Alice James: A Biography
The Death and Letters of Alice James
Henry James, Letters Volume III: 1883-1895
Alice James’s life was tragic but she dares us to pity her. “You poor child,” wrote her brother William, with the uneasy condescension that characterized his relationship with her, “stifling slowly in a quagmire of disgust and pain and impotence.” She fought back grimly: his letter, so amusing, had made her roar with laughter—“I may not have a group of Harvard students sitting at my feet drinking in psychic truth, [but] I shall not tremble, I assure you, at the last trump.” She might prefer honest dislike from us rather than pity; and indeed this gallant and intelligent woman was spiteful, bitter, and very easily dislikable.
Since her literary remains consist only of the short and uneven Diary there is irony in the very fact that she is now being taken up. What she passionately wanted, and never was granted, was recognition for herself on her own merits; yet the diary might not have survived if she had not been sister to two famous men, and this excellent first biography of her owes something to the fact that she so painfully embodied the thwarted Victorian woman who is being rescued from obscurity. She was a victim, but it would be a pity simply to keep her in that role and sanctify her—for one thing, the James family also produced two male casualties in the younger brothers we never hear of.
The James family pattern was in fact extraordinary in the extravagant pre-Freudian way that is now hard for us to grasp. Exceptionally generous and permissive, the family produced five damaged children of whom two were geniuses; devoted to honesty and the pursuit of happiness, it was united by a deep concern with illness. “She was the perfection of a mother—the sweetest, gentlest, most beneficent human being I have ever known,” Henry could write, and with real conviction, on his mother’s death—while portraying mothers in his fiction as strong and dangerous. (“A large florid stupid seeming lady” was how a New England neighbor described her.) Henry Senior lost a leg as a boy trying to put out a fire; the mysterious injury of Henry Junior’s that has puzzled biographers was acquired in the same way. The father’s conversion to Swedenborgianism was prompted by the terrible “vastation” that came upon him out of the blue, a “damnèd shape” in the corner of the room that reduced him to helpless terror. William, after years of depression and hypochondria, experienced a similar vision—“an epileptic patient whom I had seen in the asylum, a black-haired youth with greenish skin…moving nothing but his black eyes and looking absolutely non-human…. That shape am I, I felt potentially.” Robertson, the youngest James, was a lifelong depressive and alcoholic who spent periods in an asylum, and Wilky James, wounded in the Civil War, died bankrupt and desolate at forty.
As Jean Strouse points out in her biography of Alice James, the family assumed a “bank account” model of health and happiness: when one member of the family was well he was robbing another of his portion. At the same time sensibilities were so acute that there was constant danger of falling ill through sheer sympathy. Intelligence, too, was stored in some central fund, and Alice, Robertson, and Wilky were aware that there was little left in the bank for them. Alice, passionate and demanding by nature, found only one way left to distinguish herself: she became the most spectacular of the family invalids. Behind William’s half-conscious cruelty there was perhaps a sense that his sister was ill on his behalf, that potentially “that shape am I.”
Yet Henry James Senior would seem by modern standards of education to have been the ideal parent, herding the family around Europe to expose them to half a dozen cultures and encouraging them above all “just to be something, free and uncommitted.” All five children wrote glowingly at various times about childhood and family life, but occasionally a different picture is glimpsed. It was the unremembered Wilky who wrote that his problems seemed to stretch back to infancy; he “never saw infants now without discerning in their usually solemn countenance a conviction that they are on their guard and in more or less hostile surroundings.” Henry recalled that “we wholesomely breathed inconsistencies and ate and drank contradictions.” Perhaps the diet was not entirely wholesome, and the command just to be something free and uncommitted was not easy to follow.
Henry Senior’s total surrender to Swedenborgianism in young adulthood clearly released him at a stroke from the conflicts imposed by a severe Calvinistic upbringing. A curious mixture of the occult and the sensible, it offered a benign deity in place of implacable Jehovah and an assurance that all shall be well in spite of our sinful nature.
Essentially the Swedenborgians believed that the new Kingdom of God is irresistibly establishing itself, through a nucleus of the enlightened; meanwhile—as James Senior evidently saw it—our good and bad impulses will work themselves out in their own way, prompted by the spirits of all kinds that surround us (Swedenborg, an eminently sane man in many ways, conversed fluently with them for years). For a man crushed since childhood by fear of damnation this came as a life saver; he could sit back, he felt, and leave the battle to God. Writing to Robertson, who confessed to unclean desires and recurrent despairs, he explained that
I learned to separate myself, as an entirely disinterested party, from the great conflict raging in my bosom, and leave it to God’s perfect providence to settle it as it may for the welfare of all mankind…. I let angel and devil chase each other about the empty chambers of my mind as they will…without my pretending to join in.
