The penultimate book on my Classics Club list was one which I had read before but wanted to revisit – Daisy Miller by Henry James. I first read the novella a couple of years ago on my Kindle, but thought that I would borrow a pretty edition from my local library this time around.
Daisy Miller – ‘a moral tale of youthful spirit’ – was first published in Cornhill Magazine between June and July 1878, and was made into a very slim book later the same year. Until I began my re-read I remembered little of the story, but as soon as I had made my way through the first few pages, entire vivid scenes came to the forefront of my mind. Its opening backdrop sets the tone: ‘At the little town of Vevey, in Switzerland, there is a particularly comfortable hotel. There are, indeed, many hotels; for the entertainment of tourists is the business of the place’.
One of our protagonists, the eponymous Daisy Miller, is a young woman from New York, who is introduced into European society: ‘She was dressed in white muslin, with a hundred frills and flounces, and knots of pale-coloured ribbon. She was bare-headed; but she balanced in her hand a large parasol, with a deep border of embroidery; and she was strikingly, admirably pretty’.
Rather than following Daisy for its entirety, Daisy Miller is told with the perspective of a man in his late twenties named Winterbourne in mind. James initially asserts that he is ‘an extremely amiable fellow, and universally liked… When certain persons spoke of him they affirmed that the reason of his spending so much time at Geneva was that he was extremely devoted to a lady who lived there – a foreign lady – a person older than himself’. James’ characterisation, which continues in this manner, is sublime.
James is incredibly perceptive about the relationships which are built between his characters, particularly in the instance of Daisy and Winterbourne: ‘She gradually gave him more of the benefit of her glance; and then he saw that this glance was perfectly direct and unshrinking. It was not, however, what would have been called an immodest glance, for the young girl’s eyes were singularly honest and fresh. They were wonderfully pretty eyes; and indeed, Winterbourne had not seen for a long time anything prettier than his fair countrywoman’s various features – her complexion, her nose, her ears, her teeth. He had a great relish for feminine beauty; he was addicted to observing and analysing it; and as regards this young lady’s face he made several observations’.
Whilst Daisy Miller is an incredibly short book, and rather a quick read, it is rich and perfectly crafted. I enjoyed it just as much the second time around as the first; the sign, for me, of a true classic.