I started The Wings of the Dove by Henry James while Melbourne was in lockdown during 2020 but I wasn’t able to concentrate well enough to get past the first 20 pages. My notes from that first attempt said, “Henry James uses too many words.”
When I tried the book again in May 2021 Melbourne was out of lockdown and I was working in my office in the CBD several days a week, with a more established routine and feeling generally more relaxed. As a result I was able to persevere and while I didn’t love the story or the slow writing style as much as I’ve enjoyed the Henry James’ books which I’ve previously read, on this attempt I at least became interested in the characters and their stories and was able to finish the book.
Milly Theale was an extremely rich, young American orphan when she travelled to London with her companion, Mrs Stringer, who while there, reconnected with a friend from her schooldays, Mrs Louder.
Mrs Louder then introduced Milly to her beautiful, but poor young niece, Kate Croy and the two young women became friends. Milly also met Kate’s secret fiance, Merton Densher, who Milly had briefly met in New York before coming to London.
Mrs Louder wouldn’t allow Kate to marry Densher because he was also poor, but when Kate learned that Milly was dying she came up with a plan for Densher to make up to Milly and marry her, with an eye to marrying him herself once he became a rich widower, her aunt also encouraged him to carry out Kate’s plan.
Densher, who was smitten with Kate, went along with the plan and followed Milly, Kate and their entire entourage to Venice where Milly went to die (or to live, as her doctor encouraged her to do before she died, without ever stating that she would die).
I feel as if I should have disliked Kate, Densher and Mrs Louder for using Milly for their own gain, but they were charming, interesting and although my perception may be wrong, at least somewhat well-intentioned towards Milly. I felt that Kate and Densher actually cared for Milly and wanted her to die happy, even though their passion was for each other.
The writing style is lethargic, with long complicated sentences that required a lot of concentration to read. Characters hinted at things at but rarely made their intentions clear and left others to determine what a raised eyebrow or a slight change in a facial expression might have meant. The book probably deserved more time from me as I think I would have gotten more from it had I read it more slowly and diligently.
While I didn’t love The Wings of the Dove I am keen to watch the 1997 film which starred Helena Bonham Carter as Kate Croy and am hopeful that watching this will clarify if Kate and Densher actually cared for Milly or if their motivation in how they acted towards her was pure greed.
The Wings of the Dove was book twenty eight in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2023.