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It would be easy think that The Wings of The Dove is a fusty sort of book: you know, the kind that ancient Lit professors with halitosis and Earl Gray Tea stains on their sweater vests like to thumb through on a rainy afternoon. It's by this dude, for Pete's sake. Bo-ring.
But, uh, actually it's not boring at all. It has almost Game of Thrones levels of intrigue, manipulation, and sex-as-transaction. Forbidden sexytime romps? Yes. Manipulative aunts? Yes. Seducing a dying woman to get all of her money? Yeppers. Hate-sex? Yeah, pretty much.
Henry James' novel presents British aristocracy as way more Downton Abbey-style sex-on-the-DL than prim pinkies-extended-at-tea-time. Sure, there are corsets and multi-course dinners and ascots and all of that madness. But basically, this novel is about a newly rich woman who is forbidden to continue making out with her working-class boytoy. So she convinces him to seduce a woman dying of tuberculosis in order to inherit all of her moneyz. As you do, right?
In his preface to the New York Edition of The Wings of the Dove, Henry James said—get this—that he wasn't all that happy with how this novel turned out. Critics since then, though, have tended to say "Seriously, James? You're dead wrong." As proof of James's dead-wrongness, the Modern Library ranked the book #26 on its list of the top 100 English-language novels of the twentieth-century.
James wrote this novel in 1902 to commemorate the life of his cousin, Minny Temple, who died from tuberculosis in the prime of her life. James was a guy who lived into old age, but he always felt like he'd wasted much of his time on earth. Right, James. You wrote like a kajillion beloved novels, and people use the adjective "Jamesian" when describing a particular kind of awesome prose. Really squandered that whole life thing, Henry James. Loser.
Not only has The Wings of The Dove been adapted for TV (in 1952, 1959, 1965 and 1979), but it was also made into a stage play in 1963 and a freaking opera in 1961. We're talking an opera that played at the New York City Opera and a play performed in London's West End, not some teensy community theater productions. It was also made into a movie twice, once in 1981 and again in 1997. These are just a few of the reasons that Henry James was a complete nutso when he decided that he'd failed by writing The Wings of The Dove.
And they're also a few of the reasons you'd be a nutso if you dismissed The Wings of The Dove as a dusty old tome. When Helena Bonham Carter, a.k.a. Bellatrix Lestrange, Mrs. Tim Burton, Marla Singer and the actress with the most bizarre-o fashion sense of all time decides that she wants to play the part of The Wings of The Dove's scheming heroine, you just know that this novel ain't going to be a snoozefest.
It might seem a little strange to say "Hey, Shmooper. Read this book about Machiavellian, manipulative, social-climbing English people who are shackled by classism. They need money real bad, so they try to seduce a dying American woman in order to inherit her cold hard cash: this book will make you want to live life to the fullest."
It might sound a tad like we're saying, "Hey, Shmooper. Want to read a book about the healing power of love? Try Lolita." Or "Hey, Shmooper. Want to read a book about how awesome the government is? Here's The Hunger Games."
But we're being as serious as a heart attack. Or, in the case of The Wings of the Dove, terminal tuberculosis.
Have you ever imagined what it would be like to have a terminal illness? How about having a terminal illness while you were young and on top of the world? We sure have. We've also imagined what it would be like to be eaten by a pack of starving hyenas, or dropped into a shark tank. Who hasn't, right?
Certainly Henry James sure indulged in some morbid daydreaming. Henry James wrote The Wings of the Dove to commemorate the life of his beloved cousin, who died young from tuberculosis. This hit James hard, especially because James always struggled with the thought that he had somehow wasted his life, even though he's a Great Literary Mind. But at least James knew that his young cousin never played the life-wasting game.
The essence of The Wings of the Dove can be found in the conversations between physician Sir Luke Strett and the dying heroine Milly Theale. Sir Luke states that living is not a condition of bodily health, but something we can choose to do every day. In other words, we need to go out and live each day as if it were our last. Carpe that diem, y'all. We might not be able to control how long our bodies are functioning, but we can definitely choose whether or not we will live.
The Wings of the Dove hinges on the question of how to live the best, most thoroughly-lived life. Milly—even though she's dying—decides to travel the world and fall in love with a dude named Merton Densher. The fact that Merton is half-heartedly scheming with his fiancée (oooh, drama!) and trying to swindle Milly out of her money doesn't diminish the fact that Milly is seriously living her life. She's no victim.
Milly might in fact be the only person in this book who isn't a victim, because she is so full of life while she's still alive and kicking. Merton is under the control of his manipulative secret girlfriend Kate Croy, and Kate Croy is trapped by the demands of her over-protective aunt, and her aunt is chained to What Society Expects.
And we know that being under the thumb of another person or at the mercy of classist rules and regulations doesn't exactly make for a well-lived life. There's a gentle irony to the fact that Millie, who is freaking dying, is the only one getting out there and living her life to the fullest. Get it, Milly.
So if you're down with the "no pain, no gain" approach to gleaning literature-inspired life lessons, The Wings of The Dove will set you right. Think of reading The Wings of the Dove as taking a literary polar bear plunge. James's novel peers into the darkest parts of the human condition (brrr, colder than a half-frozen lake) but it ultimately gives an invigorating lesson in how to go out and grab life's experiences by the horns.
The Ladder: A Henry James Website
For links to tons of free Henry James stuff (thank you Public Domain), check out this site.
Henry James Scholar's Guide to Web Sites
It ain't the best looking site in the world, but it's chock full of crucial links for anyone wanting to study Henry James.
The Henry James Society
Reserved for the most die-hard James fans, like us. This site is like our Disneyland.
The Wings of the Dove (1997)
This is the most recent and probably most well put together film adaptation James' novel. It's also pretty steamy. Don't watch it with your parents, unless you want to blush.
The Wings of the Dove (BBC 1979)
Back in 1979, the BBC decided to do a TV dramatization of James' novel as part of its "Play of the Month" feature.
The Wings of the Dove (Thursday Theatre 1965)
If the title "Thursday Theatre Presents Wings of the Dove" doesn't interest you, that's okay. You'd be hard pressed to track down a copy of this one anyway.
An (Unfortunate) Interview with Henry James
Sure, it's totally a work of fiction. But it's still a good read.
More Biographies Than You Could Shake A Dead Dove At
Even though this review says that 2007 was the Year of Henry James, we think every year is the Year of Henry James.
The Master's Servants
An interesting article on James and the concept of why certain writers stand the test of time while others don't.
Trailer for The Wings of the Dove 1997 Movie
Hey, it's got Helena Bonham Carter. But no; it's not directed by Tim Burton. Wouldn't that be cool, though?
The Wings of the Dove Audiobook.
For when you get tired of reading.
She doesn't look all that happy, but here's the real-life inspiration for Milly Theale.
Henry James Daring You to Disagree with Him
Go on. Seriously. He dares you.
Fancy Pants Painting of James
It's kind of funny that we think of Waymarsh (from his novel The Ambassadors) when we see the look on his face.
He still has those peering eyes when he's young.
More of Young James
Not a bad lookin' dude.