Edouard Manet, Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets (Musée d’Orsay, Paris) | Public Domain
Edouard Manet, Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets, 1872 (Musée d’Orsay, Paris) | Public Domain

“I’m not ready to die yet.”
Daniel Hollywood (1956–2002)

Henry James’s late novel, The Wings of the Dove, opens on a scene of class abjection. Kate Croy waits for her father in his shabby, sordid, vulgar little rooms, where “she tasted the faint flat emanation of things, the failure of fortune and of honour.” It is never clear what Lionel Croy has done, but while himself looking the picture of the English gentleman, he has brought poverty and dishonor on himself and his family. Kate’s widowed sister and her children have enough to eat, enough even to hire a nursemaid, but this only just barely and only with Kate’s help. (Marian and Kate are both left, by their mother, capital worth two hundred pounds a year. Kate splits hers with Marian, leaving herself little on which to live. The specter of work isn’t named, but really, what sort of work could someone raised the way Kate Croy was raised do?) Most importantly in the terms of the novel, this was not the life to which Marian and Kate Croy believed they were being raised. It’s the drop in social standing, the move from gentility to its bare edges, and the dishonor, associated with the drop itself and with whatever their father has done to deserve it, that leaves Kate destitute.

(My parents’ house was falling down around them. I was going to college, no matter what it took, which meant going home every summer and working as many hours as I could waiting tables. They lived with no heat in the winter, no air in the summer, windows unopenable, painted shut, begrimed with smoke and dirt. The front of the house was presentable, but in the back: there were cockroaches everywhere, rancid layers of grease on counters and tables, unknown rotten masses of food in the refrigerator, two of my brothers, usually drunk, lurking in upstairs bedrooms, throwing smoldering cigarettes in the garbage, setting fires. Daddy walked a path through the mess, dropping ashes as he went; he fed me and my mother and himself, did laundry for himself and my mother. I would try to clear a spot in the kitchen for us to cook and eat, but mostly we wandered wall-eyed against what surrounded us, making it through, struggling to get to the other side of the sordid, disgraceful just barely inhabitable mess. We didn’t talk about it, but my father and I slept in shifts, someone always awake to smell the fires, to put them out.)

Kate has a way out through a wealthy aunt who agrees to take her in and marry her off in a manner befitting her class standing, even bettering it. Aunt Maud insists only that Kate agree never to see her father again and, we later learn, to give up the object of her affections, the journalist Merton Densher. Kate goes to her father offering to stay with him, to give up Aunt Maud and her capital and to put her own forces, monetary and social, together with her father’s. We can’t yet quite see why she makes this offer—perhaps some faint remnant of family feeling?—but it doesn’t matter, as her father flatly refuses to have her. Claiming it is for her own good, he will not take her in. For Lionel Croy, as for Kate’s sister, Marian, Kate’s value lies precisely in her marriageability and they push her to accept the help Aunt Maud offers on that score. The only value Kate has, the novel makes clear, is on the marriage market.

(We were reading, that summer, my father and mother and I, Henry James. The opening chapter of The Wings of the Dove made our foul nest into art. I had—luck and a recognizable kind of intelligence and my father gave me—a way out.)

Turned away by her father, Kate never seems to consider the possibility that she might simply marry the man who loves her and live on his comparatively meager earnings; this despite his repeated protestations that she do so and despite the fact that it seems she offered to stay with her father precisely so she could marry Densher. The problem with Aunt Maud—and the problem later with the novel’s other leading character, the immensely wealthy, doomed American Milly Theale—is the temptation they offer Kate, a temptation she knows she is not able to withstand. Living in her aunt’s house, Kate,

saw as she had never seen before how material things spoke to her. She saw, and she blushed to see, that if in contrast with some of its old aspects life now affected her as a dress successfully “done up,” this was exactly by reason of the trimmings and lace, was a matter of ribbons and silk and velvet. She had a dire accessibility to pleasure from such sources. She liked the charming quarters her aunt had assigned her—liked them literally more than she had in all her other days liked anything. . . .

This is the scene into which Milly Theale arrives, generous and open and desirous of life. Milly, draped in black and in lace and pearls—lace and pearls Densher immediately recognizes as of a sort and a quantity he can never give to Kate and which he imagines she should be wearing (“the swathing of her throat, which Densher vaguely took for an infinite number of yards of priceless lace, and which, its folded fabric kept in place by heavy rows of pearls, hung down to her feet like the stole of a priestess”).

Milly, whose entire family is dead, whose wealth is unimaginable, who wants nothing more than friends, love, and life, who can and will pay anything to get them, Milly Theale is a temptation Kate Croy cannot withstand. Milly is dying, her wealth rightfully belongs to no one after her death and for Kate, this creates a rare chance. If Milly can come to love Densher, if Kate and Densher can keep their engagement a secret from Milly, all of that wealth can be theirs, Kate and Densher’s, after Milly’s inevitable death. Milly’s goodness and generosity make it easy to be kind to her, impossible to imagine any overt slight or refusal. Hence Densher’s dilemma. Kate wants him to be kind to Milly. He wants to be kind to Milly. It seems inevitable that Milly will fall in love with him as long as she does not know—or pretends not to know—that he and Kate are secretly engaged. Kate takes on the lie, allowing Densher to feel that he isn’t quite in the wrong, even as he so clearly is. Yet for James, unlike many of the novel’s critics, Merton Densher’s and Kate Croy’s actions are neither inexplicable nor easily worthy of contempt. They are intensely interesting.

