The problem with Henry James is, sometimes I do not understand what he is saying. Usually, eventually, I can puzzle it out, and it’s worth the effort. But on this reading of The Awkward Age, I was repeatedly frustrated by the allusive, circular dialogue, which is supposed to carry the weight of the novel. (More on that in an instant.) The story itself — about a young English girl who is brought up in a racy social set and whose reputation is damaged by her mother’s shenanigans — is quite fascinating. The characters are, too: young Nanda Brookenham, whose rectitude remains unspoiled despite her milieu, her lazy fascinating mother, and the hovering deus ex machine Mr. Longdon, who pretty clearly stands in for James himself. This isn’t one of the great, late, longer books (The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove and The Golden Bowl) that you expect to have to crack your head over. So I expected an easier read than it actually turned out to be.
The foreword to my elderly Penguin provided some illumination after I’d battled my way through the novel itself. (That persistence, by the way, sprang largely from affection for Nanda, combined with curiosity about late 19th century London social mores.) Ronald Blythe made two important points about The Awkward Age. First, it was James’ first novel to be written after his disastrous attempt at playwriting. Hence the almost-complete reliance on dialogue to move the story along. Hence also the novel’s structure, which is basically a series of conversations taking place in various settings among various combinations of the characters. If you’re aware of James‘ recent theatrical experience you see how, well, stagey the novel is, with recurring props (a book, a five-pound note) and “business” like constant drinking of tea to provide something for the characters to do while they chat.
The other point Blythe makes is that this is the first novel James dictated rather than writing, and it introduces us to that inimitable serpentine style that has been the bane of many an English major. For instance, to take a random sentence, “There was therefore something in Vanderbank’s present study of the signs that showed he had had to learn to feel his way and had more or less mastered the trick.” (Blythe points out that often James‘ own friends didn’t follow his conversation either, which makes me feel better.)
So we’ve got this somewhat hybrid structure and this leap into James‘ late style, which, I know, I know, is proto-modern and pre-Proustian, etc. Maybe I was in the mood for a more immersive reading experience, without having to consider where twentieth-century fiction was headed. I’ll leave you with a bit of dialogue. Here, Mr. Vanderbank, the handsome man-about-town whom Nanda is in love with, discusses Nanda with her mother — who is his lover. The “blessed man” is Mr. Longdon, who has offered to give Nanda a dowry if Vanderbank will propose to her.
And what did you say about a “basis?” The blessed man offers to settle–?’
“‘You’re a wonderful woman,’ her visitor returned, ‘and your imagination takes its fences in a way that, when I’m out with you, quite puts mine to shame. When he mentioned it to me I was quite surprised.’
“And I,’ Mrs. Brook asked, ‘am not surprised a bit? Isn’t it only,’ she modestly suggested, ‘because I’ve taken him in more than you? Didn’t you know he would?’ she quavered.
“Vanderbank thought or at least pretended to. ‘Make me the condition? How could I be sure of it?’
“But the point of his question was lost for her in the growing light. ‘Oh then the condition’s you only–?’
“‘That, at any rate, is all I have to do with. He’s ready to settle if I’m ready to do the rest.’”
You see the problem.