Monday, 13 December 1999

Henry James: The Wings of the Dove (1902)

Edition: Bodley Head
Review number: 405

Henry James is generally reckoned to have had a late burst of creativity out of which came The Wings of a Dove, The Ambassadors, and The Golden Bowl. This may be the case, but I suspect that his earlier works are more frequently read today.

The title, and a fair amount of imagery in the novel, comes from Psalm 55. That psalm speaks of the experience of terror, and the desire for wings to fly to the place of shelter. (This is, in the original, distinctly spiritual rather than just a banal idea of physical escape; the presence of God is the place of shelter, and the dove symbolises the Spirit of God.) James secularises the idea, transforming it to fit his story.

The dove, in the novel, is a rich young American women, Milly Theale, who travels to Europe when she is diagnosed as suffering from an incurable disease. There she meets the Englishwoman Kate Croy, and they become friends. Kate has a lover, Merton Densher, but they are unable to marry because neither has any money. The opposition of Kate's relatives means that their engagement is a secret, and Kate conceives a calculating and unpleasant plan. Densher will pretend to fall in love with Milly, to inherit her money so that their marriage can take place.

The scheme works, except that Densher's friendship with Milly and her gentleness and goodness mean that he is strongly affected by her death. The idea of profiting it through his deception becomes abhorrent to him. Though he did not fall in love with Milly, he is accused by Kate of loving her ghost, and she perceptively realises that the wings of the dove will always overshadow their relationship. (She was the driving force behind the whole of the deception, Densher being rather passive, like many of James' male characters.)

There are several problems with The Wings of the Dove as a novel. The plot lends itself to detailed psychological study, but James never seems to quite decide which of the three central characters he should concentrate on: Milly dies before the point where Densher is transformed mentally, he is too much of a cipher to be interesting, and Kate is not physically present for the most important part of the book, when Densher pays an extended visit to the dying Milly in Venice. James seems to be most interested in Milly, but she is a little too sweet and good, one of the last of those nineteenth century heroines in English literature.

James' treatment of the story is also very slow, over three hundred rather tedious pages being used to set the plot in motion. This has the effect of making Densher's change of heart towards the end seem very sudden, which is interesting, but it does mean that most of the book is peripheral to the psychological heart of the novel. The Wings of the Dove is based on an interesting idea, but I think it could have been better handled.

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