Henry James’ Daisy Miller Henry James’ Daisy Miller is a romance which has as its heroine a nice, beautiful, and joyful American young lady named Daisy Miller – in fact, Annie P. Miller – who, traveling by Europe, shocks that conservative society with her free and spontaneous behavior.
Although being the narrative on third person, all the events described are those testified by a young American, Frederick Winterbourne, who lives in Europe. He visits his aunt Mrs. Costello in Vevey, Switzerland, and afterwards in Rome. It is in those places that he finds and makes the acquaintance of Miss Daisy – the first two chapters of the romance has Vevey as scenery; the last two occur in Rome. The narrative, with vivid dialogues, exposes clearly a) the spontaneous behavior of Miss Daisy; b) the conservative customs and prejudiced judgments of the European society, through the uttered opinions of both Mrs. Costello and Mrs. Walker, a Winterbourne’s friend who lives in Rome; c) the more liberal principles which Mrs. Miller (Daisy’s mother) has on educating her daughter and son, contrasting with European mothers, and d) the instable and changeable feelings of Winterbourne, who has a great sympathy for Miss Daisy and, instead of loving to be with her and talk to her, feels himself apprehensive on dealing with her so inconsequent manners.
Winterbourne is the witness who is settled between two opposite ways of life: the liberal comportment of Miss Daisy and her American family and the conservative manners of Mrs. Costello and Mrs. Walker, defenders of tradition. He is the only one who is able to living together both sides – the only one who privates of the intimacy of Miss Daisy, Mrs. Miller, Mrs. Costello, and Mrs. Walker. So these opposite situations put him in turmoil, in a state of extreme confusion, agitation, and commotion. He loves Miss Daisy’s lively manners. When his aunt and his friend expose to him the inappropriate demeanor of Miss Daisy in such a society, he tries to defend her manners as an innocent way of living. However, he is conscious that everything could be easier, including his relationship with Miss Daisy, if she did respect, at least on appearance, the social rules. But Miss Daisy does not matter with social rules. She expresses utterly her feelings. She does what she wants to do, independently of being her acts in accordance with social demands. She has a free spirit. And, as any free spirit individual, she will be judged for it. Unfortunately, she will be punished for it.
The story begins in Vevey, a popular holiday resort on Lake Geneva, where a twenty-seven-year-old American, Frederick Winterbourne, who lives in Geneva (“he was extremely devoted to a lady who lives there – a foreign lady – a person older than himself”) is in visit to his aunt. Wandering by the lake he finds a smart American boy, Randolph, and his pretty sister. The spontaneous behavior of that boy, who talks as a machine gun, announces the spontaneous manners of his family, the Millers. Facing the beautiful American lady, who glanced at him and began to talk to her brother, Winterbourne desires to talk to her. But there is a social rule which should be obeyed: “a young man was not at liberty to speak to a young unmarried lady except under certain rarely occurring conditions”. Instead of social rules, Winterbourne risks to begin a conversation with her. As she accepts to talk to him, he thinks, as a prejudiced man, that she is a coquette. Miss Daisy – whose brother explains that the name of her is, in fact, Annie P. Miller – loves to talk and she does it in a spontaneous way. She has no fear on describing events or exposing manners that could be considered misconduct. Winterbourne “had become dishabituated to the American tone”, but talking to Miss Daisy, he is convinced that she is not a coquette, but a flirt, a person who behaves amorously without serious intent. She has a free spirit. Being audacious and intrepid, she invites him, with a resolute fearlessness, to visit the Château de Chillon. At the end, Winterbourne admires her: she has the style, “the tournure of a princess”.
Talking to his aunt about that American family, the proud and exclusive Mrs. Costello explains her nephew about Geneva social rules and utterly expresses her opinion about the Millers: a dreadful, very common family, able to treat a courier as a friend, not respecting social hierarchy. Frederick defends Miss Daisy as a nice and pretty girl, although uncultivated. He wants to introduce his aunt to Miss Daisy, but she declines, avoiding that kind of acquaintance. Moreover, she advices him: “You had better not meddle with little American girls that are uncultivated” (in this sense, “uncultivated” meaning for her “dreadful”). And complements: “You will be sure to make some great mistake. You are too innocent”.
