Monday, March 13, 2006

10. The Wings of the Dove

by Henry James

Do you have books that you feel were an accomplishment for you? Not ones that you didn’t like but read anyway because they’re “classics” and you think it makes you more “well-read” having read them (not that there’s anything wrong with that) and not ones that got a lot of attention and you read, despite having no interest in them (only a little wrong because there’s not enough time in a bibliophile's life to spend on uninteresting books). I mean ones that you always wanted to read but somehow kept finding a way to put off, then finally started to read and plowed on through when the beginning was slow-going, and ending up loving anyway. I mean the ones that, upon closing the back cover you think, I am so glad I didn’t go without having read that. That’s how I feel about The Wings of the Dove.

I first stumbled upon The Wings of the Dove when I worked in my university’s library, shelving in the stacks. I don’t know what drew me to it, but for some reason I always wanted to read it and never took the time to actually do so. My first encounter with Henry James was actually last year, when I read Daisy Miller and Washington Square, mostly because of a Gilmore Girls reference. When I bought Wings a year ago I was still intimidated by its heft, but its placement as #26 on the Modern Library 100 made it jump to the top of my unread stack this year. And I loved it.

Sidenote: How much do I love the Barnes & Noble Classics series? I’m all about patronizing the independents in my neighborhood, but the B&N Classics are so pretty and cheap and the introductions and footnotes are actually helpful instead of pretentious. I find them hard to resist.

The Wing of the Dove follows the deceitful and treacherous love triangle between Milly Theale, Kate Croy, and Merton Densher. Kate comes from a family that’s lost its wealth due to her mother’s marriage to a disreputable man. Kate has the opportunity to come back into money by way of her aunt, Maud Manningham Lowder, but not if she continues her romance with Densher, a journalist not too concerned with money. Milly is the last surviving member of her family, with more money that she’ll ever have the desire or, owing to an unnamed terminal illness, the time to spend. Upon Milly’s arrival in London, Kate begins hatching a plan to bring Milly’s fortune into her own possession. If she can convince Milly that she and Densher have nothing between them and successfully direct Milly’s attention onto Densher, and if Densher can exhort Milly’s sympathies for his supposed spurned affections toward Kate, then the chances for a marriage between Milly and Densher are good. Once time and the illness have taken their course, Densher and Kate will be free to marry with money.

Despicable, isn’t it? Mrs. Lowder and Susan Stringham, Milly’s companion, are no better as they strive for the same results, although for different reasons. Mrs. Lowder wishes to break the union between Kate and Densher because of Densher’s lack of status. She wishes to press Kate on Lord Mark, a man with clout, although abhorrent in character. Mrs. Stringham wishes for Milly to have some happiness before she dies and goes along with Mrs. Lowder’s plans. The plan goes completely awry when Densher has trouble going through with it. Densher doesn’t start out as the strongest of characters, going along with Kate’s every whim in the scheme, but he starts to demand something from her in return for his efforts. Oh yes…that something. Kate complies, but he starts to question her devotion to their relationship. Does she want him or does she want the money? When Milly finally passes, aided by the blow of finding out that Densher and Kate are engaged, Densher is left with an unopened letter that he’s pretty sure bequeaths some amount of Milly’s money to him. But the letter remains unopened, thrown into the fire, and Densher gives Kate an ultimatum – take the money and leave him or marry him as they were, before Milly entered their lives.

There’s a simple saying that sums up the moral of this story which James puts into his own words in his preface: “…what a tangled web we weave when – well, when, through our mislaying or otherwise trifling with our blest pair of compasses, we have to produce the illusion of mass without the illusion of extent.”

Ah, Henry James. The master of using big words when diminutive ones will surely suffice. I admit that I had some trouble at the start of this book. The beginning is fairly slow, but halfway through the story’s background is set and the plot is free to roll forward. Of course, the halfway point of this book is 250 pages, so it’s not without a small amount of faith that I stuck with it, but having finished it I’m so happy I did. There are few authors who can create such an intricate plot with developed characters that build up slowly and end with a big bang. As someone who has no trouble admitting that she has trouble getting into “classics,” I can’t really tell you why I love James’s writing so much; I’m just glad I didn’t let my apprehensions cloud my attempt. That’s the real accomplishment.

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