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«Lions, Christians, and Gladiators: Colosseum Imagery in Henry James's Daisy Miller and Edith Wharton's Roman Fever 1 Dorothea Barrett May 2014 I In ...»

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Lions, Christians, and Gladiators:

Colosseum Imagery in Henry James's Daisy Miller

and Edith Wharton's "Roman Fever" 1

Dorothea Barrett May 2014


In the first years of the twentieth century, Henry James and Edith Wharton formed a friendship that

lasted for the rest of James's life. 2 In 1934, eighteen years after his death, Wharton wrote "Roman

Fever," a short story that is on one level a reaction to and interaction with his 1878 novella Daisy Miller. Various critics have noticed this and commented on it; 3 what has not been noticed is a witty reworking of James's Colosseum imagery at the end of Wharton's story, a private joke with her long-dead friend.

Daisy Miller is a deeply ambiguous text. The eponymous heroine, viewed through the distorting lens of Winterbourne's perception, seems at times an innocent fool, and at other times a manipulative flirt, but for brief moments we glimpse third possibility: Daisy as an honest, brave, intelligent rebel, making a valiant one-woman stand against the hypocrisy and snobbery of the American expatriate community in Rome. In this reading, she represents the freshness, freedom, and inventiveness of America in contrast to the ossified, stratified, traditional society of Europe, which is represented, interestingly, not by Europeans themselves, but by upper-class Americans who have spent too much time abroad. 4 What interest me here are the subtle strategies by which the implied author enables the reader to glimpse his own view of Daisy, despite the fact that the entire story is seen, if not told, from Winterbourne's viewpoint. 5 One of these is the naming of characters: "Daisy" suggests commonness, lack of cultivation, springtime, and innocence, but we hear from her brother Randolph that she has given herself that name and that her real name is Annie P. Miller; the positive associations of "Daisy" are immediately undercut and put into question by the idea that she chose to represent herself as fresh, natural, and innocent (a far-from-innocent thing to do). The simple unpretentiousness of her real name, in contrast to "Randolph," implies that the family (humbly named "Miller") grew wealthy in the eight years between the birth of their daughter and that of their son: the post-Civil-War My thanks to New York University at La Pietra, Florence, for providing a research grant for this paper, and to Beth Vermeer, for inviting me to present it at the Remember Henry James conference in Florence, March 2014.

For an account of their friendship, see Millicent Bell, 1966; for their correspondence, see Powers.

For example, Koprince, 1995.

For detailed explication of the arguments summed up here, see, for example, James himself on Daisy as innocent fool (in his letter to Eliza Lynn Linton, James, appendix I, p. 71), Ian Bell on Daisy as manipulative flirt, and Coffin on Daisy as America. Deakin's argument that James's heroine was inspired by various European literary predecessors is an interesting contrast to the reading of Daisy as America. F. R. Leavis's view of Daisy could have been voiced by either of the novella's main exponents of ossified conservatism, Mrs. Walker or Mrs. Costello: "Daisy Miller's freedom in the face of European social conventions is of a kind that would make her insufferable in any civilized society" (Leavis, p.

166). Millicent Bell combines the first and third views of Daisy in her phrase “naïve rebel” (Bell, 1991, p. 49).

See, for example, Tintner, 1994, and Monteiro on naming, Orlich on the lions and Christians imagery, and Page and Wardley on other kinds of symbolism.

industrial boom in the northeastern United States. 6 Winterbourne's name, meanwhile, seems thoroughly to support Daisy's assertion that he is "stiff as an umbrella" (p. 57). Though psychoanalytic critics may be tempted to give Daisy's diagnosis a phallic reading, 7 the less interesting but more convincing interpretation is that he himself—like the European society in which he has lived so long—is ossified, inflexible, and bound to tradition.

Another crucial means by which the implied author conveys his view is the symbolism of the Colosseum.

–  –  –

Here the light and dark imagery mirrors Winterbourne's mental landscape. His love of the picturesque and fondness for Byron stand in contrast to his caution about malaria; his romantic pretensions are at odds with his careful pragmatism, just as his attraction to Daisy is at odds with his

conservative concern for appearances. 8 The passage continues:

–  –  –

As Winterbourne arrives at his false epiphany, James slips us the image of lions and Christians:

Daisy is represented as a Christian, a martyr, an innocent victim about to be savaged by Winterbourne's erroneous conclusions. One could of course argue that the representation of Daisy as a Christian martyr is voiced by Daisy herself, and therefore, as with her name, its symbolic value This leads us to see the conflict as not so much between Europe and America as between old and new money, metropolitan and provincial origins, in the State of New York, as David Lodge has noted in his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition (Lodge, 2007), p. xvi. See also Poole, p. 26, and Ian Bell, p. 22.

For a fascinating discussion of sexual double entendres in Daisy Miller, see Davidson.

For discussion of James's use of Byron in Daisy Miller, see Koprince, 1986, and Meyers.

is put into doubt. Nevertheless, its suggestion of her innocence, and that of her assumed name, is reinforced by James's use of daisy imagery in the funeral scene.

–  –  –

And, after his supremely ambiguous conversation with Giovanelli, "Winterbourne listened to him;

he stood staring at the raw protuberance among the April daisies" (p. 63).

The conversation that separates these two allusions to daisies is a virtuoso performance of ambiguity; even in these closing pages (or especially in them), James is interested in provoking thought rather than in telling us what to think.

–  –  –

The first available interpretation of this exchange, especially in 1878, is that Winterbourne is a chivalrous man who cared about and wished to protect Daisy, whereas Giovanelli is a worthless cad who cares only for himself. 9 A feminist reading, however, changes the lights: Winterbourne speaks of Daisy as if she were an object to be toted from place to place; her own opinion about where she wanted to go was, to him, irrelevant, whereas Giovanelli deferred to her opinion as that of an equal with the right to decide for herself. 10 Daisy's repeated request, on her deathbed, "Tell Mr. Winterbourne I was not engaged" (p.

