In November 1894 Henry James set down in his notebooks an outline for the novel that, eight years later, became The Wings of the Dove. He wrote about a heroine who was dying but in love with life. 'She is equally pathetic in her doom and in her horror of it. If she only could live just a little; just a little more - just a little longer.' James also had in mind a young man who 'wishes he could make her taste of happiness, give her something that it breaks her heart to go without having known. That "something" can only be - of course - the chance to love and to be loved.' He outlined the position of another woman to whom the man was 'otherwise attached and committed ... It appears inevitably, or necessarily, preliminary that his encounter with the tragic girl shall be through the other woman.' He also saw the reason why the young man and the woman to whom he was committed could not marry. 'They are obliged to wait ... He has no income and she no fortune, or there is some insurmountable opposition on the part of her father. Her father, her family, have reasons for disliking the young man.' This idea of the dying young woman and the penniless young man, on the one hand, and, on the other, the young woman with no fortune and an obstinate father circled in James's fertile mind. In his conception of the book, there was no moment, it seemed, in which the second young woman would have a mother; it was 'her father, her family' who would oppose the marriage; over the next five or six years James would work out the form this opposition would take, and who exactly 'her family' would be.
LRB 17 March 2011 | PDF Download