Let’s talk about Henry James: New meets old in Daisy Miller

Henry James in 1910. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Henry James, who was born in New York City on 15 April in 1843, is in the great group of British authors who can be considered ‘outsiders’ arriving from various cultural and national backgrounds into the British literary scene. As John McRae reminds us, most of the celebrated 19th and 20th century British authors belong to this group, we just need to think of Oscar Wilde, Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot or Ford Madox Ford. The national identities of these authors are complex, and their writing often reflects their multicultural background and perspective.

In the works of Henry James we often come across Americans travelling in Europe, and we experience different realities and cultures meeting, often clashing. Henry James’s family also travelled in Europe when he was a teenager, and he lived and studied in England, Switzerland and France. He also spent considerable time in Italy, and he enjoyed staying in Rome. In 1914 he became a British citizen, settled down in London, and then lived in Paris for a short time.

Why did Americans travel to Europe in the 19th century? What was their agenda apart from exploring beautiful cities in the popular ‘Grand Tour of Europe’? How were Americans considered by Europeans?

Daisy Miller

The story of Daisy Miller tells us about a young and beautiful American girl, who travels with her mother and brother in Switzerland and Italy. We follow their travels from Vevey, Switzerland to Rome, Italy as well as the development of the relationship between Daisy and an American man, Frederick Winterbourne. Through Daisy’s experiences, Henry James paints a colourful and multilayered picture of the meeting of very different cultures.

Here you will find discussion questions and reading tasks to help your students explore this story. Our reading is based on the Helbling Reader adaptation of the novella, adapted by Janet Olearski and illustrated by Francesca Protopapa (published by Helbling in 2007). The reader is suitable for readers at or above a pre-intermediate level of English (CEF B1).

1 The plot

Start by giving your students a very short plot introduction, if possible, no more than in six sentences. The main focus here is to get them to think about the setting, the situation and the characters. You can share that this is a 19th-century story which deals with contemporary and modern questions of identity, cultural differences, traditions and prejudices.

Tell your students to imagine a beautiful and innocent American girl travelling in Europe with her mother and brother. First of all, they need to be rich to be able to travel in Europe after the Civil War (1861-1865). The Millers belong to a new business class of Americans, and this class aimed at obtaining more ‘culture’ and climbing up on the social ladder through European education and social experiences.

2 Themes

‘It may be enchanting, dear child, but it is not the custom here, ‘ urged Mrs Walker.

Discuss possible prejudices and cultural differences which can be striking for both Americans and Europeans. Students can also reflect on what they might find ‘strange’ or ‘different’ when they visit or read about the United States, or when Americans visit European countries. Students often fail to notice that most of the routines, traditions and customs we take for granted are strikingly different for different cultures.

Cultures and nations

Think of a list of things that might have been difficult to deal with for a young female American traveller in Europe in the 19th century. Then think in broader terms, and describe what any traveller might find very ‘European’. ‘American’, ‘Brazilian’, or ‘Turkish’ when they travel to another country.

New meets old

Another theme to explore in Daisy Miller is the misunderstanding and prejudices built around newly emerging and traditional cultures. In Daisy’s family we see various reactions to the ‘old European’ way. Her nine-year-old brother thinks that everything is superior in America. Daisy admires the ‘high society’ or Europeans but also thinks with an innocent openness about her social relationships, an attitude which is frowned upon by most European ladies of the time.

Think about examples in your own life. Have you ever experienced similar situations to the ones in the novella? Can you share an example when you thought that another person’s traditions and behaviour were very different from yours or when your cultural behaviour suddenly seemed inappropriate to another?

Daisy’s behaviour and clothes are often criticised in the story. Have you ever felt that you have very different ways of thinking about how women, men, young or older people should behave, what they should wear, how they should communicate with others? Tell your group or class about it.

Two tasks to do as you read

1 When you are reading the story of Daisy Miller, take a pencil and mark the words which are used to describe Daisy and the Americans, or which are used by them to describe the Swiss and the Italians. 

Here are some examples. Which of them have positive meaning? Who do they describe?

  • common, vulgar, innocent, ignorant, accomplished

2 Find examples of insights or opinions when either Americans or Europeans find a situation, a tradition or a behavioural actset of behaviour strange or hard to understand.

Here are some examples from the Helbling Reader adaptation. Who says or thinks them? What is the context? What do these situations reveal about cultural (mis)understandings? Think of wider concepts such as courtship, social status, behaviour, etiquette.

  • ‘In Geneva, a young man was not at liberty to speak to a young unmarried lady except under certain conditions.’
  • ‘The only thing I don’t like,’ she proceeded, ‘is the society. There isn’t any society; or, if there is, I don’t know where it keeps itself.’
  • I can’t think where they get their taste. They treat the courier like a familiar friend – like a gentleman. I shouldn’t wonder if he dines with them.’
  • ‘People continued to look at her a great deal, and Winterbourne took much satisfaction in his pretty companion’s distinguished air. He had been a little afraid that she would talk loudly, laugh too much.’
  • ‘They are very ignorant – very innocent—but they are not bad.’

You can also read a very different story, a ghost story by Henry James in the Helbling Readers series. Click here to find out more about the short story The Turn of the Screw.

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