The head of the James clan was bringing his children up in full reaction against the narrowness of his own childhood; but the very things that are reacted against tend to rebound back on the next generation, and perhaps his sympathetic explanations left them less than consoled. They grew up under a double-bind that enjoined them to live the freest of lives, so long as they were not unhappy—for unhappiness did not really exist. And though it did not exist, it was of the deepest interest to them all.
Alice recalled an incident when she was nine years old as being crucial in her life. The James children, who were being dragged around Europe in search of the ideal education, were sent out on a visit in the French countryside. They were sent to play in a dusty yard:
Harry [Henry] was sitting in the swing and I came up and stood near by as the sun began to slant over the desolate expanse, as the dreary hrs, with that endlessness which they have for infancy, passed, when Harry suddenly exclaimed: “This might certainly be called pleasure under difficulties!”
She felt, she wrote in her diary many years later, that in that moment she acquired a “new sense whereby to measure intellectual things.” She and Henry, in fact, had begun to crack the family code. There remained a sense of alliance between them; Wilky and Robertson’s alliance was one of common failure; while William uneasily but definitely held on to the position of leader, and to the end of his days patronized “dear old, good, innocent and at bottom very powerless-feeling Harry.”
Alice James was seven when the family began its wanderings round Europe, and twelve when they came back to New England. While her brothers were being deposited in one progressive pensionnat after another, she was taught by governesses; she had no chance to meet other American girls or to put down roots. Her first experience of school was when the Jameses settled, in 1860, in Newport for four years. “Alice is a dear little girl” was a visitor’s report. The dear little girl, however, had already begun what she herself considered a slow self-murder.
She recalls in the Diary the “low, grey Newport sky in that winter of 62-63 as I used to wander about over the cliffs, my young soul struggling out of its swaddling-clothes as the knowledge crystallized within me of what Life meant for me.” What it meant for her—and why it should have been so at this heartbreakingly young age is obscure—was “absorbing into the bone that the better part is to clothe oneself in neutral tints, walk by still waters, and possess one’s soul in silence.” She had, clearly, a passionately imperious nature which refused compromise and which, thwarted, turned in on itself. Henry—who loved and helped her—wrote after her death that “the extraordinary intensity of her will and personality really would have made the equal, the reciprocal life of a ‘well’ person—in the usual world—almost impossible to her—so that her disastrous, her tragic health was in a manner the only solution for her of the practical problem of life—as it suppressed the element of equality, reciprocity, etc.”
Clothed in neutral tints, then, she acted the part of the quiet Bostonian girl of the 1860s. What was actually going on, as she recollected years later in her diary, was that
as I used to sit immovable reading in the library with waves of violent inclination suddenly invading my muscles taking some one of their myriad forms such as throwing myself out of the window, or knocking off the head of he benignant pater as he sat with his silver locks, writing at his table, 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.
At nineteen she had her first serious breakdown. The twelve years between that and an even deeper collapse into illness were punctuated by a trip to Europe, when she astonished all by her robustness, but were otherwise twelve years of waiting: waiting for “offers” that did not come. The letters of these years are a catalogue of friends’ engagements and marriages—and an insidiously spiteful one:
What do you suppose I heard the other day? Nothing less than that those dreadful Loverings had had no end of offers! It was insulting, but satisfactory as explaining the mystery of why the article had been so scarce in Quincy Str., for if such ragged growth as the Miss L-s are what’s courted, its no wonder that a rare exotic like—modesty forbids my saying who—is left unplucked upon its stem, to reach a bloom bordering, to put it delicately, on the full-blown.
This is already the tone of the Diary: dreadfully jocose, self-wounding, poisonous with pain.
At thirty came breakdown again—“that hideous summer of ’78 when I went down to the deep sea, its dark waters closed over me, and I knew neither hope nor peace.” Jean Strouse suggests that William’s marriage (to another Alice) contributed to it; and being thirty, perhaps, marked a kind of official end to “offers.” She was too ill to go to her brother’s wedding; her father sat at her bedside, still serenely “untroubled about the issue of Alice’s troubles…. It is only the burden of the mortal life that she groans under.” This was not the lightest of burdens, and she ruminated suicide. There were recoveries and relapses; Alice’s “attacks” were now the linking theme of her existence.
