Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Daisy's Life

Finished reading Henry James’s Daisy Miller last night. I have written earlier about how Azar Nafisi’s brilliant analysis of the novella in her Reading Lolita in Tehran drew me to it in the first place. I have to admit - despite being a Woolf fan, I had not read her partner-in-modernist-crime James all that much. But Alan Hollinghurst and Colm Toibin’s 2004 odes to the Master cemented my resolve to finally pick up his Great Works, a copy of which I had purchased in June last year on a wonderful trip to Goa with my sis.

I’m sure plot analysis is not what you are looking for. But reading Daisy Miller, and the next, The Altar of the Dead, it does seem certain that James included a lot of his personal experiences in his writing.

Analyses of James’s works have waxed on his desisting from an emotionally involved life. Many think he was a closeted homosexual, who never formed lasting romantic bonds with members of either sex. A hint of that is apparent from the Winterbourne character in Daisy Miller. He might be called a socialite in today’s sense of the term. It is quite obvious through the novella that Daisy, such as she is, is only flirting with Giovanelli. She likes his company but blissful in her innocence, does not consider that her “rounds” with the Italian might “excite a scandal” (the posh words that James uses offer a pleasure all their own).

It is Winterbourne’s opinion that Daisy most trusts. In a brutal but delicious irony inherent in the plot, while the reader is made to feel that it is Winterbourne who is being given the raw deal, in the end it is Daisy who gives up her life without experiencing a deep connection with Winterbourne (something that she longs for, as the events inform us). Winterbourne, despite worrying for her, remains at best a dispassionate observer.

Daisy’s need for a connection with Winterbourne does not appear to be a romantic/ sexual one. At least, James makes no effort to allude to one. It is more likely that she imagines a soul-mate in him, who might unravel the marvels of relationships and society to her given his close acquaintance with its aspects.

Daisy Miller reminded me of Henry’s real life story, referred to in Toibin’s The Master. His friend Constance Fenimore Woolson is believed to have killed herself for the desperation she felt in his absence. But for Henry, the death remained an enigma. He could not quite give himself the “reasons” that might have invoked those feelings in Woolson. He remained committed to her memory (there is a brilliant passage in the book that relates her final rites), but never quite blamed himself for the tragedy. This, in the final analysis, stays with the reader as the unrelenting cruelty of life.

The start of The Altar of the Dead looks promising enough. Expect some commentary soon.


The Master

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