12 November 2013

26. Henry James, THE WINGS OF THE DOVE

Kate Croy and Merton Densher want to get married but they are broke. Nobody blames Kate for this, because her father has been Ruined in his Business Dealings and will now live out the rest of his life dependent on others. The London society in which they move largely places the blame on Merton, who works for a newspaper (the more things change) and has no family fortune.

If this were a Jane Austen novel, here's where a convenient older relative would die and leave somebody investments... but we're in Jamesville now, so the way the lovers determine to solve their problem is colder and less coincidental. On a business trip to America, Merton befriended an American heiress named Milly Theale, who later arrives in London and becomes Kate's best closest friend. Everyone knows Milly is very rich, almost nobody knows she is also very ill. So Kate says to Merton, what if you and Milly were to get married, knowing that she might leave you, the bereaved husband, with enormous stacks of cash? Wouldn't that be tragic. Wouldn't you be so, so sad and console yourself with the deceased's best friend, remembering the happiness they had shared?

Since this is also not an Agatha Christie novel, they all swan off to Venice -- Milly for her health, Kate because she has a rich aunt to sponsor her and nothing else to do but be wooed by Rich Aunt's favorite suitor for her, Merton to put Kate's plan into action and possibly woo her in secret, Rich Aunt's Favorite Suitor because he is rich (I suppose?)

Surprisingly, I loved this book. I didn't appreciate the density of this book at first, because it took me about 150 pages to get into its rhythms, but when I did I was able to pause at the end of each section and reflect on what had happened and may happen as a result. Thus my enjoyment of THE WINGS OF THE DOVE was stretched out for weeks, when I felt very, very close to the action. This isn't the James I remember from DAISY MILLER; the ponderousness really adds up to something. I dwelt in the world of this book as if it were science fiction.

After I finished this book, faced with the amount of ambiguity James had baked into this bizarre love triangle, I read a fair amount of criticism and analysis around THE WINGS OF THE DOVE. What actually happened is quite clear, but a lot of its impact is up for interpretation: What is Milly Theale's real diagnosis, and how was her health affected by the stir around her? How much weight does Kate actually give her family's input into her marriage, despite how she may act? How affected, or unaffected, is Merton by his errand? From reading I learned that many people see the character of Milly as relatively flat, without the complexity of her companions; to them, her illness wipes her out, making her seem too saintly. (Also, a lot of people apparently saw the '90s movie starring Helena Bonham Carter as Kate, and then were surprised that the book doesn't have any sexy scenes in it. Well, I never.)

But it was Kate whom I sought and failed to understand. I couldn't figure her out, couldn't put the clues together, and since she's the linchpin of everything that happens in THE WINGS OF THE DOVE,
I definitely couldn't, however, see her as pure villain, and I don't think James did either. (And not because of King Ambiguity.) I felt that the author had an unusual sympathy for Kate's predicament -- constrained by forces beyond her control, trying to scrape up the smallest amount of autonomy over her situation. In a way, she is the most powerless person in the whole novel, even though she can't be forced into marrying Rich Aunt's choice of men. The breaking of her will against the facts of her life is terrible to watch.

Ellen vs. ML: 59 read, 41 unread
Next up: I have a few more to recap from when I was wandering in the wilderness! Which do you like on deck, THE GRAPES OF WRATH or THE WAY OF ALL FLESH? 


Marjorie said...

I vote Grapes of Wrath, but not for any particular reason.

I should read this book someday. I have probably said this before, but I loved Portrait of a Lady so much I've been afraid to read any more James since then, or even to reread Portrait, in fear it won't live up to what I remember.

Ellen said...

I haven't read PORTRAIT OF A LADY, but it's on the list so I guess I will get around to it eventually.

You will probably be better prepared for this than I was!