Wednesday, September 2, 2015

"Her real name is Annie P. Miller" - studying Daisy Miller

He had a great relish for feminine beauty; he was addicted to observing and analysing it; and as regards the young lady’s face he made several observations.

The Library of America volumes of the Henry James short fiction use the original texts, whatever appeared in the magazine, so “Daisy Miller” is titled “Daisy Miller: A Study,” which is pleasingly ambiguous.  A study of whom?

There are only two central characters.  One of them, the Europeanized American Winterbourne meets the free-spirited completely un-Europeanized Daisy – “’Her real name is Annie P. Miller,’ the boy went on” – who is from Schenectady and is direct, fun-loving and willful.  The point of view is split between Winterbourne and a James-like narrator,  so it is never Daisy.  She is always observed.  Most early readers willingly followed Winterbourne’s gaze.  Like him, they studied Daisy, the flirt, the “coquette,” as Winterbourne immediately imagines her.  Someone a Vassar girl knows better than to imitate, even if Daisy never seems to do anything not allowed back in Schenectady.

“[I]n her bright, sweet, superficial little visage there was no mockery, no irony” – this is all via Winterbourne again.  Likely some of his impressions are true, but others are suspect. It is quite hard to pin down how shallow or cunning Daisy is.  “Winterbourne had lost his instinct in this matter, and his reason could not help him.”  A good part of what makes Miller such a good character is the work I have to do to push past Winterbourne to get to know her.

Lately the interest has moved to the other subject of study, Winterbourne, in part through the “queering” of Henry James and the feminist rescue of Daisy Miller, but I think more because people likely to read the story now are more sophisticated or skeptical about point of view.  So we begin asking questions about this odd bird who is studying Daisy.  My opening quotation is odd.  Does that sound like a man interested in a wife, or a mistress?  The narrator twice passes on a rumor that Winterbourne is “extremely devoted to a lady who lived there [in Geneva] – a foreign lady – a person older than himself” in a way that casts doubts on the existence of such a lady.

This double distance – the narrator observing Winterbourne observing Daisy – leads to lots of gaps in the story.  The gaps can be ignore and one story results; if the deconstructionist or queer theorist peers into them other stories become possible.  His story is sad.  He stands in the line of James characters who miss their chance at happiness for false or trivial reasons.  But Daisy’s is sadder.  Di at The Little White Attic has been writing about “Daisy Miller”* and she identifies the two “most moving scenes,” both of which deepen Daisy Miller, whether or not Winterbourne understands what he is seeing.

By the end he understand something.  “’I have lived too long in foreign parts.’”  I will note here that the characters in “Daisy Miller” are almost all Americans.  The people who condemn Miller’s improper behavior – walking with an Italian man in a public place – are all Europeanized Americans.  The other texts around “Daisy Miller” – The American and “The Pension Beaurepas” and so on have trained me to mistrust these folks.  They fear that Europe will corrupt Miller.  They should know.

* There is also a checklist and a post about Winterbourne's perspective that I have basically just rewritten.  A bonus: James parodies “Daisy Miller” in the 1884 “Pandora.”

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