James, Alice (1848–1892)

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James, Alice (1848–1892)

Youngest of the five children of Henry James, Sr., and a chronic invalid, whose diary and letters shine a revealing light on the life of a Victorian "hysteric" and on her exceptional family. Born Alice James in New York, New York, on August 7, 1848; died in Campden Hill, Kensington, England, on March 6, 1892; daughter of Henry James, Sr. (1811–1882, a writer and lecturer) and Mary Walsh James (1810–1882); sister of William James (1842–1910, a philosopher and psychologist) and Henry James (1843–1916, a novelist and short story writer); never married; no children.

Selected writings:

(edited and with an introduction by Leon Edel) The Diary of Alice James (NY: Dodd, Mead, 1964).

Alice James was the youngest of five exceptional children born to a prosperous Victorian

family in New England. Her two elder brothers were among the premier intellectuals of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, William James as a philosopher and psychologist, Henry James, Jr., as a novelist. The two younger brothers, Robertson and Garth, fought in the Civil War and ran an experimental farm in the Reconstruction South. Alice, by contrast, published nothing, had no career, and spent most of her life as an invalid, dying at the age of 44 in an English sanitarium. However, her many brilliant letters and the diary she kept during the last three years of her life have been recognized as shrewd commentaries on the famous family, and on the nature of an invalid woman's life in that era.

Alice James was born in New York in 1848. Her family, of Irish Protestant descent, traveled widely through Europe during her childhood, and the five children were educated by a succession of governesses and educational experimenters in London, Paris, and Geneva. Alice was as fluent in French as in English by the age of eight. Their father, Henry James, Sr., was himself a writer and lecturer, open-minded, unconventional, a friend of the Transcendentalists and a convert to Swedenborgianism. He was an eager traveler despite having lost one of his legs in an accident during his teens, but although he was intellectually daring he shared the common 19th-century view that women were by nature more virtuous but less intelligent than men. He thought of virtue as something that men had to strive for but women were endowed with from birth. Her mother Mary Walsh James was more down to earth than the often impractical Henry, Sr., but Alice sought above all her father's good opinion. She was teased good-naturedly by her four older brothers, who kept up a bantering tone with each other throughout their lives. William described her as a "cherry-lipped, apricot-nosed, double-chinned little Sister."

The James family returned to America and settled at Newport, Rhode Island, just before the Civil War, moving to Cambridge, Massachusetts, when the war ended. Alice would remain there until her parents' deaths in the early 1880s. Her health appears to have been fine in childhood, but from the onset of puberty she suffered increasingly from stomach pains, fainting fits, facial neuralgia, and even occasional paralysis, breaking down completely at the age of 19. A certain "delicacy" was fashionable in young ladies, and fictional heroines (including those of her brother Henry) often had ailments which enhanced their beauty. The reality of a nervous breakdown was another matter—terrifying and disorienting. Psychoanalysis had not yet been developed, and numerous doctors pondered her symptoms. Over the following decades, her anxious parents tried dozens of experimental remedies but although she often rallied for a time, she inevitably relapsed. She came to regard herself as a classic Victorian "hysteric," one whose illness seemed more serious than the identifiable symptoms. Sometimes something as slight as an oath or angry remark could make her faint away. She wrote that she was unable to work in a sustained way without the danger of a "violent revolt in my head," which, "from just behind the eyes … feels like a dense jungle into which no ray of light has ever penetrated." Her brothers Robertson and William also suffered from nervous ailments—a breakdown made William question his vocation to medicine in the late 1860s.

Some of Alice's recoveries were quite long lasting, but never complete, and she seems to have realized that her life would be restricted. She played an active role in a women's sewing bee that made clothes for the Boston poor in the late 1860s and early 1870s. Comprised of the sisters of many prominent Bostonians, it doubled as a social and intellectual group—she served a term as its president in the early 1870s. As the members married one by one, however (the group had begun as a teenagers' medical support group during the Civil War), she was left behind, aware that her health was making her marginal to the usual woman's life of the era. Her letters sometimes suggest that she was jealous of her contemporaries' marriages, and to one friend who was being courted in London, she admitted: "I am becoming ardently matrimonial, and if I could get any sort of man to be impassioned about me I should not let him escape." Such a man never appeared, and she tried to compensate by finding work. Growing more serious about the possibility, and necessity for, social reform, she befriended Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (1804–1894), a leading figure among female reformers (much satirized by Alice's father and brothers), and joined her in running a local charity, the Female Humane Society.

