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Henry James

Jeanne Delbaere-Garant

III. The Novelist

The Awkward Age (1899). Modern Girls and Convent Flowers

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  • 1 The Awkward Age, p. 276.

The modern girl, the product of our hard London facts and of her inevitable consciousness of them just as they are—she, wonderful being, is, I fully recognise, my real affair, and I’m not ashamed to say that when I like the individual I’m not afraid of the type.1

1Though still a child, little Maisie already possessed the main characteristics of James’s modern girls: she had their free mind, their curiosity, their imagination, and their dangerous tendency to distort reality by trying to fit other people’s lives into preconceived patterns. But whereas Maisie was still “on the way to know Everything,” Nanda Brookenham, who might very well be an older Maisie, has reached complete knowledge and what she knows helps us to understand what Maisie did not. What she knows is something of which Maisie had only a brief glimpse when Mrs. Beale’s real nature was revealed to her in the final scene of the novel, i.e., the reality that lies beyond the appearances of Buckingham Crescent. Nanda realizes that her mother’s “temple of analysis” is after all nothing but a world of cards, mere smoke, mere talk. Beneath their apparently serious preoccupation with the things of the mind and the ardour with which they seem to deal with human problems, there is nothing but the barest and most sterile reality. Behind this layer of varnish the people of Buckingham Crescent are as vulgar as Maisie’s parents and step-parents. Nanda’s knowledge, set off against Aggie’s ignorance, is the result of the particular kind of education which James illustrates in The Awkward Age.

  • 2 French Poets and Novelists, p. 81.

2In the works we have examined so far James had contrasted French manners and taste with the more provincial Anglo-Saxon way of life, French superficiality and sensitiveness to the sensuous surface of the world with Anglo-Saxon heaviness and restrictive moral sense. Though The Awkward Age deals exclusively with English characters and takes place in England, I have included it in this study because James illustrates in it a particular tendency of the French mind to which he comes back repeatedly in his critical essays: the tendency to generalize, to “squeeze things into a formula,”2 to sacrifice the particular to the general and the individual to social rules. He does so by considering the different answers given to the problem of the “awkward age,” that is, to the question whether a young unmarried girl can be admitted without danger into the drawing-room and allowed to listen to the unexpurgated conversation of the adults, or whether she ought to be kept innocent, as far from “good talk” as possible, until the day of her marriage.

  • 3 The Art of the Novel, pp. 103-104.
  • 4 Ibid., p. 103.
  • 5 The Awkward Age, p. 49.
  • 6 Ibid., p. 54.

3In the Preface James explains how the problem is solved in America, in England, and on the Continent. In America there is no conversation to speak of and therefore the young American girls who listen to adult talk do not run the risk of being contaminated by what they hear. In France the social scheme “absolutely provides against awkwardness. That is it would be, by this scheme, so infinitely awkward, so awkward beyond any patching up, for the hovering female young to be conceived as present at ‘good’ talk, that their presence is, theoretically at least, not permitted till their youth has been promptly corrected by marriage—in which case they have ceased to be merely young. The better the talk prevailing in any circle, accordingly, the more organised, the more complete, the element of precaution and exclusion.”3 The French do not take half-measures: girls are brought up in seclusion until their marriage—which is usually arranged by the parents—and pass without transition from one state to the other. The tradition of “good talk” loses none of its brilliance since the young girl has been carefully excluded. The French have a sense of what James calls “scientific economy.” They would never dream of sacrificing the greater to the less, the general to the particular. This attitude involves no compromise: it is clear-cut, “scientific” in its rigour and it only throws into sharper relief “the inveterate English trick of the so morally well-meant and so intellectually helpless compromise.”4 The English, indeed, who do not feel at ease in the world of abstractions, can hardly be so definite, so systematic. They want to eat their cake and have it so that daughters are usually compromised and the high level of conversation necessarily lowered. “It’s all a muddle, a compromise, a monstrosity, like everything else you produce,”5 exclaims the Duchess who has chosen the French solution for her own little Aggie. And it is the language of Balzac that comes to her lips when she later states her view: “There you are, with your eternal English false positions! J’aime, moi, les situations nettes — je n’en comprends pas d’autres.”6 The two solutions are confronted here: Mrs. Brookenham advocates the English solution whereas the Duchess supports the French view.

  • 7 Ibid., p. 251.
  • 8 Ibid., p. 277.
  • 9 Ibid., pp. 159-160.

