The Magazine

The American Woman

What Henry James Knew

Nov 13, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 09 • By LAUREN WEINER
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While American maidens often begin with James's admiration and end in tragedy, the forceful middle-aged ladies often begin with James's aversion and end with something like his esteem. Faced with Mrs. Walker in "Daisy Miller" (1878) or Mrs. Newsome in The Ambassadors (1903), men often react with outrage. (As James once said of his American expatriate friend, Mrs. Jack Gardner: "She's not a woman, she's a locomotive, with a Pullman car attached.") The horrified male getting run over by a female juggernaut provides some of the best comedy in James. But then, playing out the matrons' independent-mindedness, James respects their willingness to intervene to fix mistakes and to right the wrongs around them. The American juggernauts -- the non-Continentalized, at least -- retain "the value of the Puritan residuum."

The newest Library of America volume, containing James's earliest fiction, offers in the 1870 "Travelling Companions" a kind of dry run of Daisy Miller's compromised situation -- and a preliminary version, too, of the unhappily married Isabel Archer (in the 1874 "Madame de Mauves"). Interestingly, two of the three early tales about non-Americans read like editorials against the oppressiveness of the European arranged marriage. In "Gabrielle de Bergerac" (1869), set in France, the title character loves a son of the peasantry and chafes against having to marry the weak nobleman selected for her by her intemperate elder brother. In "At Isella" (1871), an American tourist aids a young Italian wife's escape from the awful spouse foisted upon her.

James's understanding of the politics of the relation between men and women is clear from early on: The American woman might use her freedom unwisely by choosing a bad husband, but it is far worse never to have the choice. Christopher Newman learns this the hard way in The American (1877), James's first major novel. Newman goes to France in search of a refined wife but runs afoul of European deference to authority. He discovers -- and deplores -- primogeniture, which wastes the talents of Valentin de Bellegarde, a second son. He fails to pry Valentin's sister, Claire, from the clutches of the Bellegarde family. Claire shuts herself away in a convent because she can't marry Newman.

James continually worked toward the truth by means of contrast. A year after writing The American he came up with "Daisy Miller," the story that made him internationally famous. At its coarsest, the story asks whether a girl who is given her head, even to the point of being in charge of her family's foreign travels, is at all distinguishable from a shallow sex-pot. That we end up attributing moral weight to the story of the coltishly perverse Daisy is a great artistic feat on the part of the thirty-four-year-old James. He gets us to take Daisy seriously by having us see her through the eyes of Winterbourne, a deracinated American. Winterbourne is prim but powerfully attracted to the beautiful and forward girl; he only belatedly understands that her spiritedness is not licentiousness.

Chattering to Winterbourne about her inability to fit in with the hightoned ladies of the American colonies in Rome and Geneva, Daisy sounds, somehow, both ignorant and witty: "I like a lady to be exclusive; I'm dying to be exclusive myself. Well, we are exclusive, mother and I. We don't speak to everyone -- or they don't speak to us. I suppose it's about the same thing."

Snubbed by her compatriots, she lets a shady Italian befriend her. The ostracism she endures as a result wears her down. By the time Winterbourne discerns her distress signals, she's dead. Readers tend to find the portentously timed case of malaria hokey and take it as a judgment upon her for her improprieties. They're half right. It is hokey -- but necessary. Daisy's death puts her beyond rescue precisely so that Winterbourne can have his rueful realization on the last page: "I have lived too long in foreign parts." He is conscious of having "done her injustice" -- conscious, in other words, of having lost the combination of forthrightness and charity that prompts Americans to help one another in times of need.