The “elderly” Mr. Longdon – “he would never again see fifty-five” – stumbles into a social circle that is centered around Mrs. Brookenham, the daughter of the woman he wanted to marry, long ago. Mrs. Brook – lotta nicknames in this novel – Mrs. Brook’s daughter, Nanda, strongly reminds Longdon of his lost love. Mrs. Brook’s circle of friends are “depraved,” mildly, or perhaps quite a lot. Longdon determines to rescue Nanda from these horrible people before they ruin her.
This is more or less the story of The Awkward Age (1899). Imagine that young Maisie, from the just slightly earlier What Maisie Knew (1897) has grown up a bit and found herself once again stuck in her mother’s disreputable world. A lot of questionable people are wandering in and out of the house. This chain of heroines – Maisie, the telegraph operator “In the Cage” (1898), the governess in “The Turn of the Screw” (1898) – make an interesting set. Innocents among the corrupt.
One difficulty we are now likely to have with The Awkward Age is that the terms of the argument, how much a young woman might know about sexual matters, have changed so much that the central problem of the novel may have retreated into the Victorian fog. Nanda is raised amidst fairly frank sexual talk and behavior. Another young woman, Aggie, is protected, only fed “the small sweet biscuit of unobjectionable knowledge” (Book Fifth), and thus becomes depraved the instant she marries, running around on her hapless old husband on their honeymoon. I mentioned a scene where two characters wrestle over a dirty French novel – that’s the young newlywed Aggie and her new boyfriend. She sits on the book so he can’t get to it, yet pretty soon he has it. Suggestive. This is all just offstage, taking place just as the other characters wonder if they should be so frank in front of Nanda:
Vanderbank, for a minute and with a special short arrest, took in the circle. “Should you call us ‘mixed’? There’s only one girl.” (Book Eighth)
That girl is Nanda. Since Aggie is married, she is no longer a girl. The logic of the sexual talk being appropriate if in front of only one girl escapes me, but I was in the state of this fellow:
“Mercy on us, what are you talking about? That’s what I want to know!” Mr. Cashmore vivaciously declared. (a page earlier)
Everything shocking is so tightly coded that it was only the sudden concern about Nanda that made me understand that the rhetorically rarified conversation had moved onto dangerous ground. This is the first climax of the novel, this discussion of whether a nineteen-year-old woman has read Zola’s Nana, or whatever the book is meant to be:
“She brought it only for me to read,” Tisha gravely interposed.
Mrs. Brook looked strange. “Nanda recommended it?” [Mrs. Brook is Nanda’s mother]
“Oh no – the contrary.” Tishy, as if scared by so much publicity, floundered a little. “She only told me –“
“The awful subject?” Mrs. Brook wailed.
Mrs. Brook frequently wails.
Earlier in The Awkward Age, dirty French novels – different ones, though – are described as “particularly dreadful” because of their “morbid modernity”, but still (Mrs. Brook is speaking):
“But for abject, horrid, unredeemed vileness from beginning to end –”
“So you read to the end?” Mr. Mitchett interposed.
“I read to see what you could possibly have sent such things to me for, and because so long as they were in my hands they were not in the hands of others. Please to remember in future that the children are all over the place, and that Harold and Nanda have their nose in everything.” (Book Second)
Thus the horror, much later, possibly even sincere, that Nanda has actually read one of these books. Harold, her brother, now he is hopeless, completely rotten, beyond rescue.
My reason for reading to the end of The Awkward Age is not so different than that of Mrs. Brook. Maybe I have two more days on this strange novel.