Acknowledgement: This work has been summarized using the Penguin 1986 edition. Quotations are for the most part taken from that work, as are paraphrases of its commentary.
Overall Impression: A difficult "great late" novel written in a rather pretentious, abstract, literary, circuitous, and highly wordy style, not particularly enjoyable though the plot is intriguing. The movie (1997, with Helena Bonham Carter, Linus Roache, Alison Elliott, etc.) was very good, though taking many liberties with the original.
Notes: The title refers to the 55th Psalm, which records the deceit and guile of conspirators and exclaims, "Oh that I had wings like a dove! For then I would flee away and be at rest." Also possibly Psalm 68, where God has conquered the kings of Canaan for Israel and the wings of [His] dove are sheathed with silver, its feathers with shining gold [from the Canaanites]."
Kate Croy, 25 y/o and very handsome, meets in London with her wretched reprobate father, Lionel Croy [explicitly an addict only in the movie]. Her mother had died a few years previously and she has lost two brothers. She offers to come live with him and take care of him. But her wealthy widowed aunt, Mrs. Maud Manningham Lowder, has offered a comfortable wealthy existence to her in exchange for her renouncing the company of her father (Kate had lived with her since her mother's death.) He insists, nobly, that she give up seeing him and take up the aunt on her offer. Kate has inherited a small income from her mother, which her father wants to share in rather than seeing it shared with her impoverished widowed sister, Mrs. Marian Croy Condrip (who has four children). He disapproves of her boyfriend, Merton Densher.
Kate meets with Marian in her "blighted home"—Marian also encourages her to follow Maud's wishes, in hopes that there will be future financial benefit for Marian as well. Maud had approved of Marian's marriage to a poor parson and was unforgiving to her. Marian notes that Maud is arranging Lord Mark for Kate. [Marian and her family are omitted in the movie.]
Merton and Kate meet furtively in Kensington Gardens. They had first met at a party, then on the Underground. He is a journalist working in Fleet Street. Maud is planning to write him—he isn't good enough for Kate in Maud's eyes—but Kate says he must meet with her. Kate reviews her own family's degradation and mishaps, her father's unspecified wicked deeds. Merton presses her to marry but she wishes to wait until the time is right.
Merton comes to Lancaster Gate, the locale of Maud's overly ornate residence. She likes him, does not stoop to explicitly forbidding his association with Kate, but indicates her plans for Kate to marry a "great man" (i.e., wealthy or famous). He makes plans to go on a journalistic assignment in America. Kate proclaims her love and engages herself to Merton forever—he reciprocates this vow and they agree to keep the engagement a secret.
Miss Milly (Mildred) Theale is a wealthy 22 y/o angelic heiress and orphan from America with virtually no living relations. She is vacationing in Switzerland with her older companion, Mrs. Susan Shepherd Stringham, a widow from Vermont. Susan senses a premonition of doom in Milly. Is Milly sick? Milly won't discuss her specific concerns or symptoms, though she had seen a doctor in NY. Milly decides they should go to London. She had met Densher in NY while he was working there [not so in the movie] and she wishes to look him up in London. Susan knew Maud when they were at the Vevey school together and she writes her [also omitted in the movie].
At Maud's, Milly meets Kate and Lord Mark—Milly and Mark chat. Milly admires Kate tremendously—finds her a wondrous handsome girl. Mark had held office in the House but lost his seat, and had no other apparent accomplishments—but Maud believes in him, and he is working Lancaster Gate for all it is worth.
Milly learns from Maud through Susan of a latent interest between Kate and Merton and asks that Milly and Susan do nothing to encourage this relationship—Milly is intrigued to enter into this conspiracy. Susan says to Milly "My dear child, we move in a labyrinth." Susan and Milly visit Marian, who confides to them that Merton actually loves Kate. Later, Susan and Milly discuss Merton's lack of fortune and his exceptional abilities. Milly concludes that Kate does not love Merton, else Marian would have mentioned it.
Maud, Kate, Milly, and Mark visit a great house named Matcham owned by Lord and Lady Aldershaw. Maud is warming to Milly and invites her to come and stay with them at Lancaster Gate. Mark leads Milly to a painting by Bronzino of a woman they all feel looks like Milly and who lacks joy. Milly is reflective and moved to tears, presumably thinking of her own mortality. The Aldershaws join them. [In the movie, they instead visit Mark's mansion, and he moves on Kate.]
Milly confides in Kate her plans to see the great physician, Sir Luke Strett, and asks for her silence on this. Milly will not discuss the specifics of her illness. Kate escorts her to the physician for the first visit. What is the diagnosis? He says he will take care of her and advises Milly to live life. Subsequently, Milly makes light of her medical condition to Kate.
Maud asks Milly in confidence to determine from Kate whether Merton has returned from America. Milly explores Maud's attitudes and motives with her. Later, Milly and Kate discuss Maud's intent to unite Mark and Kate. Kate calls Milly a dove and tries to warn her away, saying she may very well loathe her yet.
Milly visits the National [Art] Gallery and encounters Kate there with Merton, freshly returned from America. She invites them to lunch. She believes Merton to be in love with Kate.
Merton and Kate plan for him to come to visit at Maud's, ostensibly to see Milly. There he privately meets with Kate, but she again counsels patience. Kate says Milly loves him and suggests they use this to their advantage. Milly's best friend is Kate, and Kate thinks Milly will do all she can to help her. Merton is unsure and uneasy with this plan of exploitation. Kate's love for him has been concealed from Maud and Milly.
