mother.  She comes across Winterbourne, a more cultured compatriot while holidaying in the Swiss resort town of Vevey.  It is Vevey, on the shores of Lake Geneva that is depicted on this very sweet book cover, by the way. 

Winterbourne is introduced to Daisy by her younger brother Rudolph who is nine and quite adorable.  Winterbourne is instantly captivated by her beauty, freshness and apparent lack of guile or affectation.  When Winterbourne learns that Daisy and her family will be passing the winter in Rome he makes sure his plans also take him to Rome.  When Winterbourne arrives in Rome he learns that Daisy has been getting about with all and sundry and generally scandalising the other Americans with her carefree behaviour.

Even though the tone of the novel is largely bright and breezy, I do feel that James is trying to make some serious comment about the stifling social morays and expectations of the times, especially with regard to   what was deemed acceptable behaviour for young unmarried women.   The snobbish character of Winterbourne's aunt, Mrs Costello is priceless as she condemns Daisy and her family: 

"They are very common," Mrs Costello declared.  "They are the sort of Americans that one does one's duty by not - not accepting." p.19  And later

"They are hopelessly vulgar, " said Mrs Costello.  "Whether or no being hopelessly vulgar is being 'bad' is a question for the metaphysicians.  They are bad enough to dislike, at any rate; and for this short life that is quite enough." p41

So you see, poor free spirited Daisy Miller does not stand much of a chance in this social environ. 

The novella is loaded with wonderfully drawn characters.  From the well meaning social matrons who endeavor to save Daisy's honour by unceremoniously turning their backs on her, to the handsome Italian suitor that also catches her eye.  Daisy's mother is an insipid hypochondriac, while Winterbourne whose perspective we largely see the story from, is sophisticated, well meaning, but also lacks a certain type of courage.  And then there is Daisy herself.  She grew on me as the novel went along. The main tension in the narrative derives from the question of her character. 

Daisy Miller is delightfully readable, there is none of that convoluted prose that seems to be a hallmark of James's later work, and the characters are wonderful. I definitely recommended it.


  1. I still haven't read anything by Henry James - he's one of those authors I keep meaning to read but have never got around to it. Maybe I should start with this one, as both you and Mel U have recommended it!

  2. I am very glad you liked Daisy Miller!

  3. I just bought my first Henry James this week - Washington Square. I've never read him but am looking forward to it.

    Thanks for the review!


Comments are very welcome.