The Diary of Alice James
edited by Leon Edel
Dodd, Mead, 241 pp., $5.00
The Diary of Alice James makes exacting demands of those readers who are not content with sickroom gossip or a few random anecdotes about William and Henry, but who wish to arrive at a responsible evaluation of the diarist, and the intellectual or spiritual style with which she occupied her niche in the James family. The task is not easy because for most readers Alice James will not, on first acquaintance, seem an appealing personality. There is often an aggressive shrillness in her voice which, coupled with an overdeveloped frankness, is sometimes accompanied by a slightly sour smell. But even on the level of the jeering invalid, she can often rise to the delightful and the wittily just.
Reading her diary after her death, Henry James wrote to William that “she was really an Irishwoman.” He was not, one would guess, referring to her ardent devotion to Irish Home Rule, which is a frequent subject in these pages, but to certain mannerisms of speech and tone one suspects most readers today must find slightly distressing, and which might be described as a blend of self-irony and unpalatable whimsy. Perhaps it is this “Irishness” as much as the uneventfulness of an invalid’s life that persuades her to fill space with “funny” stories. Is is sometimes difficult to be amused:
A young man took his young woman to a restaurant and asked her what she would have to drink with her dinner. “I guess I’ll have a bottle of champagne.” “Guess again!” quoth he.
A woman