Merton and Susan dine at Maud's with Kate and two men. They talk about Milly health (she is indisposed and did not come). Merton is disturbed that Kate wants him to make up to a sick girl. Merton is introduced to Mark. Maud encourages Merton to pursue Milly—she believes Merton to be bribeable and seems to expect him to perform according to her wishes. Maud cunningly guarantees through Susan to Milly that Kate does not love Merton.
Merton visits Milly, but she claims to be all right. She is planning to go to the continent but assures him she will return. Kate arrives but leaves shortly.
Dr. Strett has visited with Susan and given his report. He suspects but has not confirmed a diagnosis different from what Milly suspects—we do not learn what it is, though it seems ominous.
Susan and Maud discuss Merton and Kate—Maud acknowledges to her that Kate cares for him but asks Susan to keep this from Milly. Maud says Merton is not good enough for Kate but implies he is for Milly.
Milly visits Dr. Strett. She announces her plans to go to the Tyrol and Venice in 2 weeks. She is interested in Merton.
Milly and friends are now in Venice—she stays in a leased palace, the Palazzo Leporelli, and is guided by Eugenio. While she is alone, Lord Mark shows up unexpectedly. She confesses to him that she is very ill and wants to die there. He wants her to be loved more and asks her to love him [and presumably marry him], though rather awkwardly and without passionate conviction—she declines his offer. She tells him that Maud wants him and Kate to marry. He counters that Kate is in love with Merton. She denies this possibility, based on Kate's lack of comments to this effect—he challenges Kate's honesty and then leaves.
Merton dislikes his rundown hotel and his frustrating and duplicitous existence. Milly wants to come and visit him there. Kate wants Merton to tell Milly that Kate dislikes him. Kate and Merton discuss Mark's offer of marriage to Milly and Merton's possible love for Milly. Merton longs to have Kate express her love for him by coming to his hotel, but she declines.
Susan encourages Merton to be faithful to her sweet friend and encourages him to do something to promote his relationship to Milly. Milly throws a party that includes Dr. Strett. Kate speaks to Merton admiringly of Milly—she is a dove. Kate plans to leave town while Merton is maneuvering to marry Milly. Merton agrees to keep up the act if she will come to his hotel room, and this time Kate consents. She honored this promise, and now leaves with Maud for London. Merton debates his actions with Milly and with himself, wanting somehow to remain faithful to Kate. Milly wants to live—and to visit him with Susan. Why has he stayed, she asks? First he says it was to write a book, then that it was because of Milly.
Merton worries that his deception, if it is discovered by Milly, might end up killing her. He goes to see Milly but is turned away at the palace. Mark had come to see Milly—Merton sees him at a nearby restaurant. For 3 days he is left by himself, then Susan comes to his hotel. Susan tells him of Milly's withdrawal—she has turned her face to the wall and is dying. She wants him to come to Milly and to deny what Mark has accused him of (an act of revenge on Mark's part), namely that he and Kate have been engaged all along. He must have learned this when proposing to Kate.
Dr. Strett arrives but Merton stays away from Milly. On leaving, Strett tours with Merton, says Milly is better, and wants to see Merton.
We next encounter Merton in London in December. He had seen Milly for only 20 minutes—she was dying and did not ask him about his relationship to Kate, but only wanted to be with him that last time. He was saved from having to deny his love for Kate. She showed no sign of believing that she had been misled. He visits Kate—she realizes that he fell in love with Milly but believes their plan has been a success, that "she won't have loved you for nothing". They discuss Mark's visit to Milly and he says this is what has led her to give up and be on the verge of death.
Maud remains unaware of Merton's relationship with Kate—Susan has not divulged his secret. Merton was unable to bear staying with Milly until she died. Merton meets with Kate, wants her to marry him, but she still wants them to wait, unless perhaps he has learned of a bequest.
Merton walks to Dr. Strett's house and encounters Maud there with Mark waiting for her in her carriage (is he courting her?). She tells him that Milly has died ("our dear dove ... has folded her wonderful wings... or she has spread them the wider"). Kate has left her aunt against Maud's wishes to be with Marian on Christmas Eve—their father has come to her for help.
Merton meets with Kate in Marian's dreary home. He has received a letter from Milly—written earlier when she was better but delayed until Christmastime to be mailed—he has not opened it. Merton again presses Kate on how Mark could have known about the engagement. Did she know Mark was returning a second time to Venice?—she says no. Mark had been convinced after his first visit to see Milly that Merton truly loved Milly, and this improved Maud's view of Merton. Mark needs money. Kate never states explicitly that she told Mark of the engagement. They consider the letter from Milly—Kate concludes Milly has made Merton rich and cruelly tosses the unopened letter into the fire.
Two months later Kate comes to Merton's room. Their relations are now less passionate. He regrets not knowing what was in Milly's letter—a priceless pearl cast before his eyes into the fathomless sea. He has received an envelope of money from New York and sent it to her unopened, as a test—and she has opened it, disappointing him. He refuses to have anything to do with the money and challenges her to marry him without it or to lose him and have her freedom and the money. He wants to escape any knowledge of the tainted money. She believes him to be afraid, and suggests that although he did not love Milly before her death, that he did so after her death. She asks if he is in love with Milly's memory and suggests he no longer wants any other love. He offers to marry her immediately "as we were", but as she leaves says, "We shall never be again as we were."