John Burnside's book of a lifetime: Daisy Miller by Henry James


Friday 07 February 2014 01:00 GMT

Daisy Miller may not be a major work, but as my first encounter with Henry James, it became the gateway to a world that has fascinated me ever since. It is a short novel (around ninety pages), whose premise seems fairly straightforward: what happens when a cultivated, rather stiff American émigré who may “have lived too long at Geneva”, meets a highly unconventional young woman and, in spite of a general suspicion that she might be a “potential inconduite, as they said at Geneva”, falls in love with her?

Daisy Miller arrives in Frederick Winterbourne’s staid world the way the angel arrives at an Annunciation, as both promise and challenge. From their first meeting at Vevey, to the story’s dramatic conclusion in Rome, Winterbourne’s interest in Daisy is subject to constant censure from his carefully “exclusive” aunt, Mrs Costello, and her forensically respectable social circle: the girl is “not nice”, they say, she is overly familiar with her family’s courier, she has been observed in inappropriate situations with dubious young “gentlemen” and Winterbourne would clearly do well to distance himself, before the inevitable scandal unfolds. 

At first sight, it seems that Winterbourne is genuinely torn between romantic attachment and his suffocating social milieu – and that might have made for an engaging, but not uncommon study of love versus convention; however, James’ keen observation reveals something deeper than that for, even as he protests his aunt’s attacks on Daisy’s character, (yes, she is uncultivated, he admits, but she is not the reprobate for which the entire world has decided to mistake her) he is less disappointed than relieved when a nocturnal encounter with the girl and her suitor, Giovanelli, appears to prove Mrs Costello right: “Winterbourne stopped, with a sort of horror; and, it must be added, with a sort of relief. It was as if a sudden illumination had been flashed upon the ambiguity of Daisy’s behaviour and the riddle had become easy to read. She was a young lady whom a gentleman need no longer be at pains to respect.”

Though the novel’s final act has yet to unfold, we cannot help but conclude that the real tragedy lies here, in Winterbourne’s relief. It was never social propriety that made him hesitate in his courtship, it was fear of accepting the challenge that the Annunciation at Vevey had posed, a fear, not of society, but of what he himself might feel – and later, when his mistake about Daisy becomes clear, he may remark that he has “lived too long in foreign parts”, but he quickly returns to his former existence at Geneva, untouched by anything save his own contrived narrative, un coeur en hiver, his only swerving comfortably behind him.

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