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The Awkward Age - Henry James,  Cynthia Ozick (Introduction) She remained alone for ten minutes, at the end of which her reflections – they would have been seen to be deep – were interrupted by the entrance of her husband. The interruption was indeed not so great as if the couple had not met, as they almost invariably met, in silence: she took, at all events to begin with, no more account of his presence than to hand him a cup of tea accompanied with nothing but cream and sugar. Her having no word for him, however, committed her no more to implying that he had come in only for his refreshment than it would have committed her to say: ‘Here it is, Edward dear – just as you like it; so take it and sit down and be quiet.’ No spectator worth his salt could have seen them more than a little together without feeling how everything that, under his eyes or not, she either did or omitted rested on a profound acquaintance with his ways. They formed, Edward’s ways, a chapter by themselves, of which Mrs Brook was completely mistress and in respect to which the only drawback was that a part of her credit was by the nature of the case predestined to remain obscure.

Mrs. Brookenham, referred to in the novel as Mrs. Brook, is an aging beauty. A woman at an awkward age, past her prime, yet still vibrantly lovely. She is witty, manipulative, and a deliciously adroit schemer. She has control of her husband, as you can see from the quote above, he is but a bit of furniture that she moves about to better suit her current needs. She has a social group of men and women who are trapped in the webbing of her social adeptness. She is shallow, but by no means stupid. The story revolves around what to do with Nanda, the daughter of the Brookenham’s.

Tea time the new battlefield.

Mrs. Brook is friends with the Duchess who has a daughter named Aggie. I’m using the term friends rather loosely as it is quite evident from a few conversations between the two that they are old rivals battling once again to achieve the best marriages for their daughters. Vanderbank, a civil servant and the only character in this book that seems to have a job, is rather handsome and solid of character. He is in the early running for a husband for Nanda, but as the plot advances it becomes murky as to whether he is in love with Mrs. Brook or Nanda. The real crux comes when it becomes clear that Mrs. Brook is unsure if she will keep the hapless Vanderbank for herself or encourage him to marry her daughter. Compromising circumstances exist when you have a “friend” that with a few well placed words in the proper setting could destroy your already precarious reputation. To square up accounts the Duchess is also compromised with a relationship with Lord Petherton.

”Lord Petherton, a man of five-and-thirty, whose robust but symmetrical proportions gave to his dark blue double-breasted coat an air of tightness that just failed of compromising his tailor, had for his man facial sign a certain pleasant brutality, the effect partly of a bold, handsome paracle of carnivorous teeth, partly of an expression of nose suggesting that this feature had paid a little, in the heat of youth, for some aggression at the time admired and even publicly commemorated. He would have been ugly, he substantively granted, had he not been happy; he would have been dangerous had he not been warranted. Many things doubtless performed for him this last service, but none so much as the delightful sound of his voice, the voice, as it were, of another man, a nature reclaimed, supercivilized, adjusted to the perpetual ‘chaff’ that kept him smiling in a way that would have been a mistake and indeed an impossibility, if he had really been witty.”

Things start to sort themselves out and then James decides to throw one more fly into the ointment. Mr. Longdon returns to society after a thirty year hiatus. In that time, obviously not spending his money on high society, he has piled up a considerable fortune. He takes a liking to Vanderbank, instantly does not trust Mrs. Brooks, and becomes enamored with Nanda. Mr. Longdon and Nanda, as part of an allusion to the title of this novel, are at awkward ages for consummating a relationship. Even though in that time period vast differences in ages were rarely a problem if there was plenty of money to match with the beauty of the young lady. Longdon is not interested in Nanda for a wife, but sees her more as a ward that needs to be shielded from her own mother. Nanda is the spitting image of her grandmother. Longdon when he was in society had a bit of a crush on the grandmother and seeing Nanda sends the blood coursing faster through his veins.

”Your resemblance to your grandmother is quite prodigious.”

“That’s what I wish you’d tell me about--your recollection of her and your wonderful feeling about her. Mother has told me things, but that I should have something straight from you is exactly what she also wants. My grandmother must have been awfully nice”, the girl rambled on, “and I somehow don’t see myself as the same sort of person.”

“Oh, I don’t say you’re in the least the same sort; all I allude to,” Mr. Longdon returned, “is the miracle of the physical heredity. Nothing could be less like her than your manner and your talk.”

Nanda looked at him with all honesty, “They’re not so good, you must think.”

He hung fire an instant, but was as honest as she. “You’re separated from her by a gulf--and not only of time. Personally, you see, you breathe a different air.”

Mr. Longdon makes it clear that he will settle a vast fortune on Nanda if Mr. Vanderbank will consent to marry her. This sets off a flurry of activity among the social set that leaves Vanderbank cold to the idea.


Nanda has a brother named Harold, a ne’er do well that actually provides a bit of comedy in the novel. He has a knack for putting the touch on his mother’s friends for five pounds here and five pounds there. Any money left about is vacuumed into his pocket. He is a product of his mother and knows how to manipulate the grand manipulator. Mr. Cashmore, you’d have to be wealthy with a name like that, does give Harold some money, but then threatens to tell his mother. Harold explains the circumstances.

”She knows all about wants--no one has more than mamma.”

Mr. Cashmore stared, but there was amusement in it too. “So she’ll say it’s all right?”

“Oh no; she’ll let me have it hot. But she’ll recognize that at such a pass more must be done for a fellow, and that may lead to something--indirectly, don’t you see? for she won’t tell my father, she’ll only, in her own way, work on him--that will put me on a better footing, and for which therefore at bottom I shall have to thank you.

This entire novel is almost entirely set in one drawing room or another. I had difficulty guessing the motivations of the characters because almost all the information is given to us through the course of conversations. At times it is hard to follow, but the deeper I delved into the novel I was able to make the adjustments to keep up with the acerbic sabre slashes and the double meanings that hung heavy on every conversation.

Henry James feeling out of sorts after the public reception to his plays.

Henry James was recovering from the shock of failing as a playwright when he wrote The Awkward Age. He had taken up plays after the disappointing sales of his novel [b:The Tragic Muse|751629|The Tragic Muse|Henry James|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1178037615s/751629.jpg|1650914]. He swore he’d never write another novel. After being booed and hissed at the conclusion of the showing of one of his plays, he then announced he was done with plays. As we know turning his back on writing novels or plays did not last very long.

If you are looking to read a Henry James I would not start with this one. I would recommend [b:The Portrait of a Lady|264|The Portrait of a Lady|Henry James|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1349047569s/264.jpg|1434368] or [b:The Turn of the Screw and The Aspern Papers|12950|The Turn of the Screw and The Aspern Papers (Penguin Classics)|Henry James|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1349093263s/12950.jpg|132303] for your first dance with Henry James. On the flap of the Everyman’s edition, that I read, they refer to this book as “one of his greatest and gentlest masterpieces”. James has a well deserved reputation of leaving his characters and readers distraught and unhappy at the conclusion of his novels. In the case of The Awkward Age things did not work out the way one would hope. The characters may not be happy, but James, feeling gentle I presume after his own humbling experience at the hands of the public, does leave them with room to achieve some fashion of happiness.

Make me smile, I dare you.