by Henry James
Recommended Ages: 13+
The story, dating from 1878, is touching and sad, told from the point of view of a young American expat studying in Switzerland, named Winterbourne. While visiting his very proper, upper-class, widowed aunt in the lakeside resort town of Vevay, he is fascinated by a beautiful young American named Daisy Miller. Unlike Winterbourne, who was educated in Europe and who doesn't really understand American manners, Daisy is entirely a creature of Schenectady, N.Y. - a gregarious, fashionably dressed, spoiled banker's daughter who doesn't understand the way her every act, whether innocent or defiant, is judged by the exacting mores of the European nobility. She loves being in society, but has no consciousness of its proprieties or improprieties. She loves having gentleman friends, and risks scandal by going all over town with them unchaperoned. Her mother doesn't have the spirit to check her, and neither of them can tell the difference between a real gentleman and a charlatan. So, while Winterbourne watches her - first in Vevay, and later in Rome - he can never quite make up his mind whether to censure her for acting improperly, or excuse her for her innocence. So, while her head is seemingly turned by a handsome Italian adventurer, Winterbourne never succeeds in cutting in and saving her before her lack of good judgment leads her to irrevocable harm.
The word "bittersweet" is not enough. The ending of this brief novella (novelette?) is downright painful. Seventy years earlier, in the hands of a Jane Austen, approximately the same raw materials would have been the making of a comedy of manners. This, instead, is a tragedy of manners, in which the manners themselves are subtly indicted, and in which the difference between the manners of old world and new actually claim an innocent and vivacious life. Class snobbery; traditions - then more prevalent in the aunt's circles than elsewhere - such as single young women needing to be chaperoned in public; the health risks of visiting certain parts of Rome at certain times of day - which would probably give today's doctors a good laugh; and the heart-deadening consequences of a young man, so long separated from his home country, being unable to read the signals a beautiful girl is sending him, all combine to leave the reader sighing at the end.
The next book I plan to read is Henry James' 1877 novel The American. It's the only other one I have by me at the moment. The back-cover blurbs of both books, and the introduction helpfully inserted into this one, suggest there are common themes between them, and perhaps in most of James' better-regarded books. A native New Yorker who, like Winterbourne, was educated abroad and spent the better part of his career in Europe, James wrote such well-known novels as The Europeans, Washington Square, The Portrait of a Lady, The Bostonians, The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, and The Golden Bowl, and famous short stories and novellas including The Turn of the Screw and The Aspern Papers, plus lots of less-well-known stuff, long and short. Since I felt the impact of this little work, I think I might be up to exploring some of his bigger ones and deciding for myself whether he is as some say, in spite of Hardy and Eliot, our language's best novelist.