“Milly was indeed a dove; this was the figure, though it most applied to her spirit. Yet he knew in a moment that Kate was just now, for reasons hidden from him, exceptionally under the impression of that element of wealth in her which was a power, which was a great power, and which was dove-like only so far as one remembered that doves have wings and wondrous flights, have them as well as tender tints and soft sound. It even came to him dimly that such wings would in a given case – had, truly, in the case with which he was concerned –spread themselves for protection. Hadn’t they, for that matter, lately taken an inordinate reach, and weren’t Kate and Mrs. Lowder, weren’t Susan Shepheard and he, wasn’t he in particular, nestling under them to a great increase of immediate need?”
No lie: it took me over two months to read The Wings of the Dove. The edition I read had over 500 pages, but it wasn’t the length of the book that slowed me down, it was Henry James and his MANY, MANY, carefully chosen words. I read pretty much every line twice if not three or four times and even then, I often wasn’t sure if I understood the sentence. It’s a good thing that one of the main characters is also a little dense. When things had to be spelled out to him, it was to my advantage as a reader too. Also, I had seen the film waaay back in 1998 or so and was familiar with the plot. But this is a psychological novel; the plot is barely there. James takes paragraphs and sometimes pages to explain one thought or perception. I realize that it might have been better for me had I a solid base in James and worked my way up to his later, more complex works. I read his first novel, Daisy Miller, earlier this year and found it both delightful and not difficult in the least. My reason for reading the Wings of the Dove now instead of later were fueled by the fact that (a) I owned a copy of this book already and (b) it is on the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels list of the best English-language novels published in the 20th century from which I intend to someday read every title. So I persevered.
As I stated above, there is not much of a plot. The story is simple: young Morton Densher and Kate Croy are Londoners who want to marry but feel they cannot due to certain social constraints that would be smoothed away if only either of them had any money. Along comes dove-like Milly Theale, a very rich but naïve (or is she?) American who has a crush on Morton and not too much longer to live. Will Morton marry Milly for her money as Kate hopes? Is Kate really doing Milly a favor as she would like to believe? Can Kate and Morton’s relationship survive this, whatever the outcome?
While this book was a lot of work for me, it didn’t put me off Henry James. I am not much of an athlete and the analogy may be poor, but runners don't avoid running a marathon because it is too challenging, right? I have at least two more "difficult" James’ titles that I HAVE to read due to my personal goal of reading all the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels and I would certainly be interested in reading some of his more accessible novels like Portrait of a Lady or Washington Square.
I read this for the category Classic Tragic Novel for the Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Karen at the blog Books and Chocolate.