Sunday, 24 May 2009

Daisy Miller (Henry James)

--The blurb--
"Travelling in Europe with her family, Daisy Miller, an exquisitely beautiful young American woman, presents her fellow-countryman Winterbourne with a dilemma he cannot resolve. Is she deliberately flouting social convention in the outspoken way she talks and acts, or is she simply ignorant of those conventions? When she strikes up an intimate friendship with an urbane young Italian, her flat refusal to observe the codes of respectable behaviour leave her perilously exposed. In Daisy Miller James created his first great portrait of the enigmatic and dangerously independent American woman, a figure who would come to dominate his later masterpieces."

--The review--
The Portrait of a Lady and The Turn of the Screw jostle, albeit for very different reasons, not only for the crown of James' greatest work but perhaps even one of Britain's greatest (or American, depending on how you see the nationality of this fairly international author). While Daisy Miller is a delicate little novel, generally concise and with some nice areas of description, I think that James' formerly mentioned works can continue to breathe easily in the hierarchy of James' oeuvre and in that of the literary canon.

The setting of the story is perfectly pleasant, but the characters are insipid and lacking any real substance (this covers the entire cast, from Winterbourne and his frail aunt to the eponymous Daisy and her irritating brother Randolph). Daisy only served to remind me of another very silly Daisy (the 1926 creation of F Scott Fitzgerald, Daisy Buchanan, who appears in The Great Gatsby), and while I can see how the frivolity of Daisy's personality may have inspired the character of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With The Wind, James just doesn't take it far enough, while Margaret Mitchell does.

Weaknesses in the novella stretch right through to its weak ending; as is the case in many other instances of poorly-crafted fiction, the characters, their backgrounds and their relationships with other characters were simply not built up enough for readers to care about the 'shock' ending and demise of Daisy. It may therefore be a better idea for readers of James' work, whether newcomer or seasoned fan, to proceed with his other well-known works, which are well-crafted enough to get under your skin and stay there.

Other works by Henry James
The Wings of the Dove (1902)
The Turn of the Screw (1898)
What Maisie Knew (1897)
The Bostonians (1886)
The Portrait of a Lady (1881)
Washington Square (1880)
The Europeans (1878)

James published 23 novels (2 posthumously) and 24 short stories, as well as travel writings, memoirs, plays, biography, and visual and literary arts criticism; the above list is a short selection of his most well-known titles.

1 comment:

Felipe said...

We just posted a critique of James's short fiction if anyone's interested:

Overall, I'm a fan of James, especially his short stories. Most of them are very good, whereas with other writers (like Faulkner, for example) the quality varies greatly.