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The Awkward Age

In 1899 Henry James wrote to Henrietta Reubell on the subject of his mid-career novel “The Awkward Age,” originally published as serialized fiction in Harper’s Weekly. “I had in view in the novel a certain special social (highly ‘modern' and actual) London group and type and tone.” Reubell herself held a special spot in society, painted by John Singer Sargent, portraitist to stars (or at least to the Edwardian elite), she is described by The Met as the hostess “of a lively salon of cosmopolitan expatriate artists and writers.” James’ wordy portrait of the end-of-century elite's twilight conveyed, as literary critic William F. Hall wrote of the novel in 1968, “the marks of the resultant society [as] leisure, an aimless pursuit of pleasure, and an inordinate preoccupation with wealth.” The awkward age is, from James’ observant American eye, both the clash of the aristocracy with the industrial boom and the innocence of his 18-year-old heroine at the center of it. Framed almost entirely in-scene, pages of dialogue without narrative intervention, the novel is not just a post-Marriage Plot, but a sort of anti-Marriage Plot. The young heroine stands at the precipice of the next century, unmarried yet unblemished, simply unsure of what the future will hold.

The Hotchkiss Library of Sharon's Tuesday Evening Book Group will meet on Zoom on Dec. 13.

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