The Wings of the Dove by Henry James
published 1902 chapter 28
[Kate Croy and Morton Densher, at a party, are admiring the heiress Milly Theale. Kate speaks first:]
"Everything suits her so--especially her pearls. They go so with her old lace. I'll trouble you really to look at them." Densher, though aware he had seen them before, had perhaps not "really" looked at them, and had thus not done justice to the embodied poetry--his mind, for Milly's aspects, kept coming back to that--which owed them part of its style. Kate's face, as she considered them, struck him: the long, priceless chain, wound twice round the neck, hung, heavy and pure, down the front of the wearer's breast--so far down that Milly's trick, evidently unconscious, of holding and vaguely fingering and entwining a part of it, conduced presumably to convenience. "She's a dove," Kate went on, "and one somehow doesn't think of doves as bejewelled. Yet they suit her down to the ground."
"Yes--down to the ground is the word." Densher saw now how they suited her, but was perhaps still more aware of something intense in his companion's feeling about them. Milly was indeed a dove; this was the figure, though it most applied to her spirit. … [He heard Kate say:] "Pearls have such a magic that they suit every one."
"They would uncommonly suit you," he frankly returned.
"Oh yes, I see myself!"
Links up with: blog entries here and here. Returning to this book yet again, because it is such an extraordinary piece of literature.
Milly Theale at a party is, James says, “the angular pale princess, ostrich-plumed, black-robed, hung about with amulets, reminders, relics, mainly seated, mainly still”. The book is full of such descriptions, fleeting but impossibly complex. It also has a strange feature: phrases in which the reader may not be sure if this is a metaphor or not. Early on, there is a description of the first meeting of Kate Croy and Merton Densher:
She had observed a ladder against a garden-wall and had trusted herself so to climb it as to be able to see over into the probable garden on the other side. On reaching the top she had found herself face to face with a gentleman engaged in a like calculation at the same moment, and the two enquirers had remained confronted on their ladders.The couple have already been shown to be meeting in gardens all the time, so this reader, at least, had to go over this several times to check it was actually symbolic (and an arresting image all the same).
Beyond all this, the book has one of the finest closings ever:
‘As we were?’
‘As we were.’
But she turned to the door and her headshake was now the end. “We shall never be again as we were!”
The picture is by John Singer Sargent, is in the Museum of Art at Birmingham Alabama, and can be found on Wikimedia Commons.