Saturday, November 10, 2007

Daisy Miller by Henry James

Get it here.
This is quite a short work, but really got me thinking about sexual politics. On the face of it, Daisy is a beautiful, free-spirited American girl who falls foul of European standards of propriety, and simultaneously, by means of metaphor, its disease-laden miasma. I say on the face of it, because a little thought left me unconvinced. For a start, the gatekeeper to 'propriety' in the story is an American woman. As with many such people, she feels that she is never acting on her own initiative, but only trying to protect the reputation of an individual against the slanderous accusations of 'others'.
Daisy is the victim of her attentions, but does herself no good by ignoring all suggestions on how to conduct herself. This is portrayed as a great imposition on her natural, innocent freedom, but, to me, seemed to be little more than common-sense advice. If I decided to conduct the rest of my life completely nude, it might be expected to present me with certain problems. Anyone who cared about me would be duty bound to point this out. I would be free to ignore them, but might be considered a little naïve if I was then surprised at the way I was received.
If you want to be accepted by the 'right' people, they are going to make you jump through their silly hoops. So, either jump through their hoops, and compromise your true self, or reject their whole snobbish hierarchical system, and snub those who decide who is 'in' and who is 'out'. It won't kill you, unlike malaria or a broken heart (allegedly).

I am perhaps being unfair on focusing on the aspects of the story that jarred with me: it seems that Henry James had the ability to breathe life into characters as easily as he takes it away. My reaction to Daisy was as that to a real person - it was only afterward that I appreciated the skill that allowed me to consider the case without any of the barriers of fiction.
It made me wonder about the oppression of women in fiction, both here and in other authors, like Jane Austen. Women were indeed oppressed - but why so often by their own sex, the rule-makers, and executors of social excommunication? And why do women today hark back to these times as being so romantic? Surely a modern woman would find such conditions of life, with its hopelessly limited scope, unthinkable?

8 comments:

Catharine said...

Your comments about women thinking that the 1800s were a romantic time reminded me of a TV show that someone told me about. It was a reality show in which a modern American family agreed to live as folks in [some year in the past] lived for a period of 6 months or a year or something like that. (There have been a couple of iterations of this show; I believe the first was set during the early Colonial period. The one I have in mind was 1800s-ish.)

Anyway. Come the end of the series, the man of the house rather liked the way he'd been living. They were cast as a 'gentleman's' family, with servants etc, and the man spent his days doing gentlemanly business pursuits. The woman was much less content with her lot - she did a great deal of physical work, largely involving helping to clean the house and cook and stuff!

Romantic? Hardly.

Listener said...

I'm looking forward to your review of Turn of the Screw. I've started a similar blog at www.freelistens.blogspot.com, partly inspired by your own reviews. Keep them coming!

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Melody Paige said...

Hello there! I just wanted to say your reading of Shakespeare's sonnets left me completely breathless... it was so lovely :D thank you

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