When Mrs. James died in 1882, Alice (less surprisingly to us than to her contemporaries) rose robustly to the occasion; “her Mother’s death seems to have brought new life to Alice,” wrote her aunt. Robertson, too, in a letter reported that “I sleep beside [father] in mother’s empty bed and we have quiet happy talks at night about mother’s nearness and about our pride in her. The last two weeks of my life have been the happiest I have known.” Curious tributes to this “perfection of a mother.” A year later Henry Senior died and the spinster daughter, on her small inheritance, endured two years of alternate “nerve cures” and torturing solitude—“Those ghastly days, when I was by myself in the little house in Mt. Vernon Street, how I longed to flee in to the firemen next door and escape from the ‘Alone, Alone!’ that echoed through the house, rustled down the stairs, whispered from the walls, and confronted me, like a material presence, as I sat waiting, counting the moments as they turned themselves from today into tomorrow.” In autumn, 1884, she sailed for England and Henry.
The new volume of Henry James’s letters (1883-1895) covers the years in which brother’s and sister’s lives most closely overlapped. In 1884 when she arrived in London he was forty, she thirty-six, with seven and a half years to live—years of rapidly growing invalidism in lodgings, with a nurse for company. Henry’s behavior to her was faultlessly gentle: “His kindness and devotion are not to be described by mortal pen,” she wrote; he turned over his share of their father’s income to her, kept William in touch with her progress, canceled holidays when “attacks” demanded it, visited her, and entertained her. He put something of her brittle gaiety into the invalid Rosy of The Princess Casamassima. There was a small world that they shared; but the larger one of literary bachelordom is far from hers. What is common to his letters and hers is a deep guardedness about the private self.
By the time his sister settled in England Henry James was a success both socially and professionally; his first five novels were behind him, and during the years she was living there he wrote The Bostonians, The Princess Casamassima, The Tragic Muse, and stories and plays. This latest volume of his selected letters also encompasses (mostly after Alice’s death) the dreadful debacle of the stage ventures. It shows James reaching the crest of the wave—of a wave, rather—and starting to decline from it. In 1887 he is writing to William that
I am able to work better, and more, than I have ever been in my life before; it isn’t much, but it’s enough, and at any rate it is so much more than has been the case in former years that I look back with wonder and pity to the wretchedly bad basis I have always been on…. Little by little I have grown less sick…. Now I can do the essential.
Only eight years later, resenting the smallness of his earnings, the magazines’ lack of interest in his short stories, and the humiliations of the stage, he had, he felt, “fallen upon evil days—every sign or symbol of one’s being in the least wanted, anywhere or by anyone, have so utterly failed. A new generation, that I know not, and mainly prize not, had taken universal possession.”
These two glimpses are as much as he ever allows of his feelings; and the letters, with their upholstered urbanity, their voyons un peu and their que diable, their evocation of “the British coal scuttle, the dark back-bedroom, the dim front sitting-room, the Times, the hansom cab, the London dinner” are somewhat stifling in large doses.
His sister’s are stifling in a different way. What we see in the letters she wrote home from England is a desolating picture of endurance, on the invalid couch, “within three feet of the fire. I have 2 suits of winter underclothing a flannel lined wrapper, 2 very warm shawls over my shoulders, a very heavy rug over my legs & these constantly supplemented by a duvet & fur cloak.” A window is left open a crack, and she has “rheumatism in the head” for twelve hours. Sometimes she is wheeled out in her bath-chair. She faints as regularly as clockwork—over a dogfight, a coarse expression of Nurse’s, the results of a local election. And a succession of doctors comes and goes with a succession of diagnoses—“These doctors tell you that you will die, or recover! But you don’t recover.” What they agreed on, in the main, was that her disorders were nervous rather than organic.
