Friday, 28 August 2015

"Daisy Miller": My 1st Henry James

Reading "Daisy Miller". Reading for the 1st time a writer whose fiction I've never read but about whom I've read a lot.
"Dramatise! Dramatise!": Check. The story is mostly dialogue, like "Daniel Deronda: A Conversation" almost. Henry James uses lots of different words for "said" and also makes use of adverbs, which is reminiscent of F. Scott Fitzgerald. The descriptive phrases attached to these lines are not there to distinguish the characters, which is hardly necessary, but to let readers know how the characters speak and what they do whilst speaking. Now and then "Daisy Miller" feels like a script and the descriptions are there not for the readers as much as for the actors, so they know how to act, and directors, so they know how to direct.
Economy and relevance: Check. At least so far there doesn't seem to be anything redundant as one might find in George Eliot or Dostoyevsky.
Invisible author: Check- in the sense that the story's not interrupted by an intrusive narrator or distorted by the author's private feelings, though the author/ narrator does say "I" a few times. 
Focus on consciousness and perception: Check. The descriptions of Daisy are not descriptions of Daisy, but of Daisy as seen by Winterbourne.
Unreadability: No, not an issue here. James is often mentioned as 1 of those unreadable authors, and people generally don't specify which works or which period in his long career. My guess is that the language in his novels, especially the late works, may be difficult- it's definitely not unreadable here.
A friend of mine says Henry James is similar to, and better than, Jane Austen. Whether or not he's better is too early to say, but he's similar in the characterisation through dialogue and the free indirect speech. There is also humour. 
Hopefully next time I'll find something more interesting to say. 


  1. Di,

    Readability becomes a problem with his later novels. I find his short works and early novels to be quite readable.

  2. Daniel Deronda: A Conversation - that's good. I often find that the weakest, cheapest parts of second-rate James are when he resorts to an all-talk format to move the story along. (I consider "Daisy Miller" to be first-rate James - Daisy's lines are especially good). He actually wrote one novel as an experiment that is almost nothing but dialogue (The Awkward Age, 1899).

    James was more of a formalist than Eliot, and he was always more interested, even in long novels, in working on single characters, or pairs, like in "Daisy Miller." So imagine Middlemarch with just Dorothea Brooke's story - but with a novel of the same length.

    It is definitely worth seeing what the late style of James looks like. A story like "The Beast in the Jungle" or "The Jolly Corner" would work. Just the first paragraph, the grammar, will give the idea. I just looked at them myself to make sure I knew what I was talking about. The prose gets thick.

    1. I'm not going to read the late works any time soon. I'm too new.
      Speaking of prose, this sentence from "Daisy Miller" is just weird:
      "She was a young lady about the shades of whose perversity a foolish puzzled gentleman need no longer trouble his head or his heart."
      So if he's always more interested in working on single characters or pairs, how are the secondary characters? Not very vivid, sort of like the Italian and most supporting characters except Randolph and perhaps Mrs Miller in this work?

    2. Good eye for that sentence. Now imagine a 500 page novel written like that, but with longer sentences. Lots more clauses and phrases in one sentence. Lots more commas. That is late James.

      The secondary characters are fine. I guess like most good writers. Sometimes like Mrs. Miller and Randolph, sometimes flat plot-movers like the Italian. Some of both.

      What I mean is that James does not do the Eliot-style parallel or branching plots. No Dorothea here, Lydgate there, and Mary Garth over thataway, with occasional intersections. If he wants to write about Lydgate, James puts him in his own separate story. And sells it to a magazine.

      Maybe James avoided parallel plots for commercial reasons!

    3. Oh no no no, don't you threaten me and try to keep me away from James! I've heard too much about the difficulty already.
      That's an interesting "theory"- commercial reasons. But James not doing the branching plots I've read in Barbara Hardy's book- she says he's almost always telling a single story whereas Tolstoy, George Eliot and Dickens are telling several.
      On my part I like the several plots of Middlemarch.