(At some point that summer my father said, “Can’t we read something other than Henry James?”)

For James knew with great acuity that one needs money in order to live. His work is permeated with the necessity of money for survival, for maintaining one’s class position, for having the leisure to pursue what for James was “the real thing,” a life of imagination, sensibility, and play. He also knew and wrote obsessively about the commodification of the artwork, about the economics of publishing, and the difficulties of living by one’s writing. But James insists that without culture—and in the absence of religion, of which his characters, like he himself, are singularly devoid—human beings have no way to approach death or life and the underlying capriciousness of human existence, no way to render life and death bearable. Throughout his novels, James describes the dialectical double bind of the artist and the artistic—devoted to language and the imagination, to taking an interest in, attending to, perhaps even making beauty or meaning out of the accidents of human existence—living under capitalism.   

In The Wings of the Dove, the story of the life and death of Milly Theale and the effects she and it have on those around her, James makes it abundantly clear that the trap into which Milly and Kate and Densher fall—or perhaps better, run—is all about money, the need for money in order to live, and money’s capacity to make life meaningful, beautiful, and full. Yet at the same time, The Wings of the Dove insists on money’s incapacity to keep a person alive—or to give her all that she needs or desires. Milly Theale dies, despite her extravagant, inordinate, wealth. Milly desperately wants, we are told repeatedly, to live. Yet in staging her life, she also stages her death; and when she can no longer perform life in death or death in life in the way she desires, she “turns her face to the wall.”

(Two years after our Henry James summer, my father died, alone. He had a wife and seven children, but no one was with him in the hospice wing of the hospital—no one other than my mother even knew he was in the hospice wing of the hospital—when he died.)

Although James doesn’t tell us this in the preface to The New York Edition of The Wings of the Dove, the idea of Milly Theale came to him thirty years earlier, after the death of his cousin, Minnie Temple. What James does tell us is that he had been thinking about the story for a very long time:

“The Wings of the Dove,” published in 1902, represents to my memory a very old—if I shouldn’t perhaps rather say a very young—motive; I can scarce remember the time when the situation on which this long-drawn fiction mainly rests was not vividly present to me. The idea, reduced to its essence, is that of a young person conscious of a great capacity for life, but early stricken and doomed, condemned to die under short respite, while also enamoured of the world; aware moreover of the condemnation and passionately desirous to “put in” before extinction as many of the finer vibrations as possible, and so achieve, however briefly and brokenly, the sense of having lived.

What most interests James, he insists, is not her death, but “the unsurpassable activity of passionate, of inspired resistance.” It is to make this resistance as fierce as possible that James gives his heroine every possible resource with which to fight: “One would see her then as possessed of all things, all but the single most precious assurance; freedom and money and a mobile mind and personal charm, the power to interest and attach; attributes, each one, enhancing the value of a future.” But it is precisely the possession of all of these attributes, together with her impending death, that render her a temptation and a target. Or perhaps better, they are what she uses to gain what little life she can at the end.

In this same preface, James presents Milly as a victim of her wealth.

What one had discerned, at all events, from an early stage, was that a young person so devoted and so exposed, a creature with her security hanging so by a hair, couldn’t but fall somehow into some abysmal trap—this being, dramatically speaking, what such a situation most naturally implied and imposed.

Yet in describing “the whirlpool movement of the waters produced by a sinking vessel or the failure of a great business” in which Milly sinks, we see that she is the ship that takes Kate Croy and Merton Densher down with her. Most importantly, here and in his letters and memoirs, James imagines and reimagines—and imagines yet again—Minnie’s death—Milly’s death—as irreducible to the fortunes it leaves behind.

(So as not to drown, still all of these thirty years later, in the sorrow of my father’s death, I tell myself he was unable to die, too polite and too private to die, with anyone else in the room.)

That act of imagination lies at the center of The Wings of the Dove, even as Milly’s wings are overshadowed by the darker span of Kate Croy’s. These are the scenes about which I want to write, these the acts of imagination in which, however dimly, Henry James keeps his cousin, Minnie Temple, alive. And yet first I have to acknowledge that I see myself—and perhaps more importantly, I see James—in Kate Croy, making a consumable object out of the death of his beloved cousin. (Not that anyone bought The Wings of the Dove.) This is partly about capitalism and commodity fetishism, the subsumability of any and all acts of the imagination to the logic of capital. But it is also about the assault constitutive of attempts to make meaning out of another’s death. The question isn’t only whether capitalism thoroughly saturates death—I stand by my view, held also by James, that it doesn’t, not entirely. Also, and perhaps more importantly, it is a question about whether any and all acts of devotion to the dead make them prey to the desire of the living. Is this inescapable? Are there ways we can simultaneously love our dead and let them be? Or, as James so desperately hoped, might our very fetishistic investments give the dead wings?

(And what happens to the rage?)