‘If you can imagine an angel with a thumping bank-account …’: The Wings of the Dove by Henry James

Last week a friend returned from her first trip to Venice, for the screening of Australian film Ruin at the Venice International Film Festival. And said something like, ‘After Venice, what?’

Eva Riccobono poses a day before the 70th Venice Film Festival in Venice

Venice Film Festival 2013

Perhaps Saint Petersburg in mid winter? Or maybe Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove.

Unknown‘There are subjects and subjects, and this one seemed particularly to bristle,’ wrote Henry James in his Preface to The Wings of the Dove. The bristling subject is classic James – the dove of the title is an innocent American girl, Milly Theale, who falls under the spell of a sophisticated English couple, the beautiful Kate Croy and journalist Merton Densher.

The peculiar, fragile love triangle that results becomes in James’ telling a complex probing of motivation and desire, of the value of life and beauty, and, above all, of the power of money. For Milly has something that draws people inexorably to her – a stupendous fortune. As Kate says of her: ‘If you can imagine an angel with a thumping bank-account you’ll have the simplest expression of the kind of thing.’

Milly’s millions are the wings of the title – they give her a freedom the other characters in the novel can only dream of, allowing her to take flight from mundane concerns and self-interested machinations: ‘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 sounds.’

The Wings of the Dove, set around 1900 in London and Venice and, fleetingly, New York, opens with Kate Croy visiting her father in his miserable London lodgings. Immediately we are plunged into the poverty of Kate’s family, from which she alone has been rescued. After the death of her mother, her mother’s wealthy sister Aunt Maud took Kate to live with her. Installed in Aunt Maud’s mansion at Lancaster Gate on the northern edge of Kensington Gardens, Kate has been elevated beyond her family’s financial woes and Aunt Maud plans to marry her to the aristocratic Lord Mark. The highly intelligent, strong-willed Kate, however, has other plans.

Helena Bonham-Carter as Kate Croy

Helena Bonham-Carter as Kate Croy

At a bohemian party in a gallery hired by a hostess who ‘fished with big nets’, a tall, young, impoverished journalist called Merton Densher catches Kate’s eye. Six months later they meet again by chance on the London Underground and Densher walks with Kate to Lancaster Gate – ‘and then she … walked with him away from it …’ Of course Aunt Maud disapproves utterly of the young man.

Then Milly arrives in London – and Kate and Densher enter her orbit with the intention of using her for their own secret ends, of tapping her enormous wealth. They plan to construct a trap for ‘great innocence to come’, manipulating the truth of their circumstances – ‘Didn’t we long ago agree that what she believes is the principal thing for us?’ – to lure Milly into marriage.

But, unexpectedly, Milly acts on Kate and Densher as much as they plan to act on her, and her life becomes an essential element in their bond:

Milly, from the other side, happened at that moment to notice them, and she sent across towards them in response all the candour of her smile, the lustre of her pearls, the value of her life, the essence of her wealth. It brought them, with faces made fairly grave by the reality she put into their plan, together again.


James lived through the ‘Gilded Age‘ of America, a term coined by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner for the period of massive change that saw America’s transformation from a predominately rural, agrarian economy into a booming industrial capitalist one (manufacturing quadrupled in America between 1865 and 1900). The last three decades of the 19th century were characterised by relentless capitalism, corruption and vulgar displays of wealth. On a visit to America at the time, the French prime minister Georges Clemenceau remarked: ‘America is the only nation in history which, miraculously, has gone directly from barbarism to degeneration without the usual interval of civilisation.’

The great wealth such as Milly Theale’s that had been amassed from this phenomenal period of growth was soon being lavished on diamonds and pearls. This rampant materialism deeply troubled James, and provoked the leading American economist Thorstein Veblen to coin the term ‘conspicuous consumption’ to describe spending geared to enhancing status – spending that ‘makes a statement’ – in his 1899 book The Theory of the Leisure Class.

The idea of a novel based around a doomed young girl with everything – vast wealth, breeding, intelligence, beauty, freedom – except for a future, had been plaguing James for years, perhaps ever since his cousin Minny Temple died aged 24 from tuberculosis. James wrote: ‘I can scarce remember the time when the situation on which this long-drawn fiction mainly rests was not vividly present to me.’

Minny had begged her beloved cousin Henry to take her to Rome when he first went as an adult independently of his family. He refused her request and she died before having seen the city of her dreams. James wanted to write about a young person ‘conscious of a great capacity for life, but early stricken and doomed’ who sets out to achieve, ‘however briefly and brokenly’, the sense of having lived. Another significant loss in James’ life that may have coloured The Wings of the Dove was the death – apparent suicide – of his friend and confidante, the writer Constance Fenimore Woolson, who fell to her death from the window of a Venetian palazzo in 1894.

Henry James

Henry James

Henry James was born in 1843 in New York, the second son of Henry James and Mary Robertson Walsh. James’ grandfather William had come to America from his tenant farm in Ireland in the 18th century and settled in Albany, New York, where he soon amassed a spectacular fortune in trade, banking and investment. His son, the unconventional Henry James Snr, a social theorist and lecturer, spent his inheritance on touring Europe, giving his five children an eclectic education in Paris, London and Geneva. The family returned to New York before the Civil War broke out and settled in Newport. Henry’s two younger brothers fought in the war but a back injury prevented Henry from joining them. This was but one instance of Henry’s lifelong feeling of exclusion from the events of his times.