In 1872, when she was 24, Alice went on a five-month tour of Europe with Henry Jr. and her maternal Aunt Kate (Catherine Walsh ). It was Alice's first sojourn in Europe since the family's return to America, when she had been 12. She proved to be an eager tourist and thrived on her journeys through England, France, Switzerland, Italy, Austria, and southern Germany. Henry, delighted in her apparently robust health during the trip, wrote that "change … seems to me to have been the great agent in her marvelous improvement." She was, he wrote, "like a person coming at last into the faculty and pleasure of movement and it is the most active part of her life here which does her the most good and leaves the most substantial effects behind it." Her biographer Jean Strouse comments that of all her brothers Henry, the novelist, was closest to her and that "throughout their lives they shared a deeper intellectual and spiritual kinship than either felt with any other member of the family." Although he was not troubled by the nervous debility from which Alice suffered, Henry also remained unmarried and apparently celibate throughout his life and felt unable to compete in the "manly" world of that era. In the spring of 1873, back in America, Alice was well enough to make a walking tour all the way from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to New York City.

James, Mary Walsh (1810–1882)

American society woman and mother of the brilliant Jameses. Born in New York, New York, in 1810; died in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1882; daughter of James Walsh and Elizabeth (Robertson) Walsh; married Henry James, Sr., in 1840; sister ofCatherine Walsh (b. 1812); children: William James (1842–1910, a philosopher and psychologist); Henry James (1843–1916, a novelist); Garth Wilkinson James (1845–1883); Robertson James (1846–1910);Alice James (1848–1892, a diarist).

In 1875, she even briefly got a job at Anna Eliot Ticknor 's Society to Encourage Studies at Home. In an age when even wealthy young women had few educational opportunities, it was an attempt to give them a form of education by correspondence course, and Alice—widely if informally educated, and extremely interested in history—became a history teacher via correspondence. In the year of her 30th birthday, 1878, however, she suffered another severe breakdown, was terribly depressed, and even contemplated suicide, which she discussed with her father. He calmly approved it for anyone who found life unendurable, knowing that in practice it was not something she would attempt. She continued to discuss it in letters and conversation but never made an attempt. In her view, a suicide openly admitted (rather than hushed up, as was then usual) would be a kind of social triumph. "What a pity to hide it," she wrote, "every educated person who kills himself does something towards lessening the superstition. … How heroic to be able to suppress one's vanity to the extent of confession that the game [of life] is too hard." She hated the perpetual uncertainty of her health, recognizing the inability of herself or anyone to diagnose it adequately, and despising the numerous doctors who tried to make sense of her ailment. She wrote of the "ignorant asininity of the medical profession in its treatment of nervous disorders" and of "those doctors who tell you that you will die or recover." After years of invalidism and hearing declarations like this, she wrote: "I am neither dead nor recovered."

In 1882, her mother, who throughout her life had been the most dependably healthy and stable force in the family, suddenly died at the age of 72. It had the effect of causing Alice to rally to the care of her father, who was suddenly alone, and for a year she was bright and vigorous. But he died too, apparently having lost the will to live without his wife, and as soon as he had gone Alice relapsed into her own sick bed. After experimenting with several unsatisfactory cures, she traveled, in 1884, to England, with the encouragement of Henry and in the company of her loyal friend Katherine Loring , whom she had met in connection with the correspondence school. Alice shifted between London and a sanitarium in Leamington Spa, in the Midlands, but never again got back to America. Loring's sister Louisa , another invalid, had come on the voyage too, and the James brothers realized that Alice was jealous of her as a rival. Luckily for Alice, Louisa recovered, enabling Katherine to turn her full affection on her friend. Henry James wrote to William: "I may be wrong in the matter but it rather strikes me as an effect that Katherine Loring has upon her—that as soon as they get together Alice takes to her bed." Henry, as close to Alice as ever and her most regular visitor, was grateful to Loring for her fidelity, but could not help noticing the way in which she, in effect, authorized his sister's permanently sickly condition.

