The Wings of the Dove is a 1902 novel by Henry James. One of the masterpieces of James' final period, this novel tells the story of Milly Theale, an American heiress stricken with a serious disease, and her impact on the people around her. Some of these people befriend Milly with honorable motives, while others are more self-interested.
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!"
There's no question that 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." But as he also said in the preface to the New York Edition text of the novel, James had to prepare the situation that was to occupy Milly for the last months of her life. He succeeded admirably in building up the background of Kate and Densher's inability to marry because of a lack of money.
By and large, critics have regarded these faults as venial or nonexistent. Instead, they've concentrated on the magnificent central characters and supporting cast, and the superb technique that James uses in their presentation. James' "principal tragedy," as critics have called it, retains its ability to move readers with the classic emotions of pity and fear.
James found his most famous (memorable and thankfully short) phrase in "Dove", "To turn one's face to the wall", in Scripture, in Hezekiah's action in Isaiah 38:2. The meaning of the phrase, a turning away from everything and everybody, with nothing to look forward to but death, was highlighted in a sermon by the Rev. Thomas Bradbury, published in 1877 (see page 565 of "Grove Chapel Pulpit" of that sermon preached on Nov. 4, 1877), and was generally quite familiar to the scripturally literate reader of James' day.