Unyielding: A Review of The Awkward Age (1899) by Henry James

Henry James in an Anxious MomentJames mentions at one point in this novel that he assumes a reader unusually attentive to the “mutual relations” of his characters. The scarcity of such readers may explain the frequent estimation of the book as little more than “talk” carried on by a set of lightweight English aristocrats and saturated with sexual innuendo. I agree that following this story demands patience and that its length and frequent opaqueness can be irritating. But the idea at the heart of it is worth the trouble.

Not long before he wrote The Awkward Age (1899), the London theatrical audience had rejected James’s efforts at playwriting—a failure that reminded him of the hurts of his childhood. Back then young James had a sense that the adult world had all but forgotten him and that his masculinity was in question. As usual James turned to his writing to deal with the return, some forty years later, of these feelings of self-doubt. He invented youthful characters, often female, who are at the mercy of insufficiently protective, sometimes brutal, grown-ups. Thus in The Other House (1896) a woman prevented from marrying a man while his three year old daughter was still alive drowns that daughter in a lake. Then Maisie, the slightly older girl in What Maisie Knew (1897), painfully discovers that only one person in her entire adult world, parents included, cares enough to protect her.

In The Turn of the Screw (1898) James identifies not just with Miles and Flora, two children under the care of an unnamed governess, but with that twenty year old, religiously educated governess herself. The ghosts in the story represent the governess’ own fears, implicitly sexual, of reaching maturity—fears she projects onto her young charges. One of them, six year old Flora, finally breaks off her connection with the governess in favor of living in the secular world of her uncle, the distant master of a spooky English castle called Bly. Flora stands for the governess’s desire to enter the master’s decadent environment. By contrast Miles, Flora’s eight year old brother, is intrigued by the mysterious ghosts of Bly. He represents everything in the governess that is afraid of “damnation” and that, under the guise of shielding Miles from it, hopes to shield herself. At the end of the story, when Miles heart stops in the protective and inappropriately sexual embrace of the governess, the reader is witness to the impossibility of reaching maturity free from the taint of evil.

The morally value-free world beyond Bly in The Turn of the Screw has multiple equivalents in The Awkward Age. The scenes of this novel take place in various, mostly aristocratic, households. A typical one belongs to the ugly Mr. Mitchett (Mitchy) who, shortly after marrying one young lady, has no qualms about planning to marry another.

A less well-to-do household is that of Mr. Vanderbank—a bachelor, civil servant, and the darling of a social circle presided over by Mrs. Brookenham who, though married to the ineffectual Edward Brookenham, “loves” young Vanderbank. So indeed does her daughter Nanda (short for Fernanda), an attraction that awkwardly makes the daughter a competitor with her mother for the chronically noncommittal “Van.” Mrs. Brookenham reigns throughout the novel as the very queen of “talk,’ much of it implicitly sexual. Her whole social set, as it moves from one Victorian household to another, reminds me of the rotating guests on our T.V. talk shows. Not much of what these people say rises above juicy gossip.

At the center of James’s interest here, however, is the relationship of eighteen year old Nanda and Mr. Longdon, a bachelor like young Vanderbank but one old enough, again awkwardly, to be her grandfather. Something of an outsider to Mrs. Brookenham’s circle, Mr. Longdon admires qualities like constancy and forthrightness without always having practiced them himself. He wants to protect Nanda, and has the money to do so, in part because he understands her vulnerability in the marriage market and in part because of his long ago love for her grandmother, Lady Julia, who rejected him but to whom Nanda bears a remarkable physical resemblance.

Without protest from Nanda, Mr. Longdon takes her under his morally protective but also sexually attracted care. At the end of the novel the two retire from the decadence of London to Longdon’s comfortable country house—a slightly scandalous arrangement that is nevertheless more or less safe, considering the “couple’s” huge age difference.

This awkward relationship is close to what James wanted for himself. Nanda is a careful observer of life, as is Longdon, and although he often calls her “child” and she gives every indication of sexual innocence, he is charmed by the vitality of her presence and by her uncanny insight into the behavior of others in contrast to the chatter of her mother’s social set. Nanda shares Longdon’s controlling protectiveness. Just as he offers Vanderbank a handsome dowry to entice him into marrying Nanda, she works to engineer a marriage between her friend “little Aggie” and the wealthy Mitchy (it quickly turns disastrous). Longdon’s country house is a place for the insightful observation James considered vital to his art, and Nanda is his likeminded muse. She offers him the sexual attractiveness of a mate without the complicated risks of sexual and husbandly involvement.

It is important to our understanding of James that we do not shrink from the narcissism, even abusive control, in this fictional relationship of Longdon to Nanda. Henry James, as we have seen, revisited the damaging self-doubts of his childhood in The Other House, What Maisie Knew, The Turn of the Screw and again here in The Awkward Age. But he did not do so to overcome these doubts, as in self-therapy, but to ratify decisions he had made at the very outset of his career: to be a spectator of life more than a participant in it, to appease his fear of women, to avoid committed relationships like marriage, and in all these ways to satisfy his ambition to become a master of his art.

The Awkward Age should be read in the context of James’s first novel, Watch and Ward, which he disowned most likely because it contained fairly blunt sexual references likely to offend his Victorian audience. Watch and Ward is about an affluent man who melodramatically acquires a female child as his ward. As she grows older, he in effect trains her to become his wife which, still more melodramatically, she eventually does. But of course she does not become his wife in the sense that she retains her independence of him. She is a sexy statue whose life he has managed so as to keep her in his collection.

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