Henry James, “The Awkward Age”

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.

Sargent’s “Miss Elsie Palmer,” currently at Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. Like Nanda Brookenham, Elsie is not a conventional beauty.

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.

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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13 Responses to Henry James, “The Awkward Age”

  1. Judy Fireman says:

    This time you’ve convinced me that it’s permissible to skip this Henry James all together. You make it clear how unclear the writing is, and I’m too timid (or lazy)for the task.

  2. whatmeread says:

    I remember someone making a comment at some time that they had been “taught” how to read James. I wish someone would teach me too. I always feel like something’s going on that I don’t understand.

  3. Barbara says:

    May I give you a quote from the charming “The Uncommon Reader” by Alan Bennett? This novella poses the question of how Queen Elizabeth’s life would change were she to become a serious reader. Here is his hilarious glimpse into the Queen’s early encounter with Henry James:

    She was not a gentle reader and often wished authors were around so that she could take them to task.

    “Am I alone,” she wrote, “in wanting to give Henry James a good talking-to?”

    …..It was Henry James she was reading one tea-time when she said out loud “Oh, do get on.” The maid who was just taking away the tea trolley, said “Sorry, ma’am,” and shot out of the room in two seconds flat. “Not you, Alice,” the Queen called after her, even going to the door. “Not you.”

  4. carolwallace says:

    Judy, I was actually looking for “What Maisie Knew” on my shelf and this was all there was. Not disappointing, but certainly work.

  5. carolwallace says:

    Kay, the thing about “learning to read” James: patience is probably the biggest factor. Sometimes, especially with the late books, I feel as if he’s herding me like a sheepdog, nudging me in one direction then another, guiding me through his perceptions so that I can share them …. which is fine. Sometimes. And sometimes I just want to be TOLD, darn it!

  6. carolwallace says:

    Barbara, I adore that book. In fact, I adore Alan Bennett. But especially I love his reverent irreverence toward Her Majesty and Great Books!

    • Barbara says:

      I’ve never read AB before. I love your “reverent irreverence” description which is spot on. And as you have read the book, you know that eventually the Queen does warms up a bit to Henry. It seems that if one were to cherry-pick some of the titles in the book, there might be a nice reading list to wade through. Not that I need to add any more titles to my ever-growing TBR pile.

      • carolwallace says:

        Oh, what a lovely idea — AB’s reading list for HM! Worth hanging onto for a rainy day perhaps. Do you ever listen to books? I don’t, normally, but a friend once loaned me a CD of Bennett reading his own work that was really transporting. The “Talking Heads” series in particular, intended as TV plays: do you know them? Maggie Smith doing “Bed Among the Lentils” is indelible.

  7. Barbara says:

    Well, I adore Maggie Smith so I may just have to look into this!

    One of the authors that AB seemed to have a soft spot for was Ivy Compton-Burnett. I am totally unfamiliar with her. Have you read her? I may have to dip into something of hers just to see what she’s all about. HM warmed up to her, as she did Henry James, once she became more of a “real” reader.

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