Readings of this highly regarded novel are weighted on the side of Milly Theale, the innocent dove of the title, and against both the money conscious Kate Croy and her cooperative lover, Merton Densher. Milly, the young American heiress with money to burn, is almost saintly in her selflessness. Kate meanwhile, destined for comparative poverty without the help of her solicitous aunt (on whose dime she is playing the part of a London aristocrat and plotting a prosperous marriage to Densher) is devilishly cunning.
But James, always aware of the complexities of life, could not have adhered to so simplistic an outline. A young Victorian woman like Kate, without financial or marital prospects, had to rely on her wits to open a path for herself toward a future commensurate with her liveliness and energy. Lucky enough to meet Densher, a sensitive and cultivated journalist with little money, Kate walks and talks with him in and around Lancaster Gate and Kensington Gardens (on which sheep then walked) in prose that looks back to some of the most convincing descriptions in James of a gradually developing love. Moreover when Milly travels to London to stay with Kate and her Aunt Maud, the two younger women interact in a way suggestive of how deeply James appreciated female friendship.
This very fact makes it difficult, however, to accept the willingness of Kate to lie to Milly in order to advance her goal of a financially secure marriage to Densher. Having discovered that her friend has already met and fallen in love with Densher while he was on a business trip to New York, Kate falsely lets it out that she herself has no interest in him so that Milly, who is more than a little unwell, will feel freer to pursue him. That way, should Milly marry Densher and then die, she will leave her fortune to her husband, who will then be free to marry Kate.
This nasty trick is to be played on Milly in Venice, where she has set herself up in a palazzo and invited a set of her London friends, including Kate and Densher, to join her. Since she has so much money, Milly reasons, she may live as freely as she likes during whatever time, long or short, is left to her. But Milly discovers the plot against her and, apparently crushed by her disappointed love for Densher, does die. She nevertheless leaves him a sum substantial enough for him to marry Kate and care for her in the lordly manner she has hoped for.
The Wings of the Dove ends with Kate and Densher together deciding to reject their extraordinarily gracious inheritance at the very moment they have positioned themselves to accept it. James leaves the reader thinking they can never be to each other what they once were, but this phrasing does not necessarily mean that the two will never marry. Indeed, face to face with their implicit reduction of their love to money, Kate and Densher may well marry, but on less self-preoccupied terms than before. The example of the dove, that is, may follow them.
An interpretation of the ending perhaps hinges on what the reader makes of the passionate sexual encounter of Kate and Densher in Venice before they return to London to await news of Milly. For once, Densher does not merely comply with Kate in her plot against Milly. Instead he insists that they seal their relationship in the bedroom and Kate, at the serious risk of her reputation, complies with him, and apparently gladly so. To me this suggests that their future with one another will differ from their past only in its new found realism about who, from a moral point of view, they really are.
The above photo is of the young Henry James.