Retreating to the complex world of Henry James is very calming. You know where you are in his turn-of-the-century novels. The same plots recur, though wrought with significantly different details and characters. In two of his late masterpieces, The Golden Bowl and The Wings of the Dove, he weaves convoluted stories about innocent Americans exploited by greedy Europeans who marry, or try to marry, them for money. The iniquity of the couples who impose sexual triangles on the unsuspecting Americans is appalling. Nobody could be more cynical than these villains. Yet James shows us exactly how one villain gets warped in The Wings of the Dove.
I am wholly absorbed by The Wings of the Dove. The sentences are ornate, the structure of the novel superbly sculptured, and the moral issues dazzlingly presented. The triangle in this novel consists of a scheming English couple, Kate Croy and Merton Densher, and Milly Theale, a thoughtful, kind rich American woman who is very ill . Kate and Densher are in love with each other, but they are too poor to marry, according to Kate. And Milly becomes their mark.
Milly is charming, thoughtful, whimsical, insightful, brave–and doesn’t have the faintest idea that people might use her. Recently orphaned and traveling through Europe with a writer, Mrs. Stringham, Milly agrees to Susie Stringham’s plan to go to London and look up an old friend.
The friend turns out to be Mrs. Lowder, Kate’s aunt, who wants to introduce Milly to society as a kind of wealthy pet. And Milly is enchanted by the sophistication of Kate and mistakes her manner for friendship.
Kate is amused, manipulative, apparently a friend, but without the emotions of a friend. Milly confides that she is dying. And Kate makes her plan. (Do you hate Kate as much as I do?)
In the beginning of the novel, Kate is almost noble. She offers to give up her prospects of money from Mrs. Lowder to live with her roguish father, whom her aunt has forbidden her to see. Her father forbids this. He wants the money. And so Kate goes on the road to perdition.
This is an excellent read, James at his best.
CONTEMPORARY GIVEAWAY: If you would like my copy of Dori Ostermiller’s enjoyable novel, Outside the Ordinary World, in return for stamps, leave a comment. First come, first serve! I have to finish it first, but I should be done by the weekend.
I wrote about this novel here.