Places: The Awkward Age

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1899

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: 1890’s

Places DiscussedMrs. Brookenham’s drawing room

Mrs. Awkward Age, TheBrookenham’s drawing room. Central meeting place in the home of the Brookenhams’ home at Buckingham Crescent in London. It is not the room itself but what happens in it that provides its great symbolic importance for Henry James and his characters. What happens in the room is mainly talk–talk that is described by the characters who engage in it as free and outrageous. However, talk leads to knowledge, and knowledge can violate the innocence of the young Victorian woman Nanda Brookenham and thereby ruin her chances in the marriage market.

James places an almost salacious symbolic importance on the fact that Nanda must “come down” if she is to become a regular visitor to the drawing room, instead of remaining safely upstairs in her bedroom. He and his characters view Nanda’s passage from innocence to knowledge as a mini-fall, both in the modern sense and in the popular Victorian image of the “fallen woman.” Only in one of his novels could a fall be accomplished by talk alone; however, from the beginning of his writing career James set a much higher store in the workings of consciousness than in those of action.


Mertle. Country house let to Mitchy, a friend of Nanda’s mother and one of Nanda’s suitors, in which most of the novel’s characters gather for a getaway. Despite the house’s beauty, it becomes the subject of a debate between Nanda and Mr. Longdon, who cannot understand the modern carelessness that allows a family casually to rent its own home to unknown guests, who heedlessly tramp through it without even knowing to whom it belongs. To Longdon, a country estate signifies order and tradition. Nanda, on the other hand, is excited by the confusion and breakneck pace of modern life, which inspires Longdon to invite her to give his home and his own kind of life a try.

Longdon’s country house

Longdon’s country house. Suffolk home of Mr. Longdon. A beautiful museum surrounded by an edenic garden located far from the corrupting influences of the city and modern life, this country house becomes Nanda’s retreat from her fate of becoming more and more soiled with knowledge. Nanda herself is already too tainted to be the Victorian ideal of womanhood; however, unlike her unapologetically modern mother, she has a great appreciation for the more mannerly past represented by Longdon and his house, with its “old windows and doors, the tone of old red surfaces, the style of old white facings, the age of old high creepers, the long confirmation of time.” Longdon’s house is also full of precious old things, through which Nanda is permitted to rummage. In one sense, she becomes a rightful and spiritual inheritor of the treasures of the past by taking up residence in Longdon’s home; in another sense, she joins Longdon in a willful retreat from reality–and particularly from sex, as the frequently repeated word “old” also painfully reminds readers.

Tishy Grendon’s house

Tishy Grendon’s house. Hill Street, London, home of Nanda’s racy best friend, Tishy Grendon, who represents the kinds of risqué influences to which Nanda is exposed in London. As everything in Longdon’s home is old, and therefore harmless, so everything in Tishy Grendon’s home is French, which is to say, improper. The walls of her house are “covered with delicate French mouldings . . . so fair that they seemed vaguely silvered; the low French chimney had a French fire. There was a lemon-colored stuff on the sofa and chairs, a wonderful polish on the floor that was largely exposed, and a copy of a French novel in blue paper on one of the spindle-legged tables.”

BibliographyEdel, Leon. Henry James: A Life. 1st ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1985. Abridgment of Edel’s definitive study of the novelist. Comments about the writing and publication of The Awkward Age; discusses James’s handling of character development, especially that of the middle-aged Longdon and the two young women whose stories are central to the plot.Gard, Roger, ed. Henry James: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968. Includes excerpts from four reviews of The Awkward Age by James’s contemporaries. Cites both British and American sources and records the mixed success of the work among nineteenth century readers.Jones, Granville H. Henry James’s Psychology of Experience: Innocence, Responsibility, and Renunciation in the Fiction of Henry James. Paris: Mouton, 1975. Uses The Awkward Age to explore “the position of innocence in the structure, form, style, and substance of James’s fiction.” Claims that the novel shows James’s attempt to explore the ramifications of change and loss of innocence.Macnaughton, William R. Henry James: The Later Novels. Boston: Twayne, 1987. A chapter on The Awkward Age provides commentary on the genesis of the novel, examines James’s sources, and discusses the ambiguities created by the author’s use of dramatic form for his story. Also explores the nature of James’s development of central characters.Sicker, Philip. Love and the Quest for Identity in the Fiction of Henry James. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980. Studies the “evolving conception of romantic love” in James’s fiction. Extended discussion of The Awkward Age focuses on the inability of the middle-aged protagonist to adjust to changes wrought by time.
Categories: Places