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I had to laugh when, in Henry James' Daisy Miller, Frederick Winterbourne urges Daisy to avoid baiting her Italian friend with the following admonition:  "Flirting is a purely American custom; it doesn't exist here [in Rome]."

My laughter was prompted by the familiarity of the conversation.  Several months ago, when I was editing my fourth novel, The Celebration Husband, in Denmark, I noticed that I wasn't a hot commodity with the Danish men.  Night after night, I sipped coffee, had a drink, ate dinner - all by myself - in public places, and no one ever spoke with me. 

Finally, I asked my friend Gillion Grantsaan for his interpretation.  "Am I just not cute here?  Danish men don't flirt with me - do they not like brunettes?  They're sticking with the local blondes?"

Gillion explained that, no, the issue wasn't cuteness or hair color, but flirting.  "Men here don't flirt," he said, "because the women don't flirt.  The women are socially cold until they get drunk, at which point they go home with a guy.  Flirting doesn't enter into it."

Well then.  I won't take it personally.

Somehow I don't think the Danish women's approach would've been much assistance to Daisy Miller.

(Image of Danish photographer Kurt Rodahl Hoppe talking, not flirting, with Maya Alexandri taken by Solomon Lyttle)

This celluloid doesn't lie

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To my surprise, I found Peter Bogdanovich's film adaptation of Henry James' Daisy Miller an excellent augment to the novella.

The faithfulness of the adaptation is commendable and shows both Bogdanovich's confidence and his understanding of the story.  (The vast majority of the dialogue, for example, seems to have been transposed directly from James.)  As a result, the movie highlighted shades in the book that I'd perceived, but which I'd questioned out of concern that I was missing something, or that I was too ignorant of the historic period and Victorian writing generally to interpret them correctly.

For instance, based on the text, I didn't find Daisy sympathetic.  In fact, I thought her annoying, and Frederick Winterbourne's enduring infatuation with her struck me as difficult to fathom.  I was curious to see how the movie would handle Daisy's characterization, since an unsympathetic female protagonist is a hard sell in Hollywood.  (And, indeed, the critics seemed not to buy it, although they tended [unfairly in my view] to blame Cybill Shepherd.)  But Daisy was every bit as tiresome on the page as she is in the movie.

Reflecting on the film, I think part of the problem is that immature females can quite easily be intrinsically annoying and tiresome.  In my own writing, depicting women moving from states of relative immaturity to relative maturation, I've found myself becoming fed up with my own creations (my fault as the author - I own it - but a fault easily indulged given the reality).

But I also think Henry James missed an opportunity.  His Daisy Miller bears more than passing resemblance to Marianne Dashwood in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility.  Like Daisy, Marianne is also impulsive and emotional; she also cultivates an unwise attachment to an unsuitable man; and Marianne also suffers illness as the fallout of the relationship. 

But unlike Daisy, Marianne has depths that she reveals in the text.  Marianne is passionate, hard-working and unspoiled.  I got the impression that James expected us to like Daisy because she is beautiful and American, but those qualities are too superficial to inspire the reader's empathy.  (In this respect, Bogdanovich added a lovely touch when he had Daisy sing for Frederick, an episode that doesn't appear in the book, but which allows us to see Daisy's talent, as well as her beauty.)

And, unlike Daisy, Marianne doesn't die.  She marries a mature man, making a sensible choice that assures her a future both less romantic and more complicated than any situation in James' story.  Indeed, by comparison to Marianne's fate, Daisy's death looks mawkish and sentimental - another cheap, easy way of pushing the audience's sympathy buttons.

Bogdanovich handles the ending extremely well and, with Barry Brown's exceptional performance, manages to wring genuine regret from Daisy's death.  All the same, if the film seems like an over-expenditure on a slight tale, the cause seems to lie (and I say this with apologies to the Master) in the source material. 