Words that describe mental pain regularly acquire a pejorative meaning; Alice James’s symptoms were “hysterical.” Jean Strouse gives a sympathetic and acute account of hysteria and never condescends to her subject’s illness, which was, in essence, despair. Alice James was too intelligent not to know that her sufferings were a protest against her whole life, that she was “an emotional volcano within”; “the difficulty is my inability to assume the receptive attitude,” she wrote to William, “that cardinal virtue in women, the absence of which has always made me so uncharming to & uncharmed by the male sex.” Later on, after reading his paper on “The Hidden Self,” she was to make a remarkable analysis in her diary:
William uses an excellent expression when he says…that the nervous victim “abandons” certain portions of his consciousness…. I have passed through an infinite succession of conscious abandonments and in looking back now I see how it began in my childhood, altho’ I wasn’t conscious of the necessity until ’67 or ’68 when I broke down first, acutely, and had violent turns of hysteria. As I lay prostrate after the storm with my mind luminous and active and susceptible of the clearest, strongest impressions, I saw so distinctly that it was a fight simply between my body and my will, a battle in which the former was to be triumphant to the end…. When all one’s moral and natural stock in trade is a temperament forbidding the abandonment of an inch or the relaxation of a muscle, ’tis a never-ending fight…. So, with the rest you abandon the pit of your stomach, the palms of your hands, the soles of your feet, and refuse to keep them sane when you find in turn one moral impression after another producing despair in the one, terror in the other, anxiety in the third and so on until life becomes one long flight from remote suggestion and complicated eluding of the multifold traps set for your undoing.
From the diary and the letters we see how complete was the split between the two sides of her that were at war. She was brave, and wished to be accepted as such; Henry did so, writing to William that she gave “a very good account of herself…. That she has been able to do it is a proof of strength. But of that sort of strength she has much” (she herself meanwhile described this period as the “long desolate ‘keeping up’ “). One side of her certainly is all stoicism, contemptuous of those weaker than herself. But then there are the amused, detached references to her “goings-off”; the body that fainted, screamed, raved might have been simply a rather tiresome companion that she had to take about with her. Fortitude was a strictly demarcated area; as she comments in the diary, “Which of us has not given within a faint paralytic smile over her ‘Courage,’ however careful her vanity may have been not to dispel the superficial illusion.”
The diary was begun nearly three years before her death; ironically, it seems that by the time she became unmistakably and fatally ill the writing of it had begun to add something to her life, perhaps because it enabled her to look back on her experiences, as in the passage quoted above. It is not primarily self-exploratory—she discusses books, politics, and the small happenings of the sickroom—but there is a sense, in spite of its waverings between archness, self-congratulation, and self-contempt, that she is steadily affirming an identity. What is painful for the reader is the grim, jocose tenacity with which she urges on her death. “I am working away as hard as I can to get dead…,” she writes to her sister-in-law; “The trouble seems to be there isn’t anything to die of, but there are a good many jokes left still, and that’s the main thing after all.”
Eighteen months later there was, after all, something to die of. She had long since been edged into choosing death as the only project she could succeed at; so she died well, calmly recording Henry’s playwriting ventures and the hypocrisies of the British beside the progress of her decline. William wrote telling her how happy he was for her, and she replied in the same vein. Nobody, it seems, wrote to say that they would have liked her to live. This did not escape her: “The universal tendency ‘to be reconciled’ to my passing to the summer land, might cause confusion in the mind of the uninitiated!” It was not all darkness, though: the very end was peaceful; she had found a voice in the Diary; and she had recorded in it that the winter before her cancer was diagnosed she had been happy, having both Henry and her friend Katharine Loring in constant attendance. She had even softened enough to write benignly of her nurse, whom she had long nagged on paper and in action—there was such security, she wrote, in anchoring herself to her “long narrow Fra Angelico surface.”
Her literary brother was truly saddened by her death. Fastidiously he changed “the last breath” to “the breath that was not succeeded by another” in his letter to William. Two years later, his letters record, he was deeply shaken by the death of another woman, the writer Constance Fenimore Woolson, four of whose letters are appended to his in this volume. She says in one of them, discussing Isabel Archer of The Portrait of a Lady, that for women, “one gets hopeless enough sometimes (while watching them) to think that a duller mind, a more commonplace character, is the better gift. Simple goodness, and a gentle affectionate unjudging nature, seem the high prizes for a woman to gain in this lottery of life.” Unlike Alice James, who would have spat at a gentle affectionate unjudging nature, Constance Woolson seems to have half taken the role upon herself: her letters to James, with whom she was in love, are intensely, reproachfully obsequious. He had valued her company very much, and had made it quite clear he had no sexual interest in her; she committed suicide, at fifty-three, by jumping from her bedroom window in Venice.