4Mrs. Brookenham—“Mrs. Brook” as her friends call her—is the presiding genius of Buckingham Crescent, that “temple of analysis” where they discuss everyone and everything, never explaining anything for fear of spoiling the fun. She is the high priestess of conversation and she knows perfectly how to keep the members of the group close together as satellites around herself. A strong, practical nature carefully wrapped in the most delicate envelope, she is feminine to the finger-tips. She has the solid nerves and the terrible lucidity of the Kate Croys and Miriam Rooths but she succeeds better than they do in concealing her strength behind an apparent weakness and fragility. A goddess who holds in her delicate hands the strings of other people’s lives, she says of herself: “I happen to be so constituted that my life has something to do with my mind and my mind something to do with my talk,”7 and when in the masterly central scene of the book where she plays all her cards—even at her own risk—to make Mr. Longdon adopt her daughter, she says that after all it has been “mere talk,”8 we feel how dangerous she is. The novel is perhaps nothing but talk. But the talk has a strong incidence on the characters’ lives because if we only reverse her own proposition their talk has something to do with their minds and their minds have something to do with their lives: theirs and other people’s. Nothing ever ruffles the quiet surface of her beautiful face, but she is all tension beneath. Vague and languid as long as there is a guest in her drawing-room, she immediately stands up when he has passed the door, gives the crushed cushions a transforming touch and notices the disappearance of a bank note which she had feigned to ignore. Unfortunately, all her energy is spent on her immediate satisfaction and pleasure. She doesn’t want to change any of her habits nor to pay for anything she does. She wants the talk of Buckingham Crescent to retain its first-rate quality and chooses to compromise her daughter rather than lower its level. She has, as she herself puts it, her own life to lead, and Nanda, her daughter, is a part of it. The girl is in fact a terrible encumbrance especially as her presence reveals to people her mother’s age. Never for a while considering her daughter’s interest Mrs. Brook manoeuvres to get rid of her and if possible to get money into the bargain. She first tries to marry her off to the rich but ugly Mitchy. When she sees that Nanda refuses him, she manages to make Mr. Longdon adopt her by insisting on her own ruinous influence on the girl. Finally she realizes that her daughter is in love with Old Van and she does not hesitate to humiliate her before him in order to keep him for herself. In spite of all this it is difficult to condemn her: “You’re a woman of genius after all,” Old Van tells her, “and genius mostly justifies itself.”9

  • 10 Ibid., p. 46.

5It takes all the massiveness of the Duchess to compete with such an exceptional character. James perhaps made her on purpose “a person of no small presence, filling her place, however, without ponderosity, with a massiveness indeed rather artfully kept in bounds.”10 Contrasting with her massiveness, beautiful little Aggie, the only niece of her dead husband, is as frail as a bird. Timid and well-bred, with her eyelids drooped and a serious book on her lap, the girl is waiting for the husband her aunt is carefully choosing for her. The Duchess plays the same game as Mrs. Brook but her ways are quite different. On the subject of girls’ education the two “friends” are continually at variance. The Duchess disapproves of Nanda’s freedom, of her friendship with a married woman, of her listening to adult talk; this is not the way to find a husband, she assumes, because when it comes to choosing a wife men, however modern they may be, prefer an ignorant girl:

  • 11 Ibid., p. 51.

It’s not their idea that the girls they marry shall already have been pitchforked—by talk and contacts and visits and newspapers and by the way the poor creatures rush about and all the extraordinary things they do—quite into everything.11

6The Duchess behaves quite differently from Mrs. Brook, whose relationship with Old Van is rather ambiguous; she loves him in her cold, selfish way and for his sake she destroys her daughter’s happiness. There is nothing ambiguous, on the other hand, in the Duchess’s relationship with Lord Petherton: he is her lover and the “external” virtue of her lily-like niece gives her a kind of dignity that keeps other people’s attention away from her liaison. Her behaviour has a perfect neatness of contour and so have her sins. Mrs. Brook is quite aware of the difference between her “friend” and herself, as appears from her words to Mitchie:

  • 12 Ibid., p. 275.

