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Daisy Miller and Washington Square

HenryJamesQuite what Daisy Miller and Washington Square are doing together I don’t know and there is no clear indication either from the publishers. Other than the fact they are both popular novellas by James and both feature a female protagonist, I can’t see a very strong connection.

I bought it on the basis of a recommendation from a fellow student on a literature course a few years ago. I had been complaining about one of the set texts — Henry James’ A Portrait of a Lady —  whereas she was a huge fan of all his work and was encouraging me to give him another go. She had a point – he was after all one of the major literary figures of the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries. I really didn’t have the enthusiasm for reading one of his other major works like The Ambassadors but thought I’d ease myself in with some of his shorter stories.

Daisy Miller, published 1878

For a novella less than 70 pages in length, Daisy Miller had an extraordinary impact on the career of Henry James. After decades of moderate success, the story published in Cornhill Magazine brought him immediate commercial success and critical acclimation. It made James the most talked-about American writer in England, establishing his credentials as the foremost commentator on the clash between American and European attitudes.

The premise of the story is fairly straightforward: what happens when Daisy, a highly unconventional young American woman on holiday in Europe, meets the cultured American expatriate Mr Winterbourne. James uses Daisy’s story to explore how Europeans and Americans view each other, and to consider the prejudices common in any culture. The themes played well at a time when Americans were beginning to travel far more extensively after the end of the Civil War.

The Miller family is presented as wealthy but unsophisticated; a family that has the trappings of class but few of its standards of conduct. Winterbourne is constantly trying to evaluate Daisy; at times seeing her as a charming American flirt and falling in love with her animated character and yet increasingly disturbed by her behaviour, leading her to be “a young lady whom a gentleman need to longer be at pains to respect.”

Ultimately the difference in attitudes are shown to be irreconcilable with fatal consequences for Daisy.

Washington Square, published 1881

A clash of perspectives is also evident in Washington Square. Unusually for James, the novella is set in his home nation of the United States, a country that he hadn’t yet completely abandoned in favour of his adopted England, but which he rarely visited.

If Daisy Miller is a girl who wants to live life to the full, the main character of Washington Square, Catherine Sloper, is someone whom life is passing by. The only surviving child of a wealthy and esteemed doctor, Catherine is doubly cursed by her plain looks and lack of personality. She seems destined to become an oddly dressed, old-before-her-time spinster until she meets the handsome, and suave Morris Townshend who seems a very enthusiastic suitor.

Dr Sloper, whose attitude to his daughter borders on disdain, refuses to believe Townshend is anything other than a fortune hunter and systematically sets about destroying the romance. Although he finds his suspicions are vindicated, he underestimates the strength of Catherine’s feelings and the machinations of his sister Mrs Penniman who encourages the pair’s relationship for her own misguided reasons. Will Catherine find the hidden depths of resolve to help her forge her own path or will her sense of duty and obligation lead her to follow her father’s desires?

It’s the psychological aspect of Washington Square that, for me, made this a much stronger story than Daisy Miller. James weaves moral and and social observation while exploring the question of whether Catherine can attain her own identity in a patriarchal society without sacrificing her ability to love.

The interactions between Dr Sloper and his daughter make uncomfortable reading. He doesn’t expect much of her other than she be clever in the ‘womanly ways’ of embroidery, and light conversation. When she seems as if she will reject his direction for her to throw over Townshend, he becomes increasingly cold and tyrannical. In one scene where Catherine goes to his study to try and reconcile their differences and appeal for his understanding, he simply accuses her of being ungrateful and cruel.

This was more than the poor girl could bear; her tears overflowed, and she moved towards her grimly consistent parent with a pitiful cry. Her hands were raised in supplication, but he sternly evaded this appeal. instead of letter her sob out her misery on his shoulder, he simply took her by the arm and directed her course across the threshold, closing the door gently but firmly behind her.

This heartless man, so full of confidence and pride In his ability to judge what is right that he has lost his ability to empathise, reminded me of that other monstrous literary father Dickens’ Mr Paul Dombey.  Fortunately both these monsters are proved wrong.

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