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Daisy: Susan Warner, Miles & Miles

This is a case where a book didn’t turn out to be quite what I expected. My copy has gold blocks on its front cover and spine and the very type shouts out that from the late nineteenth century. I’d never heard of it or the author, Susan Warnerm before, but presumed it was in the Rosa N. Carey, E. Everett-Green vein. It isn’t quite.

As I read a few pages, I realised ‘Daisy’ was set in the United States, and it gradually became clear it was set in the antebellum South (during the 1850s if you know your history. I, er, cheated) and written later, although not perhaps so much later as the heroine-narrator claims. We are informed of two important things about her, one Daisy Randolph, very quickly. At the age of 10, she became a Christian and very soon after, her father was badly injured in a carriage accident, so he and her mother left the country to go overseas in the hope of improving his health. Daisy is put in the charge of her mother’s sister, who takes her from Daisy’s childhood home to the estate of Magnolia, which Daisy will someday inherit – a fact Aunt Gary and her son Preston, who is a bit older than Daisy, realise full well. Daisy, on the other hand, is a heartbroken little innocent.

The first part of the book is set in Magnolia, where Daisy is put in the charge of an inflexible governess, Miss Pinshon, whom Preston accurately describes as a Gorgon. At first, I was a little bit shocked that Daisy didn’t know her times tables, but that, dates and facts seem to be all that Miss Pinshon will teach, and there is no-one to protect the delicate girl from methods that do her health no good or cultivate a love of learning. Because of her faith, Daisy has more in common with the people she thinks of as servants, such as Dorry the groom and Maria the cook, than her relatives. But gradually Daisy realises that the Negros at Magnolia are slaves, a fact that is abhorrent to her, especially as she realises that the father she adores sees nothing wrong with slavery or profiting from it.

I admired the fact that this is about a Christian girl working out what it means to be and live like a Christian (in extreme circumstances). It’s also good on the sphere of power that any child has, however privileged they are in some sense, and the limits of that scope, too. The question of living off wealth that has accumulated from treating people as property, leaving them in poverty and hardship, troubles Daisy, especially when, at the age of fourteen, a family friend comes and visits and realises how badly the regimen at Magnolia is for Daisy’s health. So, she is sent to a New York boarding school and given a little more leeway to make choices about her expenditure, especially on the matter of clothes.

This section was fascinating for me – an American boarding school! They all refer to each other as ‘Miss This’ and ‘Miss That’ and wear their own clothes – Daisy, who’s own mother has exquisite taste, has decided to go for plainer garb, in part to clothe Margaret, the girl who tended to her at Magnolia and begged to come north with her. Daisy’s choice is also motivated in part by wishing to turn away from vanity and worldliness. It costs her – wearing the right clothes, being fashionable and seen as being one of the right sort/in crowd is as important for these girls as it ever is.

Daisy also makes an enemy in the hilariously named Faustina St. Clair, partly because she does better at lessons, partly because her mother eventually sends her Parisian clothes that show off her wealth and partly because, on one occasion she will bitterly regret, she loses her temper.

I think some of the naming is meant to be symbolic as a daisy can stand for innocence and there’s great import given to at least one character’s first name. But really, can you imagine? ‘A daughter, Mrs. Sinclair! Why, what will you call her?” “I think – yes, I have decided on Faustina.” “How, er, charming.”

The third and final part of the book starts the summer when Daisy is aged sixteen and her guardians – her parents are still abroad – take her to West Point for a holiday as she has been overworking and not eating properly at school. Cousin Preston, whom Daisy fundamentally disagrees with over slavery, is there, but so are other young men, and in one Daisy finds a friend of her own age – something she signally failed to do at school. At the same time, she becomes aware that tensions are brewing between North and South, and despite being a Southerner by birth, her views on slavery make her side with the ‘Yankees’, although her heartache is great as it becomes obvious that it will lead to war.

There was something that drew me to this book, which is well-intentioned, although I have quibbles – although Daisy finds Christian brothers and sisters, who offer her advice, church and sermons don’t seem to feature much, her guidance mainly comes from personal devotion. (While at school, she feels most at home in a French-speaking church, despite not speaking the language well enough to follow everything.) For all the lessons the older narrator makes great play of, it never occurs to her that her fascination with Egyptian history was with a non-Christian religion.

Daisy’s lot is as extreme as that of young Jane Eyre or a Dickens hero. Pinshon’s cruelty only gradually becomes clear. Daisy’s parents conveniently dump her with an unsuitable guardian, and though they eventually think to send Dr Sandford to check on her, her childhood and youth involve a lot of emotional suffering and some damage to her health. Daisy also has a brother, Ransom, but Warner might as well have not bothered to create him as there is no instance of his interacting with his sister, ever. On the other hand, the author is not bad at suggesting things to the reader that neither young Daisy nor the older Daisy relating the tale seem to grasp, such as the fact that Dr Sandford, the guardian who knew Daisy as a child and must be much older than her, quite probably fancies her (but he doesn’t have flashing eyes).

Where Warner is explicit on the horrors of slavery, well, it’s bracing, although I’m fully aware that this is seen from the point of view of a white slaveowner’s daughter, who the seven hundred souls of Magnolia seem to revere automatically, (which Daisy has no problem with when it is happening and when she is relating it). It would be interesting to see an African-American critique of this book. ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’, which I’ve never read, is mentioned in passing.

When I was reading the first part of the book, when I wasn’t entirely clear about when it was set, I thought that the story would be about an adult Daisy clashing with her parents over Magnolia, but the question of slavery becomes a more abstract one for her as her life takes her away from there – and it becomes a national matter, part of the reason the civil war began. The book ends at the start of that war, more or less, and the build-up, as perceived in a girls’ school where letters from partisans, not partisan newspapers, were most girls’ sourced of information, is done well.

I have to note the way Daisy sees black culture or links natures to ethnicity – she describes the Negroes (the book’s term) as ‘luxury loving’ – and contrasts it with Celtic culture (surely more WASP?). There’s a right-on line about how white immigrants to America behaved appallingly towards the indigenous people, but then another line that’s anti-Irish.

I thought that the romance was well done, even though Daisy walks into love from friendship without knowing her own heart (or power), and while it is on the verge of war and sixteen to seventeen was probably considered old enough for marriage or engagement then, the question of being unequally yoked doesn’t arise.

This biography is instructive, revealing that the author did have a close connection with West Point. A bit more research suggests that ‘Melbourne House’ is a prequel and ‘Daisy in the Field’ is a sequel to ‘Daisy’ which may have been first published (in the UK?) in 1868 – my copy is a reprint, contains wild typos and probably hadn’t been read for a long while and some bits of it crumbled off as I read it.


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