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The Wings of the Dove by Henry James
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Jul 06, 2011

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bookshelves: doorstops, library, american-lit, in-the-movies, victorians, adventure-2011, 20th-century-classics, the-stacks
Read from July 27 to August 06, 2011


Handsome Boyfriend and I are planning a two week respite on The Continent in October, moseying from Nice to Venice with stops in between. "Preparing for the trip' , HB has stocked up on new hiking and backpacking equipment appropriate for autumn weather and I on books set along our route, so as to 'work out the best itinerary.' Wings of the Dove topped all of the lists of books set in Venice, and I'd hoped to read about the scenery and learn of some interesting locales to visit in Venice while I introduced myself to the writing of Henry James.
Lesson learned: Henry James is an awful travel guide, unless you plan on spending a lot of time in the drawing room, and Wings of the Dove is only set in Venetian novel if you consider the Thames an extension of the lagoon.
The Wings of the Dove was my first foray into Henry James, if you don't count the four pages of Daisy Miller I read one afternoon in college working at the bookshop, or the half-viewing of Jane Campion's Portrait of a Lady that I caught while folding laundry one rainy afternoon at my parents' a few years later. It has taken me this long for one reason only: Anthony Trollope is one of my favorite authors and to my understanding [from a short biography of Trollope in the Penguin Classics edition of [book:The Small House at Allington|144463]], James made quite an early career trashing Trollope’s ‘Six hours in the morning, every morning’ approach to writing while extolling his own fancy high-falutin' ideas about literature as art and not work. [I have irrationally strong feelings about 150 year old literary feuds. Notably, however, James drops both names without malice in WOTD; it appears from his short biography included in my text that sometime around 1880, he started what the anonymous biographer referes to as his 'Balzac' period, a particularly productive stream that produced A Portrait of a Lady and Washington Square, among others, and he seems to have come to terms with fiction as paycheck.]
Henry James is certainly different than his predecessors. His prose is manic – distracted even – trying to capture within the confines of a single sentence an idea, its history and its consequences. Randomly: ‘There was a difference in the air – even if none other than the supposedly usual difference in truth between a man and a woman; and it was almost as if this sense provoked her.’ Lovely and interesting (and, I imagine, infinitely parody-able), but after an entire novel of this, I began to feel like I’d just driven at 50 miles an hour down a winding and ungraded dirt road in an old Ford pick-up whose suspension had given out. It can be exhilarating, but you feel a little jarred and discombobulated after. It isn’t just James’ constant stops and starts (and bumps and thumps) and mid-sentence meanderings that leave the reader a little awed but lost and bewildered at the same time; it’s that there’s no scenery on this road trip either. You’re not looking out the windows of your truck through a wood or off the PCH or into the Piazza San Marco even (though one does wish): you’re looking into the psyches and souls of a host of beautiful and distinguished but also deeply insecure and frightened people who are desperately trying to figure out where they stand in the world and how they might improve that standing.
Kate Croy and Merton Densher are in love. They want, badly, to be married, but Densher is the type of man who doesn’t have ‘an income’, i.e., he has to work for a living. Kate herself does have an income, but it’s a modest one of two-hundred pounds per annum (about $1000 at the time) and she’s given half to her sister, a harried (and harrying) widow with four children. Kate’s one salvation from employment and ruin is Aunt Maud, who, in the opening scene, Kate is about to ditch – damn the consequences – for her dear old dad, a sniveling deadbeat and likely criminal who is angry that Kate would give half of her income to her sister and not him. Kate wants to leave Maud to marry Densher and live with him in penniless matrimonial bliss and dear old dad tells her to go back to childless Aunt Maud, wait till she kicks the bucket, inherit her fortune, and then come and ask if she might take up rooms with him, and while she’s at it, help him out a bit financially. Until she does that, he won’t receive her. .
After that episode, Kate is unwilling to throw over her last remaining family member who cares a wit about what happens to her just to live in penniless matrimonial bliss with Mert, whom Aunt Maud doesn’t approve of on account of his unfortunate state of employment, especially when she thinks there’s a way to Aunt Maud’s millions and marriage to Merton. [Kate, we find, won’t compromise, when waiting will get you what you want, only slower.] The fact that Aunt Maude has another husband in mind for her is no bother. In the midst of her scheming, Merton heads off to the States to write a fashion piece for the periodical that employs him, and meets Milly Theale.
If there is one thing you must know about Milly Theale it is this: she is magnificent. We must presume this because one is told so often by the rest of the cast. Either that or ‘magnificent’ does not mean what they think it means. [I am still not sure what they mean. I don’t know that they do. I think they’re all afraid to admit that they don’t know what they mean.] The titular ‘Dove’, Milly is young, orphaned, unmarried, family-less and worth so much money it would be indecent to mention it, except to remind oneself again and again that it would be indecent to mention. When Milly arrives in Europe on doctor’s orders, she and her companion (a college roommate of Aunt Maud) find themselves in London and she and Kate take to each other like bosom buddies, and then Kate finds out what it would be indecent to mention . . . and thinks that maybe she’ll be able to marry Merton sooner than she thought.
Something wonderful is that while Kate hatches several terrible schemes and she and Merton and Aunt Maud and even Lord Mark all make awful moral decisions none of them are truly evil people. This is not a social comedy where sin gets its due, WOTD is an investigation of the moral grey area where most of us live our lives: where we find it difficult to distinguish want from need and choices must be made between things evil and things slightly less so. James isn’t interested in the light of the lagoon so much as he is interested in the millions of tiny silent choices that a person must make every day in order to keep living, and this is why, as I said above, he is so different. I know of no writer of James’ era who peers into the soul at this magnification and am hard-pressed to think of one before or after who has.
This was not my favorite novel ever and I certainly did not get out of it what I intended, but I did develop an appreciation for Henry James. This will not be the last novel of his that I read.
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Reading Progress

07/27/2011 page 150
20.0%
07/29/2011 page 250
34.0% "Henry James, American novelist, who spent most of his life in England, no doubt, and wrote about Americans, fresh-faced peer-less, peer as in the old-fashioned term peer, as in aristocracy, from across the sea, as America lies there, come to England to be enthralled - and I like it! (But what is with all of the commas, Hank? Can't we break this up a little?)"
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