While Henry Snr permitted his eldest son William (later famous as a philosopher and psychologist) to study science at Harvard, he disapproved of college life for his second son Henry, a reserved bookish boy. But at 19 Henry went to Harvard Law School and ended up spending most of his time reading, especially Balzac and Hawthorne (whose young American innocent abroad in The Marble Faun, Hilda, is like Milly Theale associated with doves). Two years later James’ first story and first book review were published and during his 20s he became known for his short stories, reviews and articles.

In 1869 he went to Europe for the first time as an adult, travelling to Italy, France and England, and realised he could work better and live more cheaply in Europe. In 1875 his first published novel appeared – Roderick Hudson – as well as his first book of travel writing and a collection of tales. James continued to produce work at an astonishing rate, publishing some 100 volumes over the next 40 years.

In 1875 James spent a year in Paris, where he met Turgenev, Flaubert, Zola and Guy de Maupassant before moving to London. In 1878 his novella Daisy Miller was published by Leslie Stephen in his influential Cornhill Magazine and became James’ only bestseller. It was so popular that editor William Dean Howells remarked that he’d heard the whole of New York society had been divided into two groups: the ‘Daisy Millerites’ and the ‘anti-Daisy Millerites’. James became a man about town in London and famously dined out 140 times in two years (1878 and 1879).

From 1895 James’ approach to fiction was transformed by his devastating, failed attempt to write successfully for the stage, a doomed play Guy Domville first staged in London in that year (which Colm Toibin wrote about in his 2004 novel The Master). Following this shattering experience he focused in his novels on a small number of characters constellated in highly charged situations and told his stories from a shifting, multiple viewpoint.

imagesThe first of three novels to be published following this period of transformation was The Wings of the Dove in 1902 (although it was written after The Ambassadors, which was published the following year, and in 1904 the third novel appeared, The Golden Bowl). To save his hand James dictated these last three novels, while living comfortably and happily away from the demands of London life in Rye, Sussex. Always a fastidious writer, James later spent three years revising his main novels (of a total of 20), which were published in 24 volumes as the ‘New York Edition’. In 1934 the prefaces James wrote for 18 of his novels, including The Wings of the Dove, were published together as The Art of the Novel, which became an essential text for the New Critics such as IA Richards and FR Leavis. Because of the freedom it offered a writer, James believed the novel was the ultimate art form.

Reading The Wings of the Dove is like entering a hall of mirrors, filled with baroque images and shimmering surfaces, dazzling, elusive, seductive. And yet James’ opulent prose is razor sharp, cable of teasing out distinctions of hair-breadth subtlety. James found his greatest lessons as a writer in Balzac and Hawthorne. He also admired Dickens, Turgenev and George Eliot. James’s novels are densely written, but as James himself wrote, believing the enjoyment of art to be the highest luxury: ‘the luxury is not greatest, by my consequent measure, when the work asks for as little attention as possible’.

James’ last visit to America, in 1904-5, confirmed his disenchantment with his native land. On his return to England he wrote The American Scene, recording his impression of the country’s excessive urbanisation, pollution and wanton waste of resources. James became a British subject in 1915, the year before his death, to demonstrate his support for Britain’s involvement in the First World War and his disapproval of America’s refusal to join the war in Europe.

One hundred years after the publication of The Wings of the Dove there’s been an unprecedented resurgence of interest in its author, including four new books which deal with James in one way or another: Toibin’s acclaimed biographical novel The Master, David Lodge’s Author, Author (2004), Emma Tennant’s Felony (2002) and Alan Hollinghurst’s Booker Prize winning The Line of Beauty (2004). David Lodge called the sudden interest in James ‘a contagion’. In 1997 a film of The Wings of the Dove was released, starring Helena Bonham-Carter, Linus Roache, Alison Elliott and Charlotte Rampling.

Gore Vidal has given James the highest praise, calling him ‘the master of the novel in English’ from 1881 (the year The Portrait of a Lady was published) in a way that was unequalled before and has remained unequalled since.



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4 Responses to ‘If you can imagine an angel with a thumping bank-account …’: The Wings of the Dove by Henry James

  1. Anu says:

    Lovely post.
    One of my favourite novels – and for once a film that was a decent adaptation of a James novel.

  2. Thanks Anu. Yes, it’s one of my favourite novels too – and totally agree about the film, very decent.

  3. “And yet James’ opulent prose is razor sharp, cable of teasing out distinctions of hair-breadth subtlety. ” Jane, your writing brings forth images and shadows of images, and evokes desire for more (and to go read some James which I have never done before.). …Thank you for reminding me that the novel was once considered a new form. I;m going to go pick up a copy of The Art of the Novel. Isn’t it interesting (gulp) that such a book, such a gift to the world, is no longer considered a commodity, therefore unlikely part of a GDP or GNP. and therefore largely passed by in today’s world. I can get in a used bookstore! But it could by it’s indirect influence have a profound affect.

  4. Pingback: ‘Our ideas about marriage and divorce are particularly old-fashioned': Edith Wharton’s ‘The Age of Innocence’ | bookish girl

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