“Aggie, don’t you see? is the Duchess’s morality, her virtue; which, by having it that way outside of you, as one may say, you can make a much better thing of. The child has been for Jane, I admit, a capital little subject, but Jane has kept her on hand and finished her like some wonderful piece of stitching. Oh as work it’s of a soigné! There it is—to show. A woman like me has to be herself, poor thing, her virtue and her morality. What will you have? It’s our lumbering English plan....12

  • 13 The Ambassadors, p. 299.

7The Duchess’s aim is as clear-cut as the plot in a contemporary French play, and all her energy is devoted to it: she wants to get rid of her niece by marrying her off in the way most advantageous for the girl and for herself. Although, when compared with Mrs. Brook, she seems to be the more hypocritical of the two she is in fact more straightforward. She conforms to the rules of a pre-existing system, never wondering whether the convent is the best training for a girl who will afterwards be thrown unprepared into the social jungle. The system has stood the test of time and experience, and there is no questioning it. Little Aggie shields the Duchess in the same way as Pansy Osmond, another convent flower, shields her father and Madame Merle in The Portrait of a Lady. Likewise the innocence of Jeanne de Vionnet in The Ambassadors will serve to keep the Pococks’ attention away from her mother’s adulterous liaison with Chad. Pansy, Aggie, and Jeanne are “exquisite case(s) of education,”13 and Old Mr. Longdon is obliged to recognize that “from the point of view under which she had been formed, [Little Aggie] was a remarkable, a rare success”:

  • 14 The Awkward Age, pp. 210-211.

Since to create a particular little rounded and tinted innocence had been aimed at, the fruit had been grown to the perfection of a peach on a sheltered wall, and this quality of the object resulting from a process might well make him feel himself in contact with something wholly new. Little Aggie differed from any young person he had ever met in that she had been deliberately prepared for consumption and in that furthermore the gentleness of her spirit had immensely helped the preparation. Nanda, beside her, was a Northern savage, and the reason was partly that the elements of that young lady’s nature were already, were publicly, were almost indecorously active. They were practically there for good or for ill; experience was still to come and what they might work out to still a mystery; but the sum would get itself done with the figures now on the slate. On little Aggie’s slate the figures were yet to be written; which sufficiently accounted for the difference of the two surfaces. Both the girls struck him as lambs with the great shambles of life in their future; but while one, with its neck in a pink ribbon, had no consciousness but that of being fed from the hand with the small sweet biscuit of unobjectionable knowledge, the other struggled with instincts and forebodings, with the suspicion of its doom and the far-borne scent, in the flowery fields, of blood.14

8There they are, the two products of two different kinds of education: little Aggie, beautifully passive and ignorant, the result of a process, a perfect form without contents, all virtue outside but void inside, and Nanda, all contents without form but already detecting the presence of wolves in the flowery fields of society.

  • 15 Ibid., p. 227.

9In spite of her precocious experience Nanda has not been corrupted at all by the atmosphere of Buckingham Crescent, yet the Duchess is right when she warns Mrs. Brook that her daughter will find no husband among the members of their little circle. Mitchy, who loves her, finally marries Little Aggie because Nanda begs him to do so, but once he is out of the way she waits in vain for the man she loves—Old Van himself—to propose to her. Van, another weak and irresolute Sir Claude, never does, and the Duchess’s prediction comes true: if you don’t marry her quickly, she had told Mr. Longdon, she will never find a husband because she will have stayed too long “in the air they themselves have infected for her.”15 Although she remains uncorrupted, her premature contact with life spoils her: she acquires a moral complexity that is reflected on her face, she is no longer “superficial” enough and thereby loses the grace of the innocent and ignorant jeune fille. Unfortunately, appearances are very important for the men who make the system what it is and who consider other people as mere ornaments in their superficial existences. Besides, since she thinks and acts by herself, Nanda is also bound to make dangerous mistakes. Her consciousness and her imagination are more developed than her actual experience and, like Maisie, she imagines that she can order life and make it fit her pattern. Left to herself she learns the difficult lesson of life by trial and error, and pays dearly for her experience. She acquires a sense of responsibility and duty that will always prevent her from becoming a mere puppet in other people’s hands or, like her mother, a goddess in a temple of words. Under the disguise of Mr. Longdon James takes her by the hand and leads her away from a corrupt world which conceals betrayals and lies under its brilliant surface. Nanda could find no better support than this loyal old man: he adopts her out of faithfulness to her grandmother, Lady Julia, whom he had loved as a young man. Mrs. Wix, with her moral ranting, had been a poor compensation for Maisie’s lost illusions. Mr. Longdon is more solid ground and he represents not only the values of the past but also what is best in human nature. Like Maisie and Isabel, Nanda must pay the price for being a free mind and renounce happiness in order to gain a larger and richer sense of life. Like them she has chosen the difficult path.

