The Marriage Trap: Henry James’s “The Awkward Age”

Henry James’s The Awkward Age, published in 1899, is a striking, garrulous novel, not without a note of hysteria. It unfolds like a play, in dialogue and drawing-room scenes (sometimes the characters go into the garden); and was written after the failure of James’s play, Guy Domville, in 1895.

Some of you like garrulity, some do not. I admire James’s wordy dialogue, and am not in the least perturbed by periodic sentences. Oratorically and decoratively it all makes sense to me. But the plot is a different thing: we are startled when the ostensible heroine, Nanda, a beautiful, decidedly unpoetic young woman, introduced very late into society by her sexually competitive mother, Mrs. Brooks, turns out to be a manipulator of men. And yet she does it all under a mask of goodness, and indeed she knows no better, and is in a way good.

There is no main character in The Awkward Age; rather, there are main characters. Nanda is offstage in the early scenes, much discussed by the people in her witty mother’s social circle. We get to know the men before the women; in this book particularly, James hints at the possibility of asexuality, or perhaps homosexuality. The first scene features Vanderbank, known as Van, the sophisticated, impecunious lover of Mrs. Brooks. His new friend, Mr. Longdon, a wealthy man in his late fifties, has come to London to revisit his past, and is interested in Nanda, who looks exactly like her grandmother, to whom he once proposed.

Usually James is brilliant in his delineation of women: think Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady, or Maggie Verver in The Golden Bowl. Nanda is elusive, not very interesting, but so very pretty that all admire her. Mr. Longdon mistakes beauty for innocence, though Nanda’s best friend is a fast young woman who is not quite-quite. Soon all the men are hovering around Nanda—Vanderbank, Longdon, and Mitchy, a smart, funny man whose father made his money by trade. I do love Mitchy, the most sincere character in the book!

Of course Mrs. Brooks plots to marry Nanda off, with the help of Mr. Longdon’s money and sponsorship, while at the same time she schemes to keep the men in her circle under her thumb. Nanda also schemes, but not for money. She wants to help her mother. And yet her matchmaking mirrors her mother’s, resulting in a friend’s miserable marriage.

We ask ourselves, What is the deal here, Henry James? I have seldom met so many characters so little interested in sex and marriage. By the end, we understand Nanda’s ambivalence, and the role of her mother in it. In my view, only Mrs. Brooks is truly corrupt, but Nanda has somehow been spoiled, too. And yet Nanda has a chance left: she may escape into innocence, after innocently causing much misery.