Thursday, January 26, 2017

“I do say the most hideous things.” - The Awkward Age's talk

The story of The Awkward Age seemed a little thin to me.  Low stakes.  The mostly-dialogue method is inefficient.  It takes a lot of words, a lot more than usual, to get some pretty basic things, like characterization, or action, done.  Who cares whether Nanda escapes the corrupting influence of her mother?

Said another way: why tell this story this way?

She faltered still a little.  “I do say the most hideous things.  But we have said worse, haven’t we?”  (Ch. 21)

That is Mrs. Brookenham again.  Mrs. Brook is at the center of the circle of gossips and worse, the corrupters of morals who populate The Awkward Age.  Not just the center – she is their leader.  This groups of friends and otherwise are engaged in an elaborate and voluntary social game in which points are scored by means of superior rhetoric – wit, for example, which is why much of the dialogue sounds like Oscar Wilde – or more like Ronald Firbank – or other types of verbal felicity.

Mrs. Brook leads the circle because she is the superior rhetorician.  What appears to me as mannered gibberish is part of an elaborate ritual of social jousting.

The Duchess then glanced round the circle.  “You’re very odd people, all of you, and I don’t think you quite know how ridiculous you are.”  (Ch. 8)

Yes, exactly.  Exactly.  The most direct expression of this idea – aside from surprisingly frequently lines like “’I do so like your phrases’” (Ch. 21) – is this passage:

“Why, my moral beauty, my dear woman – if that’s what you mean by my genius – is precisely my curse.  What on earth is left for a man just rotten with goodness?  It renders necessary the kind of liking that renders unnecessary anything else.”

“Now that is cheap paradox!” Vanderbank patiently sighed.  “You’re down for a fine.”

It was with less of the patience perhaps that Mrs. Brook took this up.  “Yes, on that we are stiff.  Five pounds, please.”  (Ch. 22)

And the offender pulls out a five pound note!  As a penalty for sounding too much like Wilde!  Which is an established rule among these people!  Forget their affairs and their dirty French novels and so on, these are some danged odd birds.  I need the help not of literary criticism but anthropology.

The difficulties of the dialogues, then, are part of the dance, the competition.  Pronouns are made obscure on purpose, to elicit requests for clarification, a demerit.  Characters finish each other’s lines as ways to score points.  The compliments – magnificent, wonderful, splendid – which are mostly directed at Mrs. Brook, the champion, are concessions of defeat.  An odd variation near the end (“’You’re wild,’ she said simply – ‘you’re wild’”) is a way of saying that the “wild” character has broken some rules by being too intense and sincere.  His response: “He wonderfully glared.”  Poor guy is kind of the novel’s punching bag; I don’t blame him.

He shone at them brightly enough, and Mrs Brook, thoughtful, wistful, candid, took in for a moment the radiance. “And yet to think that after all it has been mere talk!” (Ch. 21)

I should have been watching for the word “talk.”


  1. I've just started reading The Outcry, James' last completed novel, which began life as a stage play and so it turns out to be a lot of dialogue, with stage directions reshaped into terse description of action, very unlike "late James." It's a comedy, reminding me of The Coxon Fund though--I guess to reverse myself and place it within "late James"--the dialogue can be so ornate that I'm not sure what's being said. In spots from, say, page 2 onward.

  2. Have you read The Sacred Fount (1901), by any chance? It sounds close to unreadable. That revenge story I will write about tomorrow uses a similar technique as all these, but has the advantage of being only 15 pages, so easier to puzzle out.

  3. I attempted The Sacred Fount when I was in my twenties, and it was so ambiguous that I gave up a dozen pages in, I think, and read Portrait of a Lady instead. I'd forgotten all about it, but I think I could give it a try nowadays. A better try, anyway. I'll bet I'd be much more interested in how it's unlike other novels, more able to engage with the ambiguity. Or so I flatter myself.

  4. I know - the unreadableness is itself a temptation.