  • 16 Ibid., p. 378.

10What becomes of little Aggie is quite different and is shown implicitly in the scene at Tishy Grendon’s. All the members of the circle are gathered there except Aggie and Lord Petherton who, like innocent children, play hide-and-seek in another room. Mitchy, who is now Aggie’s husband, remains seated and does not want to know what his wife is doing as though he were already resigned to his fate. Their game, we soon realize, is less innocent than appeared at first sight. Lord Petherton tries to get an object on which she is sitting and which she refuses to give him. Significantly the disputed object is a French novel which the other members of the group consider as awful. Aggie wants to read it because she has been told that it is very bad. Everybody speaks of it and wonders how the book has got there until they understand that it was brought by Nanda: the girl had read it to see whether she could recommend it to her friend Tishy, which she had not done. Aggie’s behaviour is much commented upon. Only the Duchess closes her eyes and produces one of her ready theories to explain the whole thing. It is quite natural, she says, that her niece should be different because marriage has changed her consciousness and transformed her completely. “It surely isn’t news to you that if some young persons among us all are very stupid and others very wise, my dear child was never either but only perfectly bred and deliciously clever,”16 she concludes. Aggie’s virtue is as theoretical as her aunt’s morality. The result of the Duchess’s conventional education is an equally conventional behaviour: Aggie marries early, takes a lover and is now ready to enter the temple of words in which she was not allowed to penetrate before her marriage. She is now the right person for the empty brilliant world of Buckingham Crescent. The ending of the novel is significant: Aggie enters the circle while Nanda leaves it.

  • 17 Ibid., p. 51.
  • 18 Ibid., p. 280.
  • 19 The Ambassadors, I, 215.

11Although he does not want to choose between the two ways nor to advocate either of them, James clearly shows that Mrs. Brook, for all her corruption, is nearer to life than the Duchess. “‘All’ is soon said!” she somewhere replies when the Duchess affirms that with her little Aggie is all. “Life is composed of many things... of such mingled, intertwisted strands!”17 True, there can be no real culture without standards, discipline, and principles. But what is excellent in the field of art is also dangerous in life and education: an imposed and external morality deprives the individual of all moral richness. “The Duchess isn’t a woman, is she?” Nanda ironizes, “she’s a standard.”18 The English attitude takes individual cases into account, proceeds by rule of thumb and allows a greater freedom and a greater variety. The result is less neat, less perfect but it is more personal and more original. The French system sacrifices individual differences to pre-established rules thereby reinforcing the tradition. Once a girl enters the system she perpetuates the traditional pattern of behaviour. Aggie’s future can easily be foreseen: hers will be the stereotyped story of any French novel or play. Nanda’s future, on the other hand, is unpredictable; it will be entirely personal and will therefore elude all categories. The French system of education and its product, the French jeune fille, throw light on the French tendency to “squeeze things into a formula”: they are ready to sacrifice anything in order to maintain the perfection of the social surface. Though brought up on French lines, Little Aggie is not French. Yet, she is an elder sister of Jeanne de Vionnet in The Ambassadors. Little Jeanne, as “beautifully passive under the spell of transmission”19 as her mother herself, will go through the same process. The Countess, who has a lover, will get rid of her as she had been got rid of by her own mother, and the girl will probably take a lover soon after she marries. The old story will repeat itself again and again, from generation to generation. For such is the price of tradition.


1 The Awkward Age, p. 276.

2 French Poets and Novelists, p. 81.

3 The Art of the Novel, pp. 103-104.

4 Ibid., p. 103.

5 The Awkward Age, p. 49.

6 Ibid., p. 54.

7 Ibid., p. 251.

8 Ibid., p. 277.

9 Ibid., pp. 159-160.

10 Ibid., p. 46.

11 Ibid., p. 51.

12 Ibid., p. 275.

13 The Ambassadors, p. 299.

14 The Awkward Age, pp. 210-211.

15 Ibid., p. 227.

16 Ibid., p. 378.

17 Ibid., p. 51.

18 Ibid., p. 280.

19 The Ambassadors, I, 215.

© Presses universitaires de Liège, 1970

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