... have nothing over Henry James! Whatever his many biographers discover about his mundane corporeal existence, James's novels reveal him best, as an inveterate observer - his own words! - a chronic emotional voyeur, always in and never of society, a one-way looking glass. It made him the great writer he was, though one wouldn't want to BE him. "Well," as God said to Satan, "keeping watch on humans is a dirty job, but somebody has to do it."
The four long stories in this Oxford Clssic edition were not originally published together. "Daisy Miller" appeared in 1878, "Pandora" in 1884, "Patagonia" in 1888. The fourth piece, "Four Meetings", was one of James's first, written before 1877. They are a natural assembly, nevertheless, effectively versions of the same story.
"They're very ignorant -- very innocent only, and utterly uncivilized. Depend on it they're not 'bad.'"
"They're hopelessly vulgar," said Mrs. Costello. "Whether being hopelessly vulgar is being 'bad' is a questions for the metaphysicians. They're bad enough to blush for, at any rate; and for this short life that's quite enough."
Winterbourne, the first speaker above, is an American of twenty-seven who has lived most of his life in Europe, specifically in Geneva, where he is either a career student or simply an ornamental male presence, depending on the reporter. If 'earning a living' is of any concern to him, it plays no part in his demeanor in this narrative. Mrs. Costello is his wealthy aunt (a dowager?), who 'commands' his proper familial attentions at various resorts and in Rome several weeks a year. She is the very voice of propriety and discretion -- a snooty old biddy, if you will -- while he is a dilettante, a poseur, a prig, a veritable Henry James in short. "They" are the Millers - mother, daughter, and son - sent to inspect Europe and report back on its cultural progress by their filthy rich pater familias Cyrus Miller, of Schenectady, New York. Winterbourne first meets Daisy Miller while visiting his Aunt at Vevey, in Switzerland. He is entranced both by her beauty and by her bizarre ignorance of and/or indifference to the social codes of the Old World. Winterbourne and his Aunt are ludicrous snobs and ditherers; it's important to grasp that they are objects of satire as thoroughly as the Millers, the prototypical "ugly Americans" of touristic prominence all over Europe then and now. In fact, everyone in this novella comes in for a share of deliciously condescending satire, most pointedly James himself in the guise of Winterbourne. That's one of the redeeming qualities of Henry James, his ability to perceive and portray his own uselessness as a mere onlooker at life.
"Daisy Miller" is a gem, an 80-page masterpiece of snarky ambivalence. When I read it first, long ago in college, I probably took Winterbourne seriously; after all, the tale is told from his point of view. But taking himself or his fictional avatars seriously was a fault Henry James never committed. A longer exposure to James's self-observation, such as his later novels require, can challenge a reader's patience; there's only so much most of us want to care for such meticulous ambiguity. But "Daisy Miller" and "Pandora" are eminently enjoyable.
For a man and writer whose sexuality was so peculiarly repressed, James has made his irrepressible American girl Daisy Miller quite a luscious minx. Poor Winterbourne, stiff and epicene, can't keep his eyes off her. In the end, however, his fascination amounts merely to a kind of obsessive observation, and that's the core of the story, the voyeurism which underlies Henry James's literary genius. Nevertheless, Daisy is a brilliant 'study' of the American personality that Europeans have, then and now, found utterly appalling, naive and gauche ... and insidiously alluring.
Written six years after Daisy Miller, "Pandora" is a tongue-in-ear sequel, or perhaps a da capo aria. The characters have different names and play their roles with different outcomes, but James plainly intended the second story to complement the first. In fact, the earlier story is explicitly referenced as `a fiction to read to prepare for America.' "Pandora" begins on a ship crossing from Europe to New York. A young German diplomat, en route to a posting in Washington DC, assumes Winterbourne'James's role as "observer". There's a good deal of fun to be had with putting a precise Teutonic prig in James's skin, and James exploits all of it. The "Daisy" slot in the cast goes to "Pandora", less visually delectable perhaps but a good deal more personally functional. Pandora is on her way to becoming "the new woman," that is, the woman who conquers society merely by force of personality and physical charm, without the advantages of breeding. Our German observer is even less able to communicate his `interest' to Pandora than Winterborne was to Daisy; the most he can do is cogitate about the risk he runs, through his observation, of actually becoming susceptible. The reader will have no reason to fear for him in that manner.
... is also a shipboard tale, with many of the same elements of social misconstruction as the two oolder stories. In it, however, the "observer" is also the first-person narrator, an older and more desexualized James, not so much fascinated by the "new woman" character as by his own obsession with observation. He's a gossip and a meddler, and comes to rue both roles. can we assert that Henry James modeled the famous Uncertainty Principle of physics in social intercourse? The end-game of every character in this and other Jamesian plots is disrupted by the impact of being observed.
Henry James straddled the world of 19th C class consciousness and 20th C class unconsciousness marvelously. Simultaneously the most conservative and the most prophetic of novelists, his women characters are easily the most persuasive and the most intriguing in all American literature. I have the feeling that James would not be at all surprised by the manners of social behavior in the USA in 2010. Daisy and Pandora were halfway here. Neither would he be any more comfortable in our `rec rooms' than he was in the drawing rooms of his own era. Really, I'm afraid he'd find us rather disappointing to observe.