Friday, January 27, 2017

too beautiful to let her read - writing other than dialogue in The Awkward Age

The enormous amount of dialogue in The Awkward Age emphasize everything that is not dialogue.  Much of it is gesture, action, or expression attached to dialogue:

The Duchess remained for a little rather grimly silent.

The Duchess handsomely stared.

… the Duchess echoed, fairly looking again around the room.

The Duchess was frank and jovial.

Again the Duchess had one of her pauses, which were indeed so frequent in her talks with this intimate that an auditor could sometimes wonder what particular form of relief they represented.

All of these are from a single page of Chapter 5.  Some kind of attitude is attached to four of her six lines of speech, ending in that elaborate, mystifying pause.  The dialogue is never presented straight for any length.  There is always more to interpret.

Much of the descriptive language is humorous.  Or I took it as such.  “Mitchy smiled at her till he was red” (Ch. 33).  That is not normal behavior.  The descriptions of people are generally hilarious:

Mr. Mitchett had so little intrinsic appearance that an observer would have felt indebted, as an aid to memory, to the rare prominence of his colourless eyes and the positive attention drawn to his chin by the precipitation of its retreat from detection.  (Ch. 7)

Mitchy is an extreme case, but throughout the book characters are described by the absence of characteristics, by their vagueness.

He had a pale, cold face, marked and made regular, made even in a manner handsome, by a hardness of line in which, oddly, there was no significance, no accent…  he suggested a stippled drawing by an inferior master…  with the air of having here and there in his person a bone or two more than his share…  (Ch. 6)

That’s Mr. Brookenham, the husband of the rhetorically brilliant queen of the novel.  The entire paragraph of his description is something else.  He is completely unsuited to for the verbal game played by his wife and her friends, so a good number of his lines of dialogue are often just “Oh.”  “’Oh!’ her husband replied” (Ch. 6).

Or another character, an important one: “He had indeed no presence, but he had somehow an effect” (Ch. 1).  James is unforgiving.  I will not be allowed to rest on my own imagination’s embodiment of the novel’s characters.  They have no embodiment outside of their speech, outside of the text.

The comic writing in The Awkward Age is strong.  This is the way to appreciate a view: “She had sunk down upon the bench almost with a sense of adventure, yet not too fluttered to wonder if it wouldn’t have been happy to bring a book; the charm of which precisely would have been in feeling everything about her too beautiful to let her read” (Ch. 16).

Or here’s Mitchy, again, who is admittedly one strange dude:

“’She said what they always say – that the effect I produce is, though at first upsetting, one that little by little they find it possible to get used to.  The world’s full of people who are getting used to me,” Mr. Mitchett concluded. (Ch. 7)

A line actually worthy of Wilde, there.  Mostly, reading The Awkward Age, I think, no wonder James bombed as a playwright.  But he got off some good lines.


  1. I've enjoyed your quotations: you've reminded me how witty HJ can be. It's so long since I read this novel that I admit I'd forgotten much of it, so was delighted to have it all brought back. Must reread it.

  2. Oh, I almost dread the idea of re-reading this novel. The mistakes I have made! The things I have missed!

  3. You make me realize that the Bulwer-Lytton contest has completely lost the flavor of what made Bulwer-Lytton such a bad novelist in the first place. How much better to have a Henry James contest so you could write something like your comment about re-reading The Awkward Age (which I have just started as an homage to your blog):

    "He would, he mused, have realized that, had he re-read the slender yet ponderous tome, he would have missed--yes, have missed out on something else, a set of mistakes he would not have made, but instead, perhaps, if he had persevered, if he had rencountered the thing he earlier despised, re-examined it from every perspective, he would have come out--emerged, in fact, magnificently--yes, magnificently--in the end!

  4. The Henry James contest could have separate categories for early, middle, and late James.

    The exciting thing about re-reading is the opportunity to replace the mistakes of my first reading with new, better mistakes.

  5. I'm really struggling with The Awkward Age. I did something I rarely do, which is to read the spoiler-laden introduction in the Penguin edition, as well as another summary from a slim volume of James criticism. Now that I know what to look for, perhaps I'll be able to stomach the vagueness of the descriptions and the meandering indirectness of the dialogue. I do like the heightened sense of wickedness that is emerging from the Brookenham salon, and the Duchess seems to be a living skeleton of decadence. The infamous daughter Nanda, like a Shakespearean hero, has yet to make her delayed appearance. I feel like the fossil Mr. Longdon (and I'm even slightly older). It's hard to believe that any of these male characters are even slightly interested in women; they're gayer than virtually all of the gay men I know, and their interest in these women appears to be that of fashion consultants rather than men with heteronormative libidos.

  6. Rough going, isn't it? And there's no relief, no point where James backs off to let me catch up. All the way to the end, which is about as satisfying as the rest of the novel promises.

    Your comments on the characters are great. Some of the minor male characters are not gay, but, yes, all of the main characters make more sense if they're gay. Then Mitchy becomes not just a ridiculous but a pathetic figure, and Van's story becomes one of evasion.

    The more I understand the novel, the more interesting it becomes, but what an effort.