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0490 | The Wings of the Dove | Henry James

0490 | The Wings of the Dove | Henry James post image

Context: Listened to this while commuting between Bahrain and Saudi.

The only James I’d read prior to this was the novella The Turn of the Screw which I didn’t blog at the time. It did little to prepare me for the mammoth effort needed to get through this pile of prose. I think prose is the right word for what James has created here. To be honest I’m not so sure.

From the first page to the last, I couldn’t wait for this to end. I didn’t care less about the characters, mostly because, rather than simply describe them, James felt the need to pile layer upon layer of turgid detail over them burying who they actually were under a slurry of endless subordinate clauses.

Someone somewhere online said he was a genius for this creative writing. No. Virginia Woolf is a genius for creative writing. James is not. His writing is needlessly opaque and takes verbosity to the limit. However, he has made a name for himself by doing so and that’s one of the reasons this work is well-known. But this is literature to give pleasure to the writer, not the reader; what was in fact a decent plot was almost totally destroyed by overelaboration.

So, what was the plot? Well, in a nutshell, Kate and Merton, secretly betrothed, befriend Milly, a wealthy young woman with a terminal illness. Kate’s ploy is for Merton to marry Milly and thus inherit her wealth leaving them set up to marry with money. Can they make this work? Will their consciences get the better of them? Will Milly discover the plan? This is a truly great storyline and one of the only reasons this book scrapes into my “good” category from “mediocre.”

Sadly, the answers to these questions lie under the rubble of James’ writing. Dig for them if you will. All you’ll probably end up finding though is the cold corpse of your own interest.


She waited, Kate Croy, for her father to come in, but he kept her unconscionably, and there were moments at which she showed herself, in the glass over the mantel, a face positively pale with the irritation that had brought her to the point of going away without sight of him.


This might reveal the ending. If you want to see the quote, click show

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