For Winterbourne, his aunt’s declination is a delicate issue to expose to Miss Daisy, but for her it is an ordinary issue which does not affect her humor. Knowing that Mrs. Costello is a proud, snob, rude, and exclusive woman, Miss Daisy recognizes that her own family is also exclusive: “Well, we are exclusive, mother and I. We don’t speak to everyone – or they don’t speak to us.” This last sentence exposes how that conservative society treats people like the Millers, a family whose behavior openly expresses its own way of life, being formalities not a value to its members. It is exemplified by the scene in which Frederick is introduced to Miss Daisy’s mother, without formalities, in a spontaneous way. On contrary, Frederick keeps himself formal. When Daisy informs her mother about the visit to the Château de Chillon with Frederick, he says to her mother: “Your daughter has kindly allowed me the honour of being her guide”. And Mrs. Miller, against the expectations – which would be reproaching her daughter’s wills – does not forbid her to do an excursion with a stranger. She only says “I guess she had better go alone”. As Winterbourne observes, “this was a very different type of maternity from that of the vigilant matrons”.
In a scene which reinforces Miss Daisy’s free spirit, she invites Frederick to a row – “I want you to take me out in a boat” – and he accepts, formally answering: “If you will do me the honour to accept my arm, we will go and select one of them”. A young woman alongside a man in a boat, only the two, is not a proper or right comportment for that conservative society, but Daisy is not worried about it. What she wants, she does.
Two days afterwards, during the excursion to the Château de Chillon, Miss Daisy is extremely animated. However, she does not be touched by the antiquities of the castle; what she really likes is talking – she wants to know everything about Winterbourne, but nothing about Bonivard’s history. She should pay attention on the history of François de Bonivard, a priest who was imprisoned in Chillon from 1532-6 by order of the Duke of Savoy because he had supported the Genovese in their fights for freedom – in their rebellion to create a republic. Bonivard’s desire of freedom was punished with imprisonment.
Advised that Frederick would be returning to Geneva in the next day, Daisy changes her temper, but does not avoid on inviting him to be with her in Rome.
In fact, during a visit to his aunt in Rome some months later, he will find Miss Daisy at Mrs. Walker’s party. His aunt keeps her impressions about the Millers as a dreadful family. In her previous letters to his nephew and afterwards in her speeches, she reproaches, ever in a jocose tone, the behavior of Daisy Miller in Rome, engaged in active social life, “very intimate with some third-rate Italians”, and with a kind of manners which should be reserved to men: “Of course a man may know everyone. Men are welcome to the privilege!” On contrary, Mrs. Miller, as she says to Winterbourne during the party, does not see any problem in her daughter knowing many Italian gentlemen: “she knows a great many gentlemen. […] Of course, it’s a great deal pleasanter for a young lady if she knows plenty of gentlemen.” Also Miss Daisy, who considers anyone of her social circle a close friend, does not recognize any problem on exposing her intentions and acts. For her there is no problem on asking Mrs. Walker for bringing a friend of her to the next party neither on announcing she is going to take a walk with that friend. For her, nothing is improper since she does not want to do anything improper. So she invites Frederick to join her and her friend on the walk.
Walking with Frederick, some parts of her speech deserve to be signed. About Mrs. Walker, she says to Frederick: “I knew where you knew her. You knew her at Geneva”. Then, the readers could ask themselves if Mrs. Walker is that foreign lady refereed on the first chapter to whom Mr. Winterbourne was devoted. If the answer were ‘yes’, the readers could imagine that something in that relationship is hide and maybe improper (considering the social rules). Afterwards, Miss Daisy exposes her happiness for being in Rome and says she intends to stay there all the winter – “if we don’t die of the fever”. It is the first reference about the Roman Fever, or malaria, which could be acquired in such a city and was frightening. When they see Mr. Giovanelli Frederick tries to explain Miss Daisy about the meaning of that meeting; he tries to change Miss Daisy’s intentions to talk to the Italian, but she replays: “I have never allowed a gentleman to dictate to me, or to interfere with anything I do”. Then, Daisy walks with Giovanelli and Frederick in each side of her. Impregnated by social rules, Winterbourne judges her conduct (showing herself in public with a man and without her mother) improper but he is conscious that “it was impossible to regard her as a perfectly well-conducted young lady”.
