In praise of innocence

Botticelli’s Primavera (1482), Uffizi, Florence

Henry James: Daisy Miller: A Study.
An International Episode. Four Meetings.
Penguin English Library 2012 (1879)

First published in magazine form in 1878, Daisy Miller is a novella that must strike modern readers very differently from their counterparts a hundred and forty years ago. Now, the very idea of a young lady seeking the company of pleasant young men seems unremarkable in Western society, but then for one such as Daisy to do so unchaperoned, and especially against all advice and convention, would have been regarded as not only unrespectable but also reprehensible.

In the outraged reactions of those who observed Daisy’s unconventionality James may have expressed closet anxieties over his own acceptance as an American in Europe, for he had only recently settled in England; his many extended stays in Europe — which included Switzerland and Italy — had given him plenty of opportunity for observing how New World visitors were received in the Old World. But of course Daisy Miller is much more than autobiography dressed up as fiction.

Chillon Castle and Lake Geneva, Switzerland (photochrom made 1890-1900, Library of Congress)

In Switzerland the faintly effete Frederick Winterbourne makes the acquaintance of a young compatriot from New York State, Randolph, on the shores of Lake Geneva; Winterbourne is much struck by Randolph’s sister Daisy who, despite appearing diffident intrigues him very much. Winterbourne is aware of a need for propriety but his piqued curiosity contrasts with the blunt attitude of his aunt Mrs Costello: she is of the opinion that Daisy, along with her mother and brother, is ‘very common’ and therefore to be shunned. The Miller family have a European courier, Eugenio, who familiarity with the trio also elicits the contempt of Mrs Costello. Against his aunt’s advice Winterbourne takes the young lady unchaperoned to visit the Castle of Chillon.

The play of characters in this Victorian drama can be plotted on a graph with a pair of axes: one axis runs from restrained to exuberant, the other from natural to cultivated. Opposites sometimes attract and Daisy’s natural exuberance clearly draws Winterbourne’s attention, his own aloofness being a product of an upbringing which prized social restraint.

From the shores of Lake Geneva in summer we shift to Italy in winter, where Winterbourne again encounters Daisy Miller and her family among the American colony in Rome. Here he discovers Daisy exciting disapproval from his friend Mrs Walker because not only is Daisy displaying inconduite but she is associating with Giovanelli, an Italian of no social standing, in flagrant violation of cultured American mores. Winterbourne is finally persuaded that she is beyond the pale when he spots her alone with Giovanelli in the Colosseum one moonlit night.

Some of James’ contemporaries would have thought that Daisy deserved what was coming to her, that the tragic denouement was only fitting given her insouciant behaviour. But James is more subtle than a superficial reading might suggest: what is the novel judging, Daisy’s waywardness or Winterbourne’s late rush to judgement? Daisy’s innocence or her being treated as an outsider by Americans abroad? It’s clear that James is positing the clash of different worlds and different ways of thinking.

Those clashes fit into a carefully plotted timeline, replete with significant names and places. We travel eastwards, from Schenectady, New York to Vevey and Chillon in Switzerland for the first two chapters, which take place in June. For the next two chapters we’re wintering in Rome, in January, and even here the action moves steadily eastward from near the Villa Borghese to the Palatine, then the Colosseum, before heading south to the Protestant cemetery on the banks of the Tiber.

The movement through space is therefore paralleled by the change of season, signposted by James’ choice of names. Daisy is a common or garden flower, entirely fitting for someone called ‘very common’ or ‘uncultivated’ by her detractors. It is also primarily a spring and summer plant, immediately identifiable, leading to Mrs Walker, Winterbourne’s married friend, remarking that elle s’affiche, ‘she advertises herself’. ‘Miller’ may also be seen as a derogatory term, as millers were frequently seen as rogues or swindlers in the days when farmers took their grain to be ground into flour.

Winterbourne however sees Daisy as a refreshing change; true, she is more a ‘flirt’ than a coquette, but he finds her diverting enough. One can imagine him seeing her as one of the goddesses or nymphs treading the floral meadow in Botticelli’s celebration of Spring, La Primavera.

Ironic then that the snooty courier who looks after the requirements of the Millers in Europe is Eugenio, whose name means ‘well-born’. Eugenio it is who in Rome introduces Daisy to Giovanelli, a young man whose name clearly derives from Italian giovane, meaning young. However, in Rome it is winter, and however much Daisy wants to keep her freshness, and youth, and innocence, the time proves awry: Winterbourne (whose name refers to a stream which flows during wet seasons) turns against her; his friends have already given her the cold shoulder. The promise of Roman carnival dissipates in the sickly atmosphere, the chilly contagion of Swiss Calvinism finds its consummation in the cimitero dei protestanti.

If Daisy Miller is an indictment, I don’t think James saw it as leading to a condemnation of the sensitive young woman who seemingly lacked sense; more it was uptight folk who thought themselves better for being ‘cultured’ and who looked down their noses at those who didn’t act comme il faut. Winterbourne, the ostensible stand-in for the author, in fact proves a cad, dallying with Daisy’s expectations: James ultimately shows him up for what he is, someone who ‘studies’ hard at getting himself ‘a very clever foreign woman’, preferably one who is — unlike Daisy — older than himself. Is that less reprehensible than Miss Miller looking for pleasing companionship?

The Colosseum as Henry James may have known it

This edition of Daisy Miller is paired with The Turn of the Screw and supplemented by an essay, first published in 1964, by Carol Ohmann: in this she argues that the novella’s apparent unevenness arose because James began writing it “as a comedy of manners and finished it as a symbolic presentation of a metaphysical ideal. He began by criticising Daisy in certain ways and ended simply praising her.”

It ceases therefore to be a study as advertised in the first edition and more a warm evaluation of Daisy’s natural qualities. In this respect I’m sure we moderns will be more inclined to agree to sympathise with Daisy than many Victorian readers did.

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4 thoughts on “In praise of innocence

    1. Jane Austen and Shakespeare have been subjected to updated versions of their works in recent years, and I wonder if James would transfer as readily or whether he’s too much of his time in terms of manners.

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