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  • "One crowded hour of glorious life":Growing Up and Growing Old in The Awkward Age
  • Sarah Wadsworth (bio)

On May 12, 1900, Henry James wrote to his brother William from his new home in Rye, Sussex, in response to news of William's poor health. After wishing him a prompt release from a "mysterious visitation" of "fever and bleeding" and "a quiet and propitious period" of convalescence, the novelist divulged his own mundane yet surprising news: "I have totally shaved off my beard, unable to bear longer the increased hoariness of its growth: it had suddenly begun these three months since, to come out quite white and made me feel, as well as look so old. Now, I feel forty and clean and light."1 The revelation is as remarkable for its symbolic value as for its informational pith. Having recently marked his fifty-sixth birthday, James was keenly, if not painfully, conscious that he had passed into the "elderly" stage of life: in words he had recently used to describe Mr. Longdon in The Awkward Age (1899), "he had … conclusively doubled the Cape of the years—he would never again see fifty-five." In positing fifty-five as "the Cape of the years," James establishes the upper reach of "that bleak headland" of middle age, just as in confiding to William that cleanshaven he "feel[s] forty," he implicitly locates its temporal baseline.2 Perhaps it is no coincidence that the dramatic alteration of James's appearance occurred amid a historical transformation no less striking. James, who had worn a beard since the Civil War, faced the turn of the twentieth century "clean and light," delighting in a paradoxical sense of freshness and youth that defied his own advancing age; meanwhile the historic turn of the twentieth century created an atmosphere of cultural newness and modernity even as the advancing years announced that the world was only getting older. [End Page 265]

The dual meaning of "age" as a noun signifying both a historical epoch and the duration, to date, of an individual's life underscores an implicit resonance between time of life and historic time. In modern American fiction, this resonance is nowhere more conspicuous than in The Awkward Age. As Vivien Jones points out, the "awkwardness" to which the title alludes could refer to teenaged Nanda Brookenham, her middle-aged mother, or the elderly Mr. Longdon; it could refer equally to a "self-conscious age of transition" corresponding to the book's time of publication in the penultimate year of the nineteenth century.3 Pamela Thurschwell elaborates on the relationship between individual age and historical age in this novel, explaining that the title's double entendre invites inquiry into the construction of age as a signifier of personal identity: "The novel's titular pun equates the awkward, individual, in-between time of adolescence with the awkward, collective, in-between time of the fin de siècle."4 For Thurschwell, this duality "lead[s] us both towards the turn-of-the-century 'invention' of the modern adolescent, and towards James's exploration of the culturally constructed nature of age as an identity category."5

Thick with inuendo and misalliances and charged with an atmosphere of illicit sexuality and betrayal, The Awkward Age has been read primarily in terms of the compromised marriage plot precipitated by Nanda's coming of age. It is not solely a story of Nanda's transition to adulthood, however. It is, more generally, a novel about age, change, and the impact of ever-changing age on personal subjectivity and interpersonal relationships at any stage of life. The intersections of gender, generation, and the social and affective dimensions of growing up and growing old loom large in this novel as it sketches Mr. Longdon's connection to three generations of women, beginning with Lady Julia and (by way of her daughter, Mrs. Brook) concluding with her granddaughter Nanda. Although courtship and marriage structure the overall narrative arc, each scene of the novel invites us to think about how age and stage of life shape consciousness, experience, and social interaction. The novel explores age and aging persistently but often obliquely through an objective narrative mode in...


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pp. 265-288
Launched on MUSE
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