As he does in so much of his fiction, Henry James in The Awkward Age focuses his attention on the nature of social relationships in his adopted homeland, England. In this work, he does not, however, contrast the sophistication of European society with the more naïve, but at times morally superior, American scene. Instead, The Awkward Age is a scathing portrait of the hypocrisy and self-interest of British society, where young women, at that “awkward age” between girlhood and full-fledged adulthood, are especially vulnerable to the machinations of older women and men who wish to use them for their own purposes.
The unlikely hero of the story, Mr. Longdon, is not a member of the London society that James castigates. Well into middle age, Mr. Longdon returns to London from his country estate to reacquaint himself with the family of a woman he once loved deeply, whose memory he still cherishes though she is long dead. The society he finds is far different from the one he remembers from his youth. The contrast between past and present and the loss Mr. Longdon feels for the values he holds sacred are themes James plays upon throughout the work. Mr. Longdon, too, is at an “awkward age,” too old to pursue amorous relationships with women but young enough to be stirred by the beauty of a girl such as Nanda. His solution is to become a kind of surrogate father for her, a knight who will rescue her from the metaphorical dungeon in which she is trapped by her scheming mother and the men who want her for all the wrong reasons.
Three women dominate the novel: Mrs. Brookenham, her daughter Nanda, and the shadow of Lady Julia. Mr. Longdon’s reaction to each of them is a spur for what little action the novel contains. For the aging hero, the grace, poise, and moral rectitude he associates with Lady Julia have degenerated into Mrs. Brookenham’s scheming and corruption. In Nanda, Mr. Longdon sees the reincarnation of her grandmother, and he believes it is his mission in life to save the young woman from the life she is destined to lead if she remains in the social circle dominated by her mother and her father’s cousin, the duchess. These two femmes fatale, who are constantly working both as matchmakers and go-betweens for themselves and others in...
(The entire section is 933 words.)