Monday, 18 July 2011

Daisy, Daisy, Give Me Your Answer Do

Daisy Miller is the first Henry James novel that I have read, and I loved it. It isn't long at all at only 115 pages (my edition is anyway) so anyone can read it over a weekend.

The overall plot (without giving away anything) is the tale of a Mr Winterbourne, an American in Europe. When we first meet Mr W he is in a town called Vevey having just come from Geneva. Staying with his aunt, Mrs Costello, he meets a little scoundrel of a boy called Randolph Miller, who is in the process of refusing to go to bed, as little boys so enjoy doing. He promptly introduces our friend to his sister named Daisy Miller (no prizes for having guessed her name before you read it). The Miller family is American too, from Schenectady in New York state, and they pride themselves in being awfully sociable people, which doesn't always shed the best light on them.

Daisy is often called a "flirt", and it is easy understand why very early on. Considering the novel was written in 1878, she is a terribly forward sort of girl, even considered quite common by the higher-class members of the novel, such as pompous Mrs Costello. It is pretty evident that Mr W falls for her ditzy yet charming ways, and after just a couple of weeks or so he seems to be head-over-heels.

Daisy, however, leaves for Rome soon after they become friends, and as his aunt is there already, Mr W follows. This is where I find the novel to take a turn for the slightly amusing. You see, Daisy, as always, is being her flirty and amiable self, and in doing so she has made lots of friends. Lots of gentleman friends *cue 'shock horror' faces*. One such 'friend' is called Mr Giovanelli. Mr W first meets Mr G very awkwardly in a sort of third-wheel arrangement whereby he tags along with Daisy when she goes to meet him. Mr G, by Mr W's standards, is very common indeed. For example, he has a whole flower in his button-hole, and as was explained in the notes at the back of the book, the larger a gentleman's button-hole, the more common he is. So a whole flower? Scandalous.

Mr W begins to grow extremely envious of Mr G's position, and as Daisy Miller is such a short book, it doesn't take long for his envy to become full-blown creepy stalking. As he follows Daisy everywhere (he has a peculiar way of showing his affection), she starts to grow tired of his nonsense, and insults him. Does this perturb our protagonist? Oh no! Even when Daisy is shunned by her temporary landlady, and even though Mrs Costello is adamant that she is filthy and whatnot, he continues to adore her from closer than she probably would like him to, at least whenever she is with Mr Giovanelli and his gargantuan button-hole. I highly doubt such stalking was accepted even in 19th century Rome.

What I noticed most, however, about Mr Winterbourne's infatuation, was his frequent commenting on Daisy's beauty. To him, she was "exquisite"and "pretty", but never funny or kind or sweet. Perhaps it is as a modern reader that I notice this, and a contemporary reader wouldn't have thought twice about the blind love. It revisits that idea of love at first sight: essentially it is just lust. Would Mr Winterbourne have loved / stalked Daisy in the same manner if her nose had been larger? Or if she had had bad skin? Or if she didn't have such good dress sense? Probably not, though he was attracted to her because of her terrifying ability to talk non-stop at people and make them think they wanted to listen. However, at the end (I shan't tell you what happens), Mr G comments on her wonderful personality, which makes me think that he was the one for her after all.

Thoughts? Would you be slightly unsettled by bumbling Mr Winterbourne if you were  in Daisy's position?

By Jess

1 comment:

  1. you make it sounds great :) think its going to have to join the other books in my extensive summer reading list x