When I first read The Wings of the Dove, I was on a Henry James binge. During frequent breaks at work, I read James on the roof of the office building. “Go on; take a break,” my boss used to say. He didn’t particularly mind what I did so long as I got my work done. And The Wings of the Dove proved to be one of my favorite reading experiences, much to the astonishment of those who couldn’t get through The Turn of the Screw.
Perhaps The Wings of the Dove does not quite rank up there with The Golden Bowl, but this elegant novel is one of James’s best. Not all, however, like it: some despise what they consider the heroine Milly Theale’s weakness: kindness. Milly, the charming, generous, thoughtful, witty young American heroine of The Wings of the Dove, was one of James’s favorite characters, based on his idealized cousin, Minny Temple, who died young of tuberculosis. Milly, who is trying to hide her serious illness from her chaperone, Susie, as they travel, has no experience of English society and is dazzled by Susie’s rich friends in England. Milly trusts the people she shouldn’t trust, because Susie is also an innocent. Kate Croy, a brilliant English “friend” who is dependent on a rich aunt, discovers that Milly is dying and plots to fleece her of her money. Kate persuades her boyfriend, Merton Densher, a journalist, to pretend to be in love first with Kate and then with Milly, while Kate pretends to despise him. When Milly dies, he will inherit the money; then he and Kate will marry.
Densher, to give him some credit, is not as sociopathic as Kate. At one point, when it is clear their plot has been uncovered, he says:
“We’ve played our dreadful game and we’ve lost. We owe it to ourselves, we owe it to our feelings for ourselves and for each other, not to wait another day. Our marriage will–fundamentally, somehow, don’t you see?–right everything that’s wrong, and I can’t express to you my impatience. We’ve only to announce it–and it takes off the weight.”
And he is relieved.
But Kate, strangely, continues the game.
It is ridiculous to blog about Henry James–I could spend days and weeks and months writing a paper on those lines above. But I love James, and I urge you to read him if you haven’t. It’s a complete luxury to have time to read this kind of novel.