13 August 2007

Book Review: Daisy Miller and other stories by Henry James

Daisy Miller and other stories First in Switzerland, then in Italy, Mr. Winterbourne meets fellow American Miss Annie ‘Daisy’ Miller and her family. He vacillates between being attracted by her outgoing chatter and being repelled by it. Sometimes he believes it to be a sign of innocence, other times he suspects it as proof of ill-breeding or worse. Certainly her indiscriminate striking-up of friendships with porters and fortune-hunters is viewed by polite society as a mark of someone not fit to associate with. Winterbourne’s best efforts to make her understand why people are snubbing her come to nothing, and Daisy’s refusal to change her ways leads to tragedy.

Accompanying the quite brief (especially by James’s standards) Daisy Miller are three even shorter pieces. Longstaff’s Marriage chronicles the unexpected effects of unrequited love; Four Meetings describes exactly what the title suggests and manages to tell a character’s whole story in the process; and Benvolio is the tale of a young man who cannot reconcile the two sides of his nature.

Henry James in short story form is easier to read than Henry James in a novel, although he does revert to his customary long-windedness in Benvolio. That was the collection’s weakest link, with even the narrator admitting that the title character could get a little tiresome. The three preceding tales more than compensated; highly readable with interesting, well-observed characters. And if the endings weren’t happy, they were fitting. The conclusion to Daisy Miller in particular had an air of inevitability; something had to go wrong, and sure enough it did. That story was a vivid depiction of how people and their actions can be misinterpreted, and what can happen when the holders of opposing views stubbornly cling on to them. But I still wanted to reach through the pages to give Daisy a good prod and wake her up a bit; she could not - or would not - see how other people might misread her behaviour. (Honey, it’s the Victorian era; reputation is everything.) But I have to wonder . . . has James ever written a happy ending? Or, for that matter, a strong-willed female protagonist who hasn’t been brought down by fate or man?

Of the ‘other stories’, my favourite was Longstaff’s Marriage, despite its being a little improbable even for the notoriously sentimental Victorians; I liked the bookish spinster who narrated it. Come to think of it, I generally do like bookish spinsters - and I am not going to infer anything from that!

Rating: B

3 comments:

Sarah said...

I'm a fierce partisan when it comes to Henry James, so I'm glad you enjoyed the stories.

I think James often did write a happy ending in the sense that many of his main female characters end up unhappy but having restored their self respect, cf Isabel Archer in Portrait of a Lady or Catherine Sloper in Washington Square.

Eva said...

The only one of these I've read is Daisy Miller, which I didn't enjoy all that much.

I think I'm the opposite of you-I love James' novels, but his short stories just end too soon! Even The Turn of the Screw, which I had expected to love, felt too abrupt. I just love the calm dreaminess of his novels.

CoversGirl said...

Sarah: I've never read Washington Square, but I take your point about Isabel Archer. But what about Verena Tarrant?

Eva: I loved The Turn of the Screw, but then I would, being a ghost story fan! His novels are wonderful, but they do require a bit of patience - a commodity in short supply this semester.

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Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776