Daisy Miller is the first book by Henry James I've read. I have three books of his on my classics club list, as I love the sound of his themes, particularly the culture clash between the Old World (Europe) and the New World (America). Daisy Miller seemed like the perfect introduction to his work as it's a short tale about a rich American girl who is criticised by the society in Italy for being too free and uninhibited. The narrator, a young American ex-pat called Winterbourne, meets Daisy whilst she is travelling around Europe with her family. He is quickly bewitched by her, mainly because she isn't bound by rigid social etiquette; she talks to him without being formally introduced and even agrees to an excursion to the nearby Chillon Castle un-chaperoned. But Daisy's disregard of social conventions soon makes her the centre of gossip when she is seen out with a local Italian and refuses to take note of Winterbourne's 'well intentioned' warnings.
Daisy Miller was the perfect introduction to Henry James and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Although the theme of 'free American girl comes up against European society living in the past' was fairly obvious, there was a good deal of subtlety in the way James wrote and I didn't feel as though I was being smacked over the head with the message. This was mainly due to the ambiguity in the main characters; Daisy herself was forward yet innocent at the same time and Winterbourne, for all his high talk, only seemed to like Daisy as he suspected that she was a flirt and would therefore go rather further than other girls. He may have gone on about upholding social standard, but his motivations were definitely less well intentioned than Daisy's;
"If therefore, Miss Daisy Miller exceeded the liberal margin allowed to these young ladies, it was probable that anything might be expected of her. Winterbourne was impatient to see her again."
It was this hint of Winterbourne's creepy motives and his jealousy when his affections for Daisy aren't returned with the appreciation he thinks they deserve later in the book that make Daisy Miller such a good read. There's enough irony and ambiguity in the book to make it thought provoking. Of course some characters, like Winterbourne's disapproving Aunt, are more straight-forward, but I appreciated the complexity in the leads.
The only disappointment for me was the ending. It seemed somewhat abrupt and the dramatic event that happened didn't fit with the rest of the story. It was almost as if James didn't quite know how to resolve things for his characters, so he dealt with it in a rather sledge-hammer like way. However, the themes and the beautiful writing more than make up for that. I'm excited to read more novels by James now.
Source: Personal copy (kindle)
First Published: 1878
Score: 4 out of 5
Classics Club: book 11 of 72.
My full list can be found here.