I only recently started reading Henry James. I could not stand him in graduate school, when I was in my 20’s, and never finished him when he was assigned, but twenty years on, I find much to enjoy in his work. I suspect he may be someone you have to grow into; I don’t think he has much to say to the young; one needs more life experience before he can be appreciated. But why shouldn’t living long come with a few rewards?
Daisy Miller may be a good case in point. The main character, Mr. Winterbourne, meets young Miss Miller on one of those protracted vacations wealthy people in 19th century novels so often take. Mr. Winterbourne is at once taken in by Daisy’s beauty and by her vivacity; she has a great lust for life and no self-conscienceness to hinder her. Daisy unknowingly breaks all the rules of her society in her search for experience. She does not know what she is doing, but she does not seem to mind.
The two separate and then meet up again in Rome where Mr. Winterbourne finds Daisy engaged in an affair of sorts with a gold-digging Italian man. Daisy has so offended society by this time that none of the other Americans abroad will have anything to do with her or her family. Mr. Winterbourne tries to get her to change her ways, to convince her that she should drop the Italian and rejoin the more proper society of her peers, but she refuses. She will have her way whether or not society approves.
A friend of mine once told me that Henry James ends his stories with an almost throw-away line or two that seems to put everything that went on up to then in a completely new light. That is the case with Daisy Miller, so though I really want to talk about the ending, I won’t spoil it. I will say that I think it also supports my belief that one should wait before reading Henry James. Had I read this “throwaway” ending when I was 20, I would have been outraged at the hypocrasy Mr. Winterbourne displays. Now, I understand why he would do what he does, though it goes against what he has said up to then.
My favorite character in Daisy Miller, my favorite in Henry James so far, is Mr. Winterbourne’s aunt, Mrs. Costello. Here is her opinion of the Miller family:
“They are hopelessly vulgar,” said Mrs. Costello. “Whether or no being hopelessly vulgar is being ‘bad’ is a question for the metaphysicians. They are bad enough to dislike, at any rate; and for this short life that is quite enough.”
I think if I had read a line like that when I was 20 I would have come to at least dislike Mrs. Costello and possibly Henry James. Now, even though I realize she would certainly have nothing to do with me, I find her very funny. I’ve certainly moved away from Daisy’s age towards Mrs. Costello’s age and that has added to my understanding and appreciation of Henry James. Though I spend much of my time reading Young Adult fiction, I’m pleased to find something written with an older audience in mind. If you are under 35 and haven’t read Henry James yet, I recommend waiting. Save a few treats for yourself later in life. You won’t regret it. It’s nice to discover something new, especially when it is also something old.
I still read Henry James’s short fiction, even six years after this review first ran on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. I haven’t picked up any of his full length novels yet, but I love his shorter works.