Book Review

On Re-Reading Henry James and Thinking About Forster

Photo on 11-03-2014 at 19.23 #7

Henry James’ little novella Daisy Miller, as well as his more sizeable The Portrait of A Lady, were two of the key texts I used when writing my undergraduate dissertation a long, long time ago. Around that time I also read some of James’ Gothicy short stories, but enjoyed those far less than his judgemental, witty, pre-psychology psychological explorations of Americans in Italy. Fun fun fun.

Henry James is not fashionable. He used to be broadly considered a writerly writer – in the way that Rembrandt is considered a painterly painter – his deft use of language long championed, as too was his sweeping outsider’s view of British and Continental customs. Nowadays, though, he is often dismissed as just another of these “duff old white men” who wrote big and laborious books.

I remembered enjoying Daisy Miller, and I was wary to reread it with the more nuanced and politicised view to texts that I now possess. Remembering the plot (woman killed by her OUT OF CONTROL subversive behaviour), I was fearful that I would come to this and be appalled by James’ stuffy nineteenth century judgemental comments. But I wasn’t because, thankfully, the joke and the judgement (much like in E. M. Forster’s Where Angels Fear To Tread, which I also wrote about as an undergrad) is implicitly laid down on those who abandon “their people” to death due to their wish to mix with people of other nationalities and classes.

Now, of course, the fact that women DIE in these two texts (and a baby too in the Forster) means that the danger the repressed middle-class BritsnYanks are seeing is implicitly there. But so too is compassion, characterisation and respect for the behaviour of the “low brow” Italians.

So, what I want to say, is that I still find Daisy Miller entertaining, I still find the overall theme interesting and though (of course, of course, of course) killing off the “pure” woman reeks of old-fashioned misogyny, and so too does using her as a symbolic pharmakoi, but but but, she is a symbolic pharmakoi destroyed in order to draw attention to the right-wing evils of snobbishness and xenophobia.

Heavy-handed and nineteenth century yes, but liberal and (just about) forward-looking too.

When I start letting myself buy books again (which won’t be for a few months at least), I may have to invest in another Henry James. Good work.

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