History: The book was published in 1902. The character of Milly is based on Minny Temple (1845-1870), James' beloved cousin who died from tuberculosis. In his autobiography James said that The Wings of the Dove was his attempt to wrap her memory in the "beauty and dignity of art."
Plot: Kate Croy and Merton Densher are two engaged Londoners who desperately want to marry but have very little money. Kate is constantly put upon by family troubles, and is now living with her domineering aunt, Maud Lowder. Into their world comes Milly Theale, an enormously rich young American woman who had previously met and fallen in love with Densher, though she didn't reveal her feelings. Her travelling companion and confidante, Mrs. Stringham, is an old friend of Maud's. Kate and Aunt Maud welcome Milly to London, and the American heiress enjoys great social success.
With Kate as a companion, Milly goes to see an eminent physician, Sir Luke Strett, because she's afraid that she is suffering from an incurable disease. The doctor is noncommittal but Milly fears the worst. Kate suspects that Milly is deathly ill. After the trip to America where he had met Milly, Densher returns to find the heiress in London. Kate wants Densher to pay as much attention as possible to Milly, though at first he doesn't quite know why. Kate has been careful to conceal from Milly (and everybody else) that she and Densher are engaged.
With the threat of serious illness hanging over her, Milly decides to travel to Venice with Mrs. Stringham. Aunt Maud, Kate and Densher follow her. At a party Milly gives in her Venice palazzo (the older Palazzo Barbaro, called "Palazzo Leporelli" in the novel), Kate finally reveals her complete plan to Densher: he is to marry Milly so that, after her presumably soon-to-occur death, Densher will inherit the money they can marry on. Densher had suspected this was Kate's idea, and he demands that she consummate their affair before he'll go along with her plan.
Which Kate does, memorably. Aunt Maud and Kate return to London while Densher remains with Milly. Unfortunately, the dying girl learns from a former suitor of Kate's about the plot to get her money. She "turns her face to the wall" and grows very ill. Densher sees her one last time before he leaves for London, where he eventually receives news of Milly's death. Milly does leave him a large amount of money despite everything. But Densher won't touch the money, and he won't marry Kate unless she also refuses the bequest. Conversely, if Kate chooses the money instead of him, Densher offers to make the bequest over to her in full. The lovers part on the novel's final page with a cryptic exclamation from Kate: "We shall never be again as we were!"
Review: The writing is so verbose and altogether unmanagable that it is very slow and unforgiving reading. Henry James complained that people don't pay close enough attention when reading his books. He may not have realized what he was asking. Not only does one have to read this book closely; one has to read between the lines, as well. "The Wings of the Dove" is made up of characters so subtle and so intelligent that even a careful reader will be challenged to keep up. The sentences are incredibly long, with complicated syntax. This author rates for me along the same line as Jane Austen which is torture. I could not finish this book; I could not make myself. James getting a little bit full of himself, I think, especially with that long preface. I'm still not entirely sure what's going on or at least what the characters think is going on. The conversations are so cryptic as to each characters' motives and what in fact they are leaning towards that it begins to seem impossible that James could have been so incomprehensibly mysterious not on purpose. Perhaps there's meaning, a purpose behind all of the difficulty, both in the prose and in the thoughts and consciousness of the characters. It is all hidden behind subterfuge and cryptic reasonings and unanswered questions because the characters would be horrified to speak it or even think it explicitly.
Opening Line: “She waited, Kate Croy, for her father to come in, but he kept her unconscionably, and there were moments at which she showed herself, in the glass over the mantel, a face positively pale with the irritation that had brought her to the point of going away without sight of him.”
Closing Line: “But she turned to the door, and her head shake was now the end. “We shall never be again as we were.”
Quotes: “He had talked to her of her "appetite," her account of which, she felt, must have been vague. But for devotion, she could now see, this appetite would be of the best. Gross, greedy, ravenous--these were doubtless the proper names for her: she was at all events resigned in advance to the machinations of sympathy.”