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 Winterbourne: What has she been doing?

Mrs. Walker: Everything that is not done here.

An 1878 novella (too long to be a short story, too short to be a novel) by Henry James -- half romantic comedy, half social commentary and mockery of rich, snobby Americans who tried to imitate rich, snobby Europeans. Available here.

Frederick Winterbourne, age 27, was just another average, mundane, young man, American by birth but raised in Europe since childhood, until he took a break from "studying" in Geneva to visit his aunt in Vevey, Switzerland. That's when he met her: 19-year-old Daisy Miller from Schenectady, New York, on a tour of Europe with her mother and little brother. From the moment she stumbles across his path as he's sitting in the hotel garden drinking coffee, Winterbourne is smitten by her. She's beautiful, graceful, friendly... and, he soons learns, the enemy of all respectable American snobs trying to fit in among European snobs. Her crimes are unforgiveable. She's a chatterbox! She treats her courier, Eugenio, like he's her friend and equal! She takes strolls in public alone or worse, with men she's not related to! She... flirts! In short, she's an independent, stubborn, lively young woman who's interested in everything, wants to be friends with everybody, and literally refuses to do as the Romans do when in Rome. No amount of mortification or warnings from her compatriots can convince her to live life by anything but her own rules and what makes her happy, propriety be damned!

Despite his aunt's warning to stay away from the eccentric, vulgar Miller girl and her equally vulgar family, Winterbourne is determined to get to know Daisy better, if only to try to figure out what makes her tick, even taking her on an excursion to Castle Chillon. Since Winterbourne has to return to Geneva afterwards, the two plan to meet again in Rome. Winterbourne's enthusiasm for the plan fades, however, once he arrives and hears the scandalous stories of Miss Miller flirting with every man in Italy. When she dares to stroll along the Pincio with Winterbourne on one arm and her friend Mr. Giovanelli on the other and later brings Giovanelli to Mrs. Walker's party, her fellow Americans decide she has gone too far and actively begin to give her the cold shoulder, lest their European companions believe they approve of her behavior.

Winterbourne must resolve a dilemma: Is Daisy simply an innocent American girl worth thinking well of? Or is she really as senseless and vulgar as everyone says she is and not worthy of all the anxiety he suffers trying to figure it out? He finally decides she does not deserve his efforts to think well of her when he finds her hanging out with Giovanelli in the Colosseum in the middle of the night, which everyone knows is the perfect time for contracting the deadly Roman fever (malaria, transmitted chiefly by the mosquitoes that came out after dark). He insists he doesn't even care if what she told him about being engaged was true or a joke.

With all the misunderstandings, bad judgment and Daisy's clever wit, the scandal plays out like a typical romantic comedy. And then Daisy dies of Roman fever, and Winterbourne realizes too late that he was wrong about her, so he goes back to his older mistress in Geneva since it's too late for him to change. He has lived too long in foreign parts.

James and his friend William Dean Howells spent many a night banging their heads against the wall over how many American readers thought Daisy was an insult to Americans when, clearly, James was trying to insult the Americans who ostracized her just for not being a snob! Sadly, they proved James' point all too well, rejecting the bold girl as if they, like their counterparts within the story, "desired to express to observant Europeans the great truth that, though Miss Daisy Miller was a young American lady, her behavior was not representative -- was regarded by her compatriots as abnormal." Sadly, some worlds just do not want to be saved and overloaded with fun.


Daisy herself is an example of:

 Winterbourne: If you won't flirt with me, do cease, at least, to flirt with your friend at the piano; they don't understand that sort of thing here. Not in young unmarried women.

Daisy: It seems to me much more proper in young unmarried women than in old married ones.

 Daisy: It has never occurred to Mr. Winterbourne to offer me any tea.

Winterbourne: I have offered you advice.

Daisy: I prefer weak tea!

 Winterbourne: There shall be nothing scandalous in my attentions to her.

Mrs. Walker: There certainly will be in the way she takes them.


The story provides examples of:

 Daisy: I noticed you were as stiff as an umbrella the first time I saw you.

 Mrs. Costello: You have lived too long out of the country. You will be sure to make some great mistake. You are too innocent.

Winterbourne: My dear aunt, I am not so innocent.

 "He wondered what were the regular conditions and limitations of one's intercourse with a pretty American flirt. It presently became apparent that he was on the way to learn."

 Winterbourne: You were right in that remark that you made last summer. I was booked to make a mistake. I have lived too long in foreign parts.

 Winterbourne: Why the devil did you take her to that fatal place?

Giovanelli: For myself I had no fear; and she wanted to go.

Winterbourne: That was no reason!

 Daisy: I don't care whether I have Roman fever or not!

  • Together Umbrella: After Winterbourne returns to the Pincio to look for Daisy, the sight of Daisy and Giovanelli cuddling under her parasol makes him turn right around.

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