Tuesday, September 1, 2015

I suppose he thought all American girls were like Daisy Miller (American girls are the best girls)

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.


  1. Daisy Miller has sat on my shelves for years, clearly not being flirtatious enough. However, your post may have lifted into position to come off the shelf and escape dusty spinsterhood. I have not read enough James.

  2. "Daisy Miller" is the Platonic ideal of James - from this period, I mean.

  3. The Vassar girls sounds delightful. Who is the publisher for the copy you have?
    My impression (and it could be wrong) of James is that trying to be a successful playwright helped do him in as a writer--that plus watching Du Maurier (who was going blind and as a cartoonist had to discover another source of income) soar as a novelist.

  4. The edition I linked was published by the good people at Estes & Lauriat in 1883. The original of the scan is at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The copy enjoyed by ma femme is at the Newberry Library in Chicago.

    Do you think the Vassar bookstore has print-on-demand editions available? It seems like they should.

    I believe that true Jamesians will protest your narrative. James was never "done in as a writer"! He only got better and better!

    1. I mean by being 'done in'--the struggle w/his confidence. I'm finding several print on demand versions on Amazon.
      Will you read the others in the series?

    2. Read more of the Three Vassar Girls? I have not even read one. I have barely read more than what I quote.

      But I wish someone else - someone with more tolerance for cliches and/or camp - would read one and report on the highlights. What else is as hilarious as that "two kinds of girls" quote? I hope that theoretical reader does not pay $25 for a junky POD copy of something pinched from Google Books.

      If anyone is taking requests, please start with Three Vassar Girls in France: A Story of the Siege of Paris. Vassar girls were tough characters! Maybe there is a scene where they eat roasted rats. Maybe they become Communards.

      Hey, look, the Vassar girls are like the Baroness in The Europeans: "The three girls made Mrs. Davenport's salon very attractive by draping her Indian shawls as portières..." (p. 13)

    3. I am not certain how long this will take me, but I have quite the soft spot for this kind of 19th century girls fiction, so I have downloaded it -- I will let you know how it goes.

    4. Oh good. The Vassar girls books ought to be fun in some limited dose, at least. And the illustrations are quite good, which is a big bonus.

      I feel I should have know your blog, but I guess I did not. So thanks for the introduction.

  5. Did Lizzie W Champney live long enough to encounter Dorothy Parker's remark "If all the girls at Vassar were laid end to end, I wouldn't be at all surprised."?

  6. Your four numbered points about "Daisy Miller" hit the nail on the head. Perhaps it is a mark of my limitations as a reader, but I wish all of James was as accessible and interesting as Daisy's story. I could then become a Jamesian. Perhaps my next rereading of "Daisy Miller" would be the catalyst needed to send me on to more by James. Confession: I have now started and stopped _The Portrait of a Lady_ about a dozen times; I guess that says more about me than about the novel.

  7. Luckily for Champney, she died long before the onset of cultural decadence. Kinda vulgar, Dorothy Parker.

    I will pursue a couple of those numbered points and see what happens. I would not call myself a Jamesian either. Haven't read enough, for one thing.

  8. The Siege of Paris book looks marvelous: "Droves of beeves were waiting at the different stations to be taken into Paris." And it's copiously illustrated!

  9. Generously illustrated. I wish that could return.

    Better enjoy those beeves, because pretty soon, it'll be rats.

  10. " it'll be rats"
    You mean cellar-rabbits.
    There were also roof-rabbits, of course.

  11. Cellar-rabbits. This novel gets better and better.

    The actual Siege of Paris novel, not the one in my imagination ,but the real one, actually includes the eating of the zoo animals. See p. 137 on. Some punches are pulled.