It was in England that Alice began her diary—at first more of a commonplace book in which she copied out snatches of verse, sayings, and aphorisms. On May 31, 1889, she began writing it as a journal, remarking that writing a little every day might help her "lose a little of the sense of loneliness and desolation which abides with me." The diary was not entirely private because often, when she was too sick to write, she dictated it to her nurse or Katherine Loring. It included numerous clippings from the newspapers, on which she then commented acerbically, and it was packed with humorous remarks about the odd ways of the English among whom she was now living. She reported a conversation with her nurse about the difference between American and British women: the nurse told her that American women were "far less 'aughty." She found much that was crass and vulgar about Britain, and was dismayed by the passivity of the lower classes, who, as it seemed to her, let themselves be trodden down by people they wrongly thought of as their superiors. Although she admitted that living on the income from investments as she did made her a "bloated capitalist," she was nevertheless glad that a large May Day demonstration of working men "made emperors, kings, presidents and millionaires tremble." And of the British Empire, then expanding rapidly in Africa and Asia, she wrote that Britons were ridiculous in their "conviction that outlying regions [of the world] are their preserves, [and that] they alone of the human races massacre savages out of pure virtue." She followed with interest the debate, then in progress, over Home Rule for Ireland, from which her ancestors had emigrated to America, and sympathized with Irish nationalism.

Her diary's engaged and ironic tone, and the detached way in which she writes about herself and her illness, make her seem to modern readers strong and shrewd rather than frail and fainting. It includes many passages in which she attempts to diagnose the battle going on between her body and her will. Looking back on her earlier episodes "of hysteria," she wrote that she had always been self-aware, always struggling with one half of her mind to maintain control over the other half. "It used to seem to me that the only difference between me and the insane was that I had not only all the horrors and suffering of insanity, but the duties of doctor, nurse, and strait-jacket imposed upon me too."

During her better phases, she welcomed visitors, including distinguished members of the American expatriate community in England and English admirers of America, such as Fanny Kemble . Most of them found her witty, entertaining, and a good companion. Her brother William wrote that she rebuffed all expressions of sympathy, "having her own brave philosophy, which was to keep her attention turned to things outside her sick-room and away from herself."

When Alice James was diagnosed in 1891 with a breast cancer tumor, she wrote about it pleasurably in her diary, "I have longed for some palpable disease, no matter how conventionally dreadful a label it might have," and a few days later she wrote about it as an achievement comparable to her brothers' books and plays. She died on March 6, 1892, having kept her diary to the bitter end, writing in it within a few hours of her final lapse into unconsciousness. Her brother Henry, who was there, also wrote a long description of her last days, with his customary literary vividness, in a letter to William. Loring took Alice's ashes back to America where they were buried in a family plot in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Katherine Loring later typed the diary manuscript, as Alice had requested, and gave a copy to each of the three surviving brothers. She believed that Alice had wanted to have it published, but Henry discouraged the project because several passages consisted of London gossip he had passed on to Alice, which she in turn had exaggerated for dramatic effect. He feared that the book, if published, would alienate half his fashionable friends at a stroke. Even so, he admired it as "a revelation of a moral and personal picture, heroic in its individuality, its independence—its face-to-face with the universe … and the beauty and eloquence with which she often expresses this." In light of his anxieties, the diary was not published until 1934, after the death of nearly all the principal characters involved. At first, it was regarded chiefly as a source for studies of the two famous brothers, but the creation of feminist scholarship in the 1970s and 1980s made Alice James a source of fascination in her own right. Feminists have been particularly struck by Alice James' way of finding her special niche in society and Ruth B. Yeazell has wittily entitled her study The Death and Letters of Alice James in parody of the common Victorian title "Life and Letters of.…" Alice James appears, she says, to have turned her death into a kind of virtuoso experience of its own.

sources and suggested reading:

Edel, Leon, ed. The Diary of Alice James. NY: Dodd, Mead, 1964.

Matthiessen, F.O. The James Family. NY: Knopf, 1947.

Strouse, Jean. Alice James: A Biography. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1980.

Yeazell, Ruth B. The Death and Letters of Alice James. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1981.


Houghton Library, Harvard University

Patrick Allitt , Professor of History, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia

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James, Alice (1848–1892)

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