Henry James

The awkward age

(written 1898, text of 1899)


by Adrian Dover

When I’m reading The awkward age I think that it is the best thing Henry James ever wrote. I realise that this is a silly thing to try to decide upon, both inherently, in that each fiction forms its own world which is incommensurable with any other, but also that there are so many ‘good things’ to choose from in James’s output – The ambassadors and The wings of a dove, to name only two of my other favourites, and those amongst only the novels. But the perfect scenic structure, the free-play of one’s imagination in the absence of much of the usual ‘noise’ of a novel telling one what to think, and most of all the touching situations presented in The awkward age should place it high on any ranking or ‘desert-island’ list.

For those of you coming to this novel for the first time, however, it is important to point out that the most difficult, and most vital, leap of the imagination required is to understand the social situation in which the novel formed itself. Over a century after it was written, there is very little resonance, in ‘western’ civilizations at least, for the idea of sexual knowledge being a handicap to anything, let alone marriage! You’ll just have to accept that and adjust your expectations as you read. This is only like adjusting to any artificial, say theatrical, art work, requiring an element of ‘suspension of disbelief’, although the society depicted here certainly existed in a not unrecognizable from in 1890’s London.

As a novel about drawing-room talk, James has structured The awkward age mostly of duologue or triologue, and has provided only a minimum of scene-setting narrative, at a level which explains just enough of what is happening and to point up necessary parallels, such as that of the hats of the two gentlemen in Book 10. There is also a noticeable lack of speech marker adverbs – never very frequent in James’s fiction anyway (and those that do occur usually relate to the manner of thinking not the manner of the actual speech) – so that when a particularly egregious one appears is has a shock value. In writing his novel this way, James was applying the ‘scenic principle’ learnt in his failed attempts to write a hit West End play earlier in the 1890s. The awkward age is the most avant-garde of the novels which follow this period, in that it imitates a playscript. This can make it difficult to read, as one has to imagine the tone of voice in order to catch the meaning. On top of this the speech can be as artificial as that in an Oscar Wilde or Joe Orton play, but it is as natural as required by the situations James describes. It creates its own world.

However, there is a charming, although not beautiful, heroine in Nanda to maintain the reader’s interest. She is one of a line of young women James describes in the 1890s: Maisie in What Maisie knew; Fleda Vetch in The spoils of Poynton and the unnamed telegraph clerk in In the cage. And, if you get bored, you can have fun working out whose awkward age is being described: is it Nanda’s or Mrs Brookenham’s? or perhaps it’s Mr Longdon’s advancing years, Harold’s youthful exuberance or Edward Brookenham’s mid-life crisis? (see chapter 32, for example); or is Vanderbank at the age when he really ought to be getting married if he is not to cause a lot of gossip? – of is it the whole 1890s which is the ‘awkward age’?

There are lots of strands for the attentive reader to pick at in this novel. Among my favourites are the financial metaphors and the continual equation with the young women with lambs (even Tishy Grendon in chapter 8!). No doubt you will come away with your own handful of delights.

reveal spoiler paragraph :

Modern readers may find the May and December ending slightly surreal, or even distasteful, and it would be nice to have James’s idea of a sequel (or anyone else’s?!). But the ending certainly fits the tone of the novel and is in the ‘modernist’ tradition of the later James in being ‘open’. Given his age and her youth, I would love to know whether Mr Longdon legally adopts Nanda or otherwise makes his will in her favour? and, if so, what does she do with the fortune (assuming there really is one!) when she inherits? The case of Isabel Archer (in The portrait of a lady) is a potential warning to our heroine.

The full text of the novel has been available on this site for a number of years, but it is now (2010) a complete ‘edition’. I apologise in advance that there has been an unusual number of phrases (about half-a-dozen) in this text which look like quotations or aphorisms but for which I haven’t been able to trace a source. I wonder if they have been invented by James as another indicator of the common currency in Mrs Brook’s particular circle?

The full text has now been proof-read three times altogether and about two-dozen further corrections have been made. Some of these were pointed out to me last year by Derek Holmes, to whom much thanks. Differences between the text here and the source, the 1899 London (first) edition, are detailed in the usual note on the text, which also gives details of the input method. The selected bibliography, which concentrates on more recent criticism, and detailed synopses are also now complete. But before all that you can just start reading the text.

Adrian Dover

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