Summer Reading: Henry James & Maud Cairnes

It was a gorgeous June day. We take these days when we can get them.  We didn’t exert ourselves, except to make sandwiches in the kitchen, because it was 90 degrees, and all anybody wants is to sit under a tree and indulge in light reading. I almost said “sit in a tree,” but I must admit those days are gone.  Not gone, however, are days when we lounge under a tree and sigh over Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove.

On a recent rereading of The Wings of the Dove, I loved it as much as I did in my twenties.  Back then, I always had a classic going at night, and James, though considered soporific by cynics, seemed to me surprisingly stimulating.  I was absorbed by his magnificent characters, especially the innocent Americans, among them Isabel Archer (The Portrait of a Lady), tricked into marriage by an impecunious Italian prince, and Milly Theale (The Wings of the Dove), a charming, rich, terminally ill young American woman who attracts fortune hunters.

Milly hides her illness even from her companion, Mrs. Stringham, her chaperone in their European travels.  But Milly is manipulated by her clever English friend Kate Croy into confessing she is ill, and then isthrown together with Merton Densher, an English journalist with no prospects. And Milly likes him very much.

To complicate things further, Densher is Kate’s secret fiancé: her rich Aunt Maud will cut her off if she marries a poor man, though Densher would like to marry her on his own income.  Kate’s  scheme is to get her hands on Milly’s money by making her fall in love with Densher.  Densher doesn’t take this too seriously, and  is desperate to spend time with Kate, who becomes colder as the book goes on. Kate’s  hopes for Densher and Milly are  obscene. This is not quite James noir, but in a way it is a novel about a psychological murder.

I’m fascinated by Kate, because in the first section of the novel, she is a kind, ethical woman who offered to stay with her impecunious father and share with him her 100 pounds legacy a year from her mother, while giving the other two hundred to her sister, a poor widow with children. He declined to live with her in poverty and sent her to Aunt Maud, with the hope that she would pass him the odd bit of change (though Maud has forbidden her to see her father). And she is very much in love with Densher at that point.

In a way, Kate’s ruthlessness is the end of Kate. The prospect of money ruins her. And yet I’m not sure James pulls off the transition from Kate the Good into Kate the Cold. She didn’t care about money when she offered to sacrifice herself to her father.

The other novel I’ve read under a tree, or shall I pretend IN a tree, is Maud Cairnes’s Strange Journey, a book in the British Library Women’s Series.  In this charming, comical, very smart little book, Cairnes draws an unforgettable portrait of two women, Polly Wilkinson, the narrator and a housewife, and Lady Elizabeth, who has everything that money can buy and yet has been unhappy since her miscarriage and her husband’s affairs.  Suddenly Polly and Lady Elizabeth  swap bodies, and  have no idea who they are supposed to be.   Have they gone mad?.

How would you feel if you suddenly were translated to another person’s body?  Not only another person, but someone you’d never met and didn’t know?   Suddenly Polly is expected to ride horses, hunt, and exchange witty repartee with sophisticated upper-class folk. And Lady Elizabeth finds herself living in a middle-class home on a budget, responsible for two children and a hard-working husband. 

Later, the two women find out how they became aware of each other. Polly wistfully observed Elizabeth oe night in a Rolls Royce.  She longed to climb in, lean against a soft cushion, and be driven to a pleasant home where everything would be done for her.

And when they try to reconstruct what happened,  Elizabeth also remembers seeing Polly and envying her access to a simpler life. 

Oddly enough, each learns by body-swapping to cope better with her problems by learning the other’s skills.

A charming, lively, light novel which I will read again!

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