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A Wilde Subtext for The Awkward Age by Paula V. Smith, Grinnell College The Awkward Age had its origin in 1895, a year that began with Henry James's decision to give up writing for the theater and ended with his playwriting rival, Oscar Wilde, disgraced and sentenced to two years' hard labor in prison. As James recovered what Leon Edel calls "his self-esteem ... as an artist" (Edel 90), he would have both to recoup his emotional losses as a playwright and work through the ambivalence he experienced at Wilde's downfall. This he did in The Awkward Age, a novel whose oddities of structure can be largely explained as a tension between the demands of the two works most closely associated with the Wilde scandal: The Importance of Being Earnest and The Picture of Dorian Gray. During the years that James worked mainly as a playwright, 1890 to 1895, he attended performances of Wilde's plays, including A Woman of No Importance , An Ideal Husband, and the opening night oÃ- Lady Windermere's Fan (HJL III, 372-73, 509-10; Edel 44). In a series of letters written from Paris late in 1893, James, apparently concerned about possible charges of plagiarism, anxiously asked friends whether A Woman of No Importance did not seem to them uncomfortably similar in plot to his own play Tenants, written three years earlier but still unproduced (Edel 45). Naturally, James also compared Oscar Wilde's success to London's reception of his own plays. He perceived the rivalry between them as a competition in which only one could win, as we can see from his account of going to see An Ideal Husband on the opening night of his own new play, Guy Domville: I sat through it and saw it played with every appearance (so far as the crowded house was an appearance) of complete success, and that gave me the most fearful apprehension ... as I walked away across St. James's Square to learn my own fate, the prosperity of what I had seen seemed to me to constitute a dreadful presumption of the shipwreck of "Guy Domville". . . . Even then the full truth was, "mercifully," not revealed to me; the truth that in a short month my piece would be whisked away to make room for the triumphant Oscar. OEdel 88) Indeed, faced with the failure of James's play, which had been received with boos and catcalls, the manager rushed into rehearsal a new play by Wilde: The Importance of Being Earnest. James was, therefore, especially and humiliatingly conscious of Earnest, though his references to it in letters do not make clear whether he actually saw it performed during its 1895 run. It is likely, if not certain, that he was curious enough to do so; the play was charged with considerable personal significance for 200 The Henry James Review him, coinciding as it did with his pronouncement in a letter to Elizabeth Robins that "one of the most detestable incidents in my life has closed" (Robins 170). As Edel comments, "He had pronounced the incident closed; but he could not stop the pain as easily as he could lower a curtain on his play. The behavior of the audience at St. James had struck at the very heart of his self-esteem, his pride of craft, his sovereignty as an artist ... in one of his letters of this time he invoked Dante. He had been, he said, plunged into 'the nethermost circle of the Inferno'" (Edel 90). This crisis of artistic "sovereignty" and self-esteem was linked directly to Wilde, whose success James correlated with his own failure. If Wilde's plays were fated to succeed, his own would fail: "On the basis of their being plays, or successes," he insisted, "my thing is necessarily neither" (HJL III, 509). If the London stage was not big enough for both of them, it seemed that James would be the one to leave town by sunset. Instead, as it happened, even while James took up his "own old pen" of fiction writing, the demise of Wilde's reputation was already beginning (NB 179). On March 4, 1895, scarcely more than two...


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