A Footnote to 'Daisy Miller'

AT about the age of ten I first read Daisy Miller. It was, I suppose, the first grown-up story I absorbed, and I was, and have always remained, much taken with it. In it Henry James seems to have discovered the American girl, in all her directness, independence, sincerity, and charm. Daisy Miller is so real, so much a creature of flesh and blood and no mere author’s puppet, that the critics differ about her just as though she were an actual person of the Victorian era.

The most amazing thing about Daisy is her end. It is so abrupt, so uncalled-for, so out of key. From the lightest of banter one passes suddenly into grim tragedy. Amusement becomes pity. We leave her with very real regret, under the spring flowers in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome.

And now appears the journal of an American girl, Julia Newberry, who from her sixteenth to her twenty-second year spent most of her time in Europe and about the Mediterranean, traveling with her mother, visiting the places Daisy visited, — Vevey, Rome, — rich, gifted, courted, independent, full of gayety and clever talk; and then suddenly, at twenty-two, she dies, in Rome, and is buried in the English Cemetery, on a day in April, 1876.

This coincidence at once suggests the query: Where was Henry James in the spring of ’76? Not in Rome, but thither he came toward the end of ’77, and on that visit, he admits, the idea came to him. It seems extremely probable that the little tragedy of the young American heiress who had died there only the year before should come to his ears and move him. ‘He was insatiable,’ his biographers inform us, ‘for anything that others could give him from their own personal lives.’ The figure of this girl, with everything to live for, dying so prematurely, so far from home, would move a much less gifted spirit than his, and his ‘young girls,’ we are told, ‘are always his happiest creations, as if they alone of all his compatriots filled him with frank satisfaction.’

American publishers looked with disfavor upon Daisy Miller, but it appeared in the Cornhill Magazine in June and July, 1878, after which it was much printed in this country, giving the young author, then thirty-four, his first taste of popular favor.

I do not suggest that Daisy Miller is in any strict sense a portrait of Julia Newberry. Julia Newberry was no stranger to Europe. She had lived there most of the last seven years of her life, and she had seen it very advantageously, for her social position was a good one. At a military ball in Nice, just after her seventeenth birthday, General Sheridan asked her if she would wear his colors, and, when she assented, handed her the badge of the Army of the Shenandoah.

Nor have we any reason to believe her a flirt. She says, in fact, to her diary, ‘I hope I am not a flirt, and yet sometimes I believe I am.’ But Julia was not unwilling to astonish her admirers with her sophisticated conversation; especially when they at first mistook her for a schoolgirl. And what a converser Daisy Miller was, entertaining Winterbourne on the way to Chillon by ‘delivering herself of a great number of original reflections’ — which is exactly what Julia would have done. And Winterbourne, the young American educated in Geneva and living abroad, is clearly just Henry James himself, thinly disguised.

Both girls were rich and attractive Americans, very much given to society, and much sought after, by one sort or another; both died in early womanhood, in Rome, in the spring of the year. And if the idea of Daisy Miller came to Henry James at Rome, in 1877, and Julia Newberry died there on April 4, 1876, the case is about as clear as circumstantial evidence can make it.

In short, I offer the audacious thesis that Henry James heard the story of Julia Newberry in Rome in the autumn of 1877; that it took strong hold of him, and suggested to him his Daisy Miller, whom he clothed with an unsophistication to which Julia Newberry would have been a stranger; and that this is the explanation of the strange and sad end of the story. That end was the story. The lonely grave in the Protestant Cemetery he could not leave out, for with it the idea had come to him.

I am well aware that in later years Mr. James vehemently denied that any individual lay behind the figure of Daisy Miller, asserting that she was a figment of his own imagination. This may be quite true; or he may have been driven to this position by various complaints or claims. That does not affect the point of my suggestion: that a very recent tragedy in the American colony at Rome was the germ of Daisy Miller.