To save Daisy’s reputation, Mrs. Walker appears to offer her a ride to home, but Daisy refuses the invitation. Is Mrs. Walker’s intention really preventing Miss Daisy on being considered a reckless, adventurous girl? Alongside Frederick on her coach, she begs him to cease his relations with Miss Miller – “not to flirt with her – to give her no farther opportunity to expose herself – to let her alone, in short.” And complements: “If you wish to rejoin the young lady I will put in down. Here, by the way, you have a chance”. Would not be there jealousy in this sort of threat? But Frederick opts by Miss Daisy: he sees Daisy and Giovanelli sit on a garden seat and decides to join them, abandoning Mrs. Walker. However, when he sees Giovanelli opening the parasol and Daisy coming nearer him, both hidden by the parasol, he changes his mind. Did he change his mind because he did not approve that improper conduct or, in fact, he would like that such a scene was happening with him, not with the Italian? Winterbourne’s acts will be ever of vacillation, irresolution, indecision.
The happenings at Mrs. Walker’s party will just reinforce the contradictions between Miss Daisy’s manners and that conservative society. She arrives lately (“after eleven o’clock”) with Giovanelli, uttering, without malice, that they had “the greatest time at the hotel”. She put him to sing and to play the piano and – as the narrator ironically describes – he “performed all the proper functions of a handsome Italian at an evening party”. During the party Winterbourne once more tries to advice Miss Daisy that her habits could be considered improper in that society and she, once more, defends her point-of-view. For her, that sort of thing considered improper seems “much more proper in young unmarried women than in old married ones”. Winterbourne replays that “flirting is a purely American custom; it doesn’t exist here” and “when you deal with natives you must go by the customs of the place”.
Since Miss Daisy does not respect any social rule, Mrs. Walker, irritated and violating the “usual social forms”, gives her “the cold shoulder”. She does not want any kind of relation with Miss Daisy. Afterwards, when Mrs. Walker says to Winterbourne that Miss Daisy “never enters my drawing-room again”, was her decision motivated by respect for social rules or, in fact, by heart concerns – by envy, by jealousy?
Since Miss Daisy was not invited to any social events, Winterbourne has not found her for a long period. He was conscious that he had missed her and “now it was too late”. In a casual encounter, in which Winterbourne once more tries to advice Daisy about her “improper manners” (he had heard gossips and misjudgments made by his aunt and other colonists at St. Peter’s church), she tells him she is engaged with Giovanelli.
One night, wandering by the Colosseum, he finds Daisy and Giovanelli walking and talking alone in such improper both place and time. He is convicted she does not deserve any respect. Besides not having any respect by social rules, they did not have any worry at least about the Roman Fever, considering being this place “a nest of malaria”. Some days after, Miss Daisy dies due to malaria – and worried to explain Frederick that she was not engaged with Giovanelli.
At Miss Daisy’s tomb, Frederick hears from Giovanelli that Daisy was the most beautiful and amiable lady he had seen – and also “the most innocent”. The Italian says that he was conscious that she would never get married to him. At that moment Winterbourne realizes how silly he had been, misjudging Miss Daisy. She was really an innocent girl whose desire was simply living according her own rules.
Before going to Rome, Winterbourne had received a letter from his aunt asking him for bring her “that pretty novel of Cherbuliez’s Paule Méré”. In that Swiss novel the heroine dies of a broken heart because her spontaneity passes for impropriety in the Genevan society, a morally and socially rigid society, while the hero, as Winterbourne, is vacillating and influenced by malicious gossip. Neither Miss Daisy nor Winterbourne probably had read the novel. On contrary, Mrs. Costello maybe feels happy not only by reading it, but by being herself witness of the power of social traditions. In real life, as demonstrated by Miss Daisy’s misadventures, anyone who wants to break social rules will be punished. Social rules of behavior continue to be above any individual behavior. No one can live according his or her own rules or desires.