Daisy Miller was by no measure of comparison Henry James’ bestselling book, doubling the sales of all his other books. James said that he was inspired to write Daisy Miller after overhearing some expatriates talk about how a woman had been “picked up”, in those words, by an Italian man, and had enjoyed a fairly nice relationship before some small conflict caused it all to crumble. Such is the formula of Many of James’ novels, but we can see that even early in his career, he had his mind set on extrapolating the great mysteries of this world through a class of people he knew inside and out.
Daisy Miller is a clash between two classes of American expats, Mrs.Costello and Mrs.Walker. They represent the Old money, the aristocratic upper class who is familiar with European culture in a way that the nouveau riche Daisy Miller can never be. We have to remember that tourism, while having existed before the 19th century, grew in staggering popularity after the industrial revolution. So the older class is at odds with Daisy because they think it’s their duty to be exclusive. But this in turn prompts Daisy to want that life more, as their snobbishness is to her an attractive quality. While in the town of Vevey in Switzerland, she meets Winterbourne, an expatriate who has lived most of his life in Europe, and who in turn belongs to neither the new or old money institutions. They fall for each other right away, but when they agree to meet a few months later in Rome, Winterbourne realises that she has met an Italian man named Gionvanelli, an attractive romantic but suspected fortune-hunter. This type of character, too, will return in such later works as Portrait of a Lady. When in Rome, Mrs.Walker objects to the conventions she subverts, and Winterbourne soon abandons the woman he had once so easily fallen for. Soon after, though, Daisy succumbs to the Roman fever and dies soon after.
Henry James called this story a tragedy but, what Daisy fell victim to was not to swarthy European men. Rather, she was a victim of the strict and at-times unspoken code of manners that the proprietors of Old money were trying to uphold. She is at first purposely excluded, but because of how naive and nice she was, Mrs.Walker and the others had no choice to accept to. To an extent.
This divide between Daisy independently finding love and her being forcefully guided towards rich men is not just a moral qualm unique to the book. Rather, James is comparing the contemporary sentiments of the American family versus the dated ideals of the old rich. This is by no means a groundbreaking feminist work, but it does show how mannerly decorum oppresses young women who want agency. The forces that are supposed to guide women into marriage only repel women who want to be innocent by virtue of honest choices.
But Daisy Miller is interesting for many other reasons. This tale is told in the 3rd person, but primarily follows Winterbourne. This perspective adds another layer of ambiguity to the story, but also suggests that the lense he wears is the lense that his audience wears. Daisy cannot be defined without being generalized. Even when he ponders about her past, she is either an innocent girl from rural New York or a socialite of the city with all the implications of that position. The problem is she can’t just *be*. So long as she’s subject to this gaze, she is preemptively defined.
James says that Winterbourne “had a pleasant sense that he should never be afraid of Daisy Miller.” But it is only a ‘sense’, a feeling that he won’t act upon. While the consequences of Daisy getting embroiled in the conflict of manners is damaging, it does little good to Winterbourne too. In fact, his hesitation (along with his name I guess) is symbolic of his sterility in the face of these conventions. James does not specify about whether his fear is a product of society or just part of his nature, but it certainly cannot remain when someone just wants to be free from constraints. After all, the original subtitle of DM was “a study”, which just implies that Winterbourne defers his sexual feelings by the act of observation. Therein lies the keystone of this work of fiction — while she fearlessly attempts to reinforce her strong identity, she remains but a character in the eye of the beholder.
The novella is important because it foreshadows the recurring Henry James template. It’s also important because after its publication, Daisy was forever etched into the American literary imagination. This isn’t a stretch. Fitzgerald’s infamous Daisy Buchanan from The Great Gatsby is arguably a revisiting of a character who died to defy the conventional, and if you sympathize with Winterbourne’s unrequited longing for her, I guess you could say she also defied the wishes of the reader as well.