Maud, one of the three Vassar girls who stars in Lizzie W. Champney’s Three Vassar Girls Abroad (1883)*, the first of the many Three Vassar Girls novels, is painting in a Paris museum where she is hit on by a “young Frenchman.” She drives him away. Her friend says:
“I think you managed him very nicely. I suppose he thought all American girls were like Daisy Miller, and had never heard the proverb, – There are two kinds of girls, girls who flirt, and girls who go to Vassar College.” (Ch. 2, p. 42)
Oh, you think I am making this up. I assume that Vassar alumni still revisit the scene at the Musée de Cluny. Perhaps there is a plaque. Curiously, The American opens with its protagonist chatting up a copyist in the Louvre, but she is a French adventuress, not a Vassar girl, so the episode takes a different direction.
Yesterday I wrote that we would likely not read, or have heard of, Henry James if The Europeans were his best book. This was a convoluted way to avoid the morbid – and highly useful for a writer with such a long career – “what if he had died?” question. At what point, if James had died, or let’s say retired, or become an eccentric recluse, suddenly stopped writing, that is what I mean, would he still show up in the Norton Anthology of American Literature?
I am pretty sure that “Daisy Miller” (1878) would have done the trick. It is 1) unusually well-written, 2) about a subject of continuing interest – although the subject of interest has perhaps changed, 3) tricky in its dual points of view, neither of which is quite the right one, which keeps the reader on his toes, and 4) popular. No need for any later rediscovery of “Daisy Miller.” It was famous immediately, in England and the U.S. A big hit. A pop culture reference that five years later could be casually dropped into Three Vassar Girls Abroad. Everyone knew who Daisy Miller was. Or more importantly what – a flirt.
Whether she is what the Vassar girls think she is, that also gives the reader something to do. You gotta give readers something to occupy their capacious and active minds. Irony gives them something to chew on.
“Here comes my sister!” cried the child, in a moment. “She’s an American girl.”
Winterbourne looked along the path and saw a beautiful young lady advancing. “American girls are the best girls,” he said, cheerfully, to his young companion.
That’s James, not Three Vassar Girls, although they would agree with the sentiment.
* The title continues: Rambles of Three College Girls on a Vacation Trip through France and Spain for Amusement and Instruction, with Their Haps and Mishaps. With their haps. For some reason I have not actually read this novel. Ma femme discovered it, and the “Daisy Miller” scene, years ago, researching who knows what, and I have squirreled it away until now.