Wednesday, January 25, 2017

“The awful subject?” Mrs. Brook wailed - the subject of The Awkward Age - abject, horrid, unredeemed vileness from beginning to end

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.


  1. It sounds fun, I should read it. Maybe I have a copy somewhere, I certainly used to own one, though I worry I'd give up after 100 pages of people just chatting.

    Is all later James (all James) about the corruption of innocents?

  2. The Ambassadors, when you get around to it, is sort of about a dawning awareness of corruption and a subsequent striving toward innocence, a nice turnabout.

  3. I assume that The Awkward Age more or less flows into those later novels. I have been reading some James short stories from 1900, some pretty good, some more trivial, but the movement is sometimes visible. And then again other times not - what a useful generalization I have made.

  4. Maybe because I've been reading The Awkward Age alongside Tess of the D'Urbervilles (a book James didn't like) I can't help but see parallels between James's and Hardy's vastly different characteristic take on the gap between male and female privilege, regardless of class. Tess's "ruin" is pretty obvious, but it takes tweezers and patience to realize that Nanda's "ruin" is that she has read smutty books and knows how to recognize that everyone in her circle (except perhaps Mitchy and, at the start, Aggie) is either sleeping around or at least wants to. And that alone is what "spoils" Nanda, even for a relatively poor middle-class poseur like Vanderbank, whose own debaucheries are only hinted at, and whose preternatural good looks give him more than a tint of the unspeakable, even while they let him into the very best salons and country houses. The pimping of Aggie is frightening and louche, even by my jaded contemporary standards, and I don't blame her for kicking the traces after marriage, even though I feel sorry for the rich, ugly, and dim-witted Mitchy. Now that I've finished, I think I can say that I liked the book more than you did, but I admit giving up trying to follow the background characters' indiscretions. Although I would almost kill to have someone in my circle named Tishy Grendon. Someone so named would have to be, as so many characters say in this book, "simply 'wonderful.'"

  5. A great Jamesian paradox - those books "ruin" Nanda and help her escape ruin!

    I'm glad James brought Tishy Grendon on-stage, however briefly. I was worried, for a while, that we would never get to see her.

    It is such an interesting book. Wonderful comment.

  6. I'm taking another stab at "The Awkward Age" because it has spurred me on to a re-read of "The Wings of the Dove." A casual reference early on in "Dove" caused me to Google something that made me find the 2005 book by J Hillis Miller, "Literature as Conduct: Speech Acts in Henry James," which has an EXHAUSTIVE chapter on "The Awkward Age." Miller takes a while to get wound up, but I thought his analysis was highly illuminating and cogent (though how he could have let a typo like Wilde's "The ETERNAL Husband" make it into print is beyond me). The essay does contain some spoilers regarding other James novels (particularly "Wings of the Dove" but you might find it useful, particularly on the topic what the central object is of the novel--which may or may not be homosexuality (as I suspected). Although Miller ultimately undercuts his own theory near the end, I believe that Nanda's "knowing" ALL about Vanderbank may include knowing the unspeakable, thus making her an unsuitable candidate for marriage; while Vanderbank might have been able to marry her if she did NOT know his proclivities, he is too honorable to face the fact that she would marry him in SPITE of them. That requires precious parsing, but with what other author is such parsing not only appropriate, but required?

    I'm so glad that this blog sent me to "The Awkward Age," because the heady discussions have reinvigorated my interest in James and in the pleasures of the close reading life in general. I know you have moved on to "War and Peace," which I won't get to most likely until summer, unless I decide to go for Proust instead. I'll be in England much of the summer, studying Mary Queen of Scots at Oxford and then hiking in Iceland part of August, so Tolstoy may have to wait until fall, by which time you most likely will have moved on to Forster, which should lead to some delicious and delightful postings.

  7. J. Hillis Miller! My favorite academic critic. A number of Wuthering Expectations posts are written in his spirit, as I interpret it. I should read his James book someday. The chain you construct, about Nanda's knowing, is plausible. Maybe necessary.

    I think I will return to James - Dove? Ambassadors? - when I finish Frank Norris. Now there's a palate cleanser.

    What great summer plans. Iceland!

    I have one argument with you. There cannot be spoilers in his essay, because there are no such things as spoilers. A watched plot never spoils.