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The Wings of the Dove (Penguin Classics) Paperback – June 24, 2008
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“The Wings of the Dove represents the pinnacle of James’s prose.”—Louis Auchincloss
About the Author
Henry James (1843-1916), born in New York City, was the son of noted religious philosopher Henry James, Sr., and brother of eminent psychologist and philosopher William James. He spent his early life in America and studied in Geneva, London and Paris during his adolescence to gain the worldly experience so prized by his father. He lived in Newport, went briefly to Harvard Law School, and in 1864 began to contribute both criticism and tales to magazines.
In 1869, and then in 1872-74, he paid visits to Europe and began his first novel, Roderick Hudson. Late in 1875 he settled in Paris, where he met Turgenev, Flaubert, and Zola, and wrote The American (1877). In December 1876 he moved to London, where two years later he achieved international fame with Daisy Miller. Other famous works include Washington Square (1880), The Portrait of a Lady (1881), The Princess Casamassima(1886), The Aspern Papers (1888), The Turn of the Screw (1898), and three large novels of the new century,The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903) and The Golden Bowl (1904). In 1905 he revisited the United States and wrote The American Scene (1907).
During his career he also wrote many works of criticism and travel. Although old and ailing, he threw himself into war work in 1914, and in 1915, a few months before his death, he became a British subject. In 1916 King George V conferred the Order of Merit on him. He died in London in February 1916.
Philip Horne has spent a decade looking at the thousands of James's letters in archives in the United States and Europe. A Reader in English Literature at University College, London, he is the author of Henry James and Revision and the editor of the Penguin Classics edition of James's The Tragic Muse.
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The density of the prose isn't Henry James trying to be difficult. This is an author (probably in many conversations and correspondences with his brother, the great psychologist William James) determined to express the very complicated psychology of complex human beings, a psychology that steps forward and backward and sideways . No character is just one thing: a conniving money-grubber, a social-climbing heiress, a thwarted lover, a very rich American naif. Each of these characters reveals layer upon layer of contradictory motives, second and third thoughts, unexpected generosities. Several of them are troubled by the ethics of their motives, and the final pages will leave you wondering whose ethics will prevail.
But that's as James intended. "I honor George Eliot above all other novelists," he said, "but she tells too much." Henry James, for all his words, makes you, the reader, complete his late novels.
If you're approaching James for the first time, know that "The Ambassadors," "The Wings of the Dove," and "The Golden Bowl," often referred to as the novels of his "Major" (late) phase, are his greatest works, but the style of these novels, while full of rewards, is challenging. There's no doubt about that. Use Amazon's "look inside" feature and read a few pages; if you're intrigued, by all means, buy the book. If you're turned off, don't buy the book, at least right now. If you're mystified but still interested, consider reading the books in a different order.
It may be a bad idea to start off your reading of James with "The Wings of the Dove" or "The Golden Bowl." These are works of an artistic genius who has been meditating on some of the same themes, ethical dilemmas, situations, and the representation of changing consciousness for a lifetime. As such, they are prose texts of great complexity, and readers need to expect that a novel written by a reader, writer and thinker of age 60 is rather different from the product of a man of age 35 or 40. Age often brings complexity: by the time we come to W.B. Yeats's last poems, for example, we are simply expected to know a few things about Yeats: Maud Gonne, say, some of his key symbols and poetic forms. I remember hearing Helen Vendler lecture on Yeats's late "Among School Children," she says: "this is a poem of a man, 60, who expects us to tolerate the well-stocked furniture of a 60 year-old mind." "The Wings of the Dove" is a novel of a man, 60, who expects us to tolerate the thorny intellectual and representational crises that have haunted his 60 year-old mind.
If you are interested in reading "The Wings of the Dove," which is a gorgeous novel of severe choice, eros, tragedy and liberation, but you are afraid to jump into the late James, I suggest you train yourself on some of James's earlier texts that are just as great but are a bit more accessible. "The Portrait of a Lady" (1881, written 20 years before "Wings"), is a great place to start; in fact, some consider it James's finest novel. "The American" (1877), though rather imperfect, is also worth looking into. Or you might read some of James's stories - "Daisy Miller: A Study" (1878) - is a thematic precursor of many of his larger novels. (Note: "The Turn of the Screw," (1898) while also great, is great for different reasons. It is a ghost story, and in this phase of his career, James was intrigued by the supernatural. So, while it is a great read, it is not in any obvious way a precursor to something like "The Wings of the Dove").
This is just some advice for new readers who aren't ready to plunge right away along with Kate Croy into the depth of a moral miasma. But if you feel ready, by all means, plunge! It is not for me to explain why you should read "Wings," but if questions of betrayal, knowledge, deception, innocence, experience, desire and transcendence interest you in works of fiction, then, what a lark, what a plunge is this text!
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