April 1, 2011 by Reader's Connection
Aspern´s First Law of Bloggometry states that any blog about reading should offer at least one Henry James-related post, every three years; and since this blog will mark its third birthday in August, I´d better get on it.
I´ve always had problems with The Wings of the Dove, because Book First and Book Second make me fall in love with Kate Croy, who then disappears.
It turns out that the novel is centered on a wealthy American girl called Milly Theale, and I’ve always wished it had stayed with Kate, who is British and financially pinched and much more interesting. Kate does reappear, and–following her exemplary behavior in the opening sections–behaves rather badly.
Pop quiz, with helpful web links: Who first said: “Henry James chewed more than he bit off?”
(A) Mark Twain (Scroll down until you see the picture of Twain)
(B) Peter DeVries (Scroll down to the eighth paragraph)
(C) Henry’s brother, William James (Do a CTRL-F for “chewed.”)
(D) Mrs. Henry Adams (First full paragraph)
Answer: Each of these celebrities was obviously the first to say it. But in the the first two books of The Wings of the Dove, in which we meet Kate and her lover Merton Densher, I don’t think this old complaint holds any truth.
And when we meet Millie, traveling in Europe, I am fascinated by the awe inspired by our rich, sickly heroine in her companion, Mrs. Stringham.
Her situation, as such things were called, was on the grand scale; but it still was not that. It was her nature, once for all–a nature that reminded Mrs. Stringham of the term always used in the newspapers about the great new steamers, the inordinate number of “feet of water” they drew; so that if, in your little boat, you had chosen to hover and approach, you had but yourself to thank, when once motion was started, for the way the draught pulled you. Milly drew the feet of water, and odd though it might seem that a lonely girl, who was not robust and who hated sound and show, should stir the stream like a leviathan, her companion floated off with the sense of rocking violently at her side.
But don’t take my word for it. Lots of smarter readers have held this book in high esteem–which presumably means that they agreed about Milly’s ability to draw all those feet of water. Or at least they weren’t bored by her.
What you need to do: read Book First and Book Second. Make the acquaintance of Kate’s dreadful father and her widowed sister, and come to understand Kate’s predicament. It’s as wonderful a beginning as a novel ever had, and who knows? You’re probably smarter than I am, and you’ll see more in Milly than I do.