Yet shall ye be like the wings of a dove, that is covered with silver wings and her feathers like gold.
—The Sixty-Eighth Psalm
Perhaps the most fascinating characteristic of Henry James’s novels is not his exquisite prose but the force of the plots. You don’t need the notes. You read greedily; there is no time for the notes. James is a bit like Dickens. Both are masters of melodrama. One will never quite tread the hyperbolically foggy streets of Dickens’ London (where is the fog?), but one glimpses reflections as one stomps on a guided tour of Dickens’ London, and though there is no tour of James’ London, to my knowledge, you can imagine Milly Theale, the heroine of The Wings of the Dove, as she wanders through the National Gallery, or Kate Croy and Merton Densher scheming on a bench in Kensington Gardens.
In The Wings of the Dove, the melodrama unfolds like the symbolic wings so often referred to of James’ dove, i.e., the heroine Milly Theale. (There are other winged women in Wings: the wealthy Aunt Maud, interested in Milly solely as the lion of the season, is said by her niece Kate to have the wings of a vulture.) Milly, a dying American heiress, is a Dickensian orphan, curious and observant, traveling around Europe with Mrs. Stringham, her companion. She is dying of an unnamed disease; but she is determined to live as long as she can, and her doctor indicates that she will live longer if she does what she likes.
Odd as this may sound, and perhaps it is a stretch, I am reminded of Dickens’ orphan Esther Summerson in Bleak House. Like Milly, Esther is modest, sweet, lively and charming, and though, unlike Milly, she know nothing of her parents, she is connected to wealth. She does not die, but is very ill with smallpox, contracted through an act of charity. Both heroines have a razor-sharp wit beneath the sweetness and both capture the love of those around them. Both are in love with men they aren’t sure they can have. Could James have written The Wings of the Dove without Bleak House? Well, yes: his cousin Minnie died young, and I think he knew a couple of other young sickly women. (I’m not doing research: I’m doing the New Criticism thing.) But I love Milly and Esther equally. And I can imagine some readers dismissing Milly as too good, just as they do Esther.
In this reading of The Wings of the Dove, I read an edition with no notes: I wanted the experience of reading as a 1902 reader would. Having just reread The Golden Bowl, I was struck by the similarity of the plots (I wrote about Golden here): in Wings, Milly is almost the victim of a plot by her charming trusted English friend, Kate Croy, who, when she discovers that Milly is dying, persuades her boyfriend, Merton Densher, to court Milly . Densher does it only to please Kate, and doesn’t quite take in the enormity of what she asks. Milly’s companion, Mrs. Stringham, also wants him to propose, not caring what his motives are, just wanting Milly to get what she wants while she is alive.
A horrific plot! And yet we like Kate so much in the beginning. In the opening chapter, she visits her father, an impoverished middle-aged dandy, and offers to throw in her lot with him and share her small income. She is living with rich Aunt Maud, who insists that Kate give up her father if she continues to live with her. But Kate’s father says to give him up with his blessing. Follow the money.
And so we see the morals of Kate. She struggles, but there is nothing to convince her of the greater good, or anything but the good of wealth. She cannot marry Densher, her journalist boyfriend who has no money, if she wants her aunt’s money, and she has never liked anything so much as her rooms at Aunt Maud’s, so she must give him up, too. And so she hatches the plot. Milly is going to die, so why shouldn’t she and Densher have the money? That’s her reasoning.
As a young woman, I identified with Milly–I was so silly–and I simply loved her. I still do. Milly has a sense of adventure and a sense of humor and wants so desperately to live: at the National Gallery in London, she sits on a bench, humorously studying the lady copyists. And it is this passage that reveals the lonely Milly’s secret dash and fun.
Milly yielded to this charm till she was almost ashamed; she watched the lady-copyists till she found herself wondering what would be thought by others of a young woman, of adequate aspect, who should appear to regard them as the pride of the place. She would have liked to talk to them, to get, as it figured to her, into their lives, and was deterred but by the fact that she didn’t quite see herself as purchasing imitations and yet feared she might excite the expectation of purchase. She really knew before long that what held her was the mere refuge, that something within her was after all too weak for the Turners and Titians.
When Milly discovers the plot, she behaves beautifully, almost too beautifully. But when I was young, I very much hoped I would behave like Milly in similar circumstances. These days I prefer The Golden Bowl, because Maggie, who discovers a similar plot, lives. The older we get, the more skeptical we are of our heroines’ demises.
But James was traumatized by the deaths of beloved young women. And so the text takes me only so far, but it is far enough.