62-63), suggests that she was in love with him. If she, the embodiment of freedom, honesty, and independent thought, was in love with the embodiment of tradition, duplicity, and obedience to convention, Daisy's unconventional behavior can be interpreted as a challenge to Winterbourne: she wanted him, but she would not accept him until he stopped being "stiff as an umbrella." 11 The novella then emerges not as Daisy's story but as Winterbourne's: 12 it is the story of a man who missed the boat. Having had the opportunity to break out of his hypocritical conventional For the contemporary reviews, see Hayes.

For discussions of feminism and James's women characters, see Allen, Coulson, Fowler, Habegger, Izzo, Moore, Wagenknecht, and Walton. For feminist discussions of Daisy Miller see Barnet and Johnson. Habegger sees Daisy’s death as proof that James is not feminist: “Why is Daisy Miller the one who dies of malaria, even though Giovanelli and Winterbourne are also exposed? Behind James’s narratives there is found the ancient theory that women are weaker than men” (Habegger, p. 26). But surely this ignores the symbolic role of Roman fever: if physical death from malaria is a metaphor for the death of one’s reputation, on the symbolic level the double standard keeps the male characters safe despite exposure.

This reading is at odds with James's own interpretation in a letter of 1880 to Eliza Lynn Linton, but, as David Lodge points out at the end of his introduction, "James was careful to qualify his analysis of Daisy with the parenthesis '(as I understand her),' implying the possibility of understanding her differently" (Lodge, p. xxxvii). It is also possible that James is not revealing all he understands of Daisy to this particular correspondent, who, though a woman, was far less feminist in sensibility than James himself.

Millicent Bell sees this as common to three James texts: “But hovering over “Daisy Miller,” “The Beast in the Jungle,” and also “The Aspern Papers,” is the story that did not take place, the overlooked possibility that Winterbourne, Marcher, and the manuscript hunter might have embraced but failed to” (Bell, 1991, p. 26).

habits and find a new and very different life with Daisy, he missed it, and the wording of the final paragraph, almost identical to that of the initial description of him on p. 4, implies that he has been

essentially unchanged by the whole affair:

–  –  –

When Martin Scorsese was asked why he had abandoned his usual material (bloodshed, murder, destruction) in his 1993 film of Edith Wharton's novel The Age of Innocence, he said that it was the most violent film he had ever made. 13 This theme of psychological warfare, in which the weapons are words, judgments, and betrayal rather than fists and knives, is shared by "Roman Fever" and Daisy Miller: in both texts, Colosseum imagery is used to compare verbal violence with physical mutilation, suggesting that the former is just as effective and abusive as the latter.

"Roman Fever" is written in two parts, though there is no leap in time or change of scene to explain that separation. It tells the story of two wealthy, middle-aged, American women—Alida Slade and Grace Ansley—who have known each other since they were girls. Sitting on the terrace of a restaurant in Rome, overlooking the Forum, they begin what seems an innocuous conversation and end in devastating revelations about the past.

Part I is largely narrative, as the omniscient narrator tells us what Alida Slade and Grace Ansley think of each other and describes their daughters, Barbara Ansley and Jenny Slade. Whereas Alida ("a leader"?) has always been the dominant partner in her friendship with Grace, Barbara is the dominant partner in her friendship with Jenny, and Alida is rather jealous that Grace and her husband Horace, whom she perceives as "nullities," should have produced such a dynamic and interesting daughter (p. 141).

Part II is almost entirely dramatic: towards the end, as in a play, we can only guess the characters’ thoughts by interpreting their speech and gestures. This is one possible reason why Wharton chose to divide the story in two; another possibility is that she used the division to highlight two crucial references, one at the end of Part I, and the other at the beginning of Part II.

When she has finished describing the two ladies' views of each other, the omniscient narrator makes

full use of her privileges by telling us that they were both wrong:

–  –  –

The telescope image imports two ideas, one involving size and the other distance: a telescope is designed to make the object of gaze seem larger/closer. Looking through the wrong end of a telescope creates the opposite effect: it makes the object of gaze seem smaller/more remote. 14 The Ebert.

My thanks to Professor Simon Schaffer of the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, Cambridge University, for confirming this and pointing out that Wharton used the same image earlier in The Age of Innocence: "Far down the inverted telescope [Archer] saw the faint white figure of May Welland—in New York" (p. 50) (private correspondence with Simon Schaffer, 23 May 2014). Dale Bauer is one of several commentators to have made this observation about diminishment or underestimation (Bauer, p. 686).

size metaphor implies that each lady is underestimating the other—that each lady is greater than her friend believes her to be. The distance metaphor hints at what the end of the story certainly bears out: that they are much closer to each other—more intimately connected—than they think they are.

At the beginning of Part II, another striking comparison reinforces the size metaphor of the telescope image. The ruins of Ancient Rome are functioning as a memento mori for the two ladies, which implies that they are like the Roman Empire. At first, it seems odd metaphor for two aging widows, whose occupations are knitting and bridge, but the comparison suggests that, though the story Wharton is about to unfold is riddled with betrayal, duplicity, and aggression, it shows a certain greatness in its protagonists: like the Roman Empire, they were immoral but impressive, much more impressive than, at this point, they seem, both to each other and to the reader.

The first intimation of the psychological violence to come appears in Part I:

–  –  –

In an ostensibly harmless and dull detail, a constellation of words ("twist," "crimson," "run through," "needles") signals that violence is in the offing. 15 The needles make a second appearance


–  –  –

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