(Image of Cybill Shepherd and Barry Brown in Peter Bogdanovich's film version of Daisy Miller from BAM)

American broads abroad

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Critics and scholars of Henry James fixate on James' alleged fixation on The American Girl.  As Gore Vidal, among many (and certainly among the sharpest of the bunch) noted in The New York Review of Books, The American Girl was James' theme, possibly for commercial reasons:
As every writer then knew, the readers of novels were mostly women; and they liked to read about the vicissitudes of young women, preferably ladies.
But, although James certainly wrote about American girls - from Daisy Miller, to Isabel Archer, to Milly Theale - all of whom may have traced their lineage back to James' cousin, Minny Temple - their significance in my mind is not as American girls qua American girls, but as American girl expatriates.

Indeed, to this American girl, the most interesting aspect of James' writing is not about "the vicissitudes of young women," but about the social regulation of expatriate society.

Daisy Miller has much to offer on this front.  The story of a young woman on a family-chaperoned European tour who comes to a sad end, Daisy Miller features an eponymous protagonist who is of scant interest in herself.  She's a pretty, "uncultivated" teenage "flirt."  Yawn.

Her sad end, however, has much to do with the social regulation of American expatriate society in Europe.  Irrepressible Daisy won't obey the rules.  She does

[e]verything that is not done here.  Flirting with any man she could pick up; sitting in corners with mysterious Italians; dancing all evening with the same partners; receiving visits at eleven o'clock at night.
(pp. 90-91.)  As a result, she is shunned.  And, in response, Daisy misbehaves all the more defiantly. 

The story's narrator, and Daisy's admirer, Frederick Winterbourne, spends most of the book unable to make up his mind as to whether Daisy is innocent and unsophisticated, or simply not "a nice girl."  As a result, he allows himself to be rebuffed despite indications that Daisy "would have appreciated [his] esteem" (p. 133), with the consequence that Daisy favors her Italian suitor, Giovanelli, a man of such little judgment that he takes Daisy to the Coliseum at night, despite the fact that the ruin is a breeding ground for malarial mosquitoes.

After Daisy (spoiler alert!) sickens and dies, Winterbourne feels guilty for having done Daisy an "injustice."  Had he persisted in his courtship of her, he might have won her and, like Henry Higgins with Eliza Doolittle, spared her both social humiliation and - ultimately - an untimely death.  Social constraints strike down yet another young American free spirit.

Whatever one might think about the class dynamics of such social regulation; or the fundamental insecurity it reflects; or the extent to which it is promulgated by, enforced by and imposed upon women (Winterbourne, after all, is an American man entangled with an older, foreign lady in Geneva - and he manages to avoid condemnation), what strikes me most about the social regulation Henry James describes is that it exists

I myself have lived overseas as part of an American expatriate community, and the most salient feature of that community was its absence of legal and social regulation.  (Indeed, my second novel, The Swing of Beijing, is about the effect of such "freedom" upon the community's members.) 

Granted, I was living in East Asia, not in the heart of Europe; and I lived overseas just over a century after Daisy Miller did.  But the time and distance had apparently worked the following transformation: whereas in Daisy Miller's time, American freedom clashed with the conservatism of expatriate society, in my era, the total freedom of the expatriate existence threatened to erode the foundation of an individual's values - be they moral, national or otherwise.  Daisy Miller's "America" represents transcendence; my "America" represents social structure.

Which is not to say that Daisy would have done any better in my expatriate community than she did in her own.  Although flirting, fraternizing with locals, dancing all night with the same partner, and receiving visitors at odd hours wouldn't get a person shunned in Beijing, neither would being an alcoholic who leaves his girlfriend in an (ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to escape paying her the tens of thousands of dollars he owes her.  In this respect, at least, Henry James nailed the situation: whether the social constraint is so tight as to indict trivialities, or so lax as to countenance barbarity, vivacious American women are overrepresented on the losing side of the equation.

(Image of the frontispiece of the 1892 edition of Henry James' Daisy Miller from Eldritch Press)

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