The Wings of the Dove
is a 1902 novel by Henry James. It follows Kate Croy, an ambitious young Londoner who devises an unscrupulous plan to reconcile her love of a poor man with her desire to match well and live among London's upper social echelons. Her plan involves a rather hapless but morally unimpeachable American heiress; and this was, in fact, something of a trope of James', who loved to contrast American naivete with European decadence, and did so in many of his works. The heiress in question, Milly Theale, was in fact based on James' own cousin, Minny Temple, who died young of tuberculosis in 1870. James reported that he wanted to pay homage to Minny with “the beauty and dignity of art,” and that was in part the inspiration for the novel. The Wings of the Dove
is widely considered one of James' strongest works, for its sustained emphasis on the psychological dynamics of its characters, and the nuances of characters’ various relationships with one another.
Kate Croy has become secretly affianced to her beau, journalist Merton Densher. Journalists, however, make little money, and enjoy little standing in fashionable London society, and Kate, although not originally from money, has come to live with her formidable, forceful, and wealthy Aunt Maude Lowder. The lovebirds know that Maude will never condone her niece's marrying down socially, and their inability to resolve the issue of her opposition has brought their relationship to a standstill.
Help arrives, unexpectedly, in the form of Milly Theale, a rich young American with no family and considerable wealth. She is travelling with a Mrs. Stringham, a longtime friend of Aunt Maude, and in this way comes to meet Kate. Kate befriends Milly, and Milly enjoys the London scene. She is suffering from an unnamed illness, however, and desires to see a skilled physician. Kate accompanies Milly to the practice of Sir Luke Strett, who infers that Milly is in fact much sicker than she had first thought. Merton returns from a trip to America, where he'd met Milly previously (and she had fallen in love with him, unbeknownst to him), and Kate arranges for the pair to spend as much time together as possible.
Kate's plan is to encourage Milly to fall in love with Merton. Then, Merton will marry the ailing Milly, and after she quickly dies, inherit her fortune. His coffers overflowing, Aunt Maude will not oppose his remarriage to Kate. Maude, for her part, also wants to see Merton and Milly together, and encourages it; unaware of Kate's plan, she sees their marriage as a way to prevent Kate's marrying into a lower social stratum. Kate, Milly, Mrs. Stringham and Maude take a trip to Venice; according to Kate's express design, Merton follows later. Milly throws a party in a Venetian palazzo (“Palazzo Leporelli”), and it is there that Kate finally tells Merton of her plan. Merton at first resists, but Kate plays on his feelings for her and eventually he acquiesces – but not before he wins an important concession.
Soon Kate and Aunt Maude return to London. Merton remains in Venice with Milly, where he is to carry out Kate's scheme. But before it is completed, Milly learns of Kate's plan from Lord Mark, a former suitor of hers. When she confronts Merton about the scheme, he guiltily confesses its truth. She spurns him, and her heartache worsens her condition. Merton returns to London, and receives news that Milly has died. To his surprise, Milly has, in a gesture of great selflessness, left both him and Kate considerable sums of money in her will. The bequests are meant to resolve the obstacle – Merton's poverty – preventing them from marrying each other. Merton, wracked with guilt, cannot bring himself to accept the bequest, and tells Kate that he will marry her only if she too refuses Milly's money. If she does choose to accept Milly's bequest, however, Merton says he will sign his sum over to her, too. Kate, presuming that Merton is in love with the now dead Milly, chooses the money, and the pair part.
James' The Wings of the Dove
was one of the best received of his works during the author's lifetime, and has continued to enjoy great popularity ever since. (James himself, however, was famously critical of the novel, and claimed to be dissatisfied with several aspects of its execution.) The novel was ranked 26th best English-language novel in 1998 by Modern Library. As a testament to the continuing appeal of its colorful cast of distinct and complex personalities, it has been the subject of numerous TV, theater, and film adaptations over the years. In 1996, actress Helena Bonham Carter received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for the role of Kate Croy in the film version by director Iain Softley.