Written in the same year as An International Episode, in 1878 James was clearly very interested in the interaction of young American girls with the deeply assumed social forms of Europe. Interesting that apparently this story was the one that established his success – so clearly a lot of other people were interested in this too.
Part of his popularity may have been that he leaves room for readers to draw their own moral – a nice selling point in approaching such a divisive issue. I read it as a challenge to tradition (perhaps partly because I saw the unconventional Bessie Alden as the heroine of the recently read ‘International Episode), but although I’d contest it, I can see why the preface to the edition I read saw ‘Daisy Miller’ as a cautionary tale endorsing conservatism.
Daisy is an interesting study. She constantly breaks all sorts of social rules, particularly in seeing no need for a chaperone – but much as she’s a flirt, she’s hardly a floosy (indeed, the conclusion of the story carefully stresses her innocence). She blithely ignores earnest remonstration to behave more appropriately, yet can be surprised and hurt by a consequent snub. It’s not that she doesn’t value friendship, but sees no place for worrying about appearances. I was interested that James didn’t paint her as a particularly intelligent girl (unlike Bessie), yet she had the same self-possession, and the same indifference to rules she saw no value in.
The ending took me quite by surprise (spoiler), but, as I said, it lets the readers interpret it to their own preference. In his introduction to my edition Perry Meisel puts a fairy tale simplicity to the plot: “Daisy’s flouting of the customs of Rome results in her dying from maleria”: ignore the social rules and you’ll die! While surprised by the sudden demise of both Daisy and the story, I was more aware of the deliberate irony of how the death highlighted her popularity: for a girl who by rights should have been shunned and disliked because she had no idea how to treat people, at her funeral, “Winterbourne stood there beside [her grave] with a number of other mourners: a number larger than the scandal excited by the young lady’s career would have led you to expect.”
I see this story as suggesting that in its concern for appearance the European gentry is missing out on the substance of a girl like Daisy Miller. And the very fact that she doesn’t care about appearances is what makes her morally superior – more innocent than those who are careful to appear so. As an American Daisy hasn’t absorbed all the assumptions of European society – one of which is that this lack of education and breeding is a huge disadvantage. James loves the idea of dropping someone with totally different assumptions into this world, and playing with what this reveals.
It’s also interesting that events are largely seen from the view of a young European society man infatuated with Daisy (much as ‘International Episode’ starts from a similar perspective). James is perhaps deliberately making it easier for readers who share his old world assumptions about form to be similarly infatuated, and to journey with him to doubt the validity of old world values which require Daisy Miller’s blithe dismissal.