Henry James came from a family whose members considered themselves observers of, rather than participants in, society. James and his father both suffered from physical disabilities that to some degree enforced this detachment, which was emotional as well as physical. The family traveled continually during the author’s youth. As an adult, James lived chiefly in Europe, and though he maintained close relations with his parents and siblings, he considered himself a citizen of the world. He regarded the life of his countrymen with the same objective, albeit curious and sympathetic view he accorded society in general. Coming as he did of parents whose chief business in life was the cultivation of their own and their children’s sensibilities, and sharing the family’s strong if eccentric religious bent, he took it as his artistic mission to examine the condition of human society at large as that condition manifested itself in the most subdued and civilized of human milieus.
The outline of the plot of The Wings of the Dove was suggested to the author by the premature death of his cousin Mary Temple, called Minny. The girl had charm, beauty, money, and love. She had, as it is said, everything for which to live and she resisted her fate to the end. After her death from tuberculosis in 1870, James was, as he later wrote, “haunted” by the tragedy of her situation. Two of his most appealing heroines take their essential lines from her, Isabel Archer of The Portrait of a Lady (1880-1881), and Milly Theale.
James wrote three of his best novels in quick succession shortly after 1900. As the new century began, he produced The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903), and The Golden Bowl (1904). According to one critic, the three themes that impel these novels, as well as most of James’s previous works, are “the contrast of American sincerity and crudity with European deceit and culture, the conflicting realities of life and art, and the substitution of psychological for ethical measurements of good and evil.”
The first is most neatly illustrated by the characters Mrs. Lowder and Mrs. Stringham....
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