Henry James can really spin a yarn

51P1X4ZoY+LFinished reading the first volumes of Knausgaard’s epic and of Elena Ferrante’s tetralogy, which were both great. Both are mannered novels and are concerned, in my opinion, with delicate social relationships as they take place within a very tight-knit society (in Knausgaard’s case, his family, and in Ferrante’s, the few city blocks that constitute her narrator’s entire world). And for some reason after finishing these books I had a strong desire to read some Henry James. So I picked up Daisy Miller, which is a novella of his I’ve been meaning to read for years.

James and I have a complicated relationship. I’ve always wanted to love him more than I actually have. He’s so very much the kind of thing that I love: a writer concerned primarily with people and social relationships, and a careful observer of human psychology (two things that don’t necessarily go together, strange as it may seem, in a novelist–Evelyn Waugh for instance, at least in most of his novels, seems more concerned with describing the nature of relationships than with examining the causes and effects behind human actions).

And I’ve enjoyed a number of Henry James novels, but the only one I’ve loved was Washington Square, and that is, famously, the least Jamesian of all his books. I have all the usual complaints about James. His characters and his settings are so bloodless. His world is too small. The novels have no room for the passions. And I find his sentences to be tediously long. I don’t think he needs to be edited down. I think he’s a great writer and that he writes long for a reason, but that doesn’t mean that I enjoy reading them.

Anyway all of the above is basically an aside, since Daisy Miller is early James and, as such, is about as readable as any other 19th century novelist. And it contains so much of what makes him a great writer. The novella is about a young American man, Mr. Winterbourne, who lives off inherited wealth in Switzerland. And he encounters a girl, Daisy Miller, who is the daughter of some businessman in Schenectady, and who, with her mother, is whiling her life away in Europe.

From the beginning, Mr. Winterbourne is struck by Daisy Miller’s lack of concern for social propriety. She doesn’t seem fast. She doesn’t drink or smoke or have affairs or do anything else that would place her firmly outside the pale, but she’s also not careful of her reputation. She speaks freely, and she goes around unchaperoned with men.

And that’s the novella. The people around Daisy are like, err, maybe you should be careful, and she’s like, Nope, I’m gonna do what I want!

Which is a pretty small story, but you’re hooked, because James sells it. Even in 1878, most women weren’t hothouse flowers. They went out in public. They walked around alone. They spoke to strange men. This is exactly the time in history when the old mores were breaking down; when people were moving to the city; when women were finding work. But he still sells you on the idea that amongst these people, in this place, what Daisy was doing was unthinkable. And he makes you frightened for her. What’s going to happen to her? And even more, he keeps you right on the edge in terms of your sympathies. Is she vibrant and free? Or merely frivolous? Should we be outraged on her behalf?

And now I want to read more James! Definitely not late James though. My last foray into James was Wings of the Dove, which is an immensely long book that bored me so tremendously I gave up halfway through (actually it was about this time last year). So not that. But something! I’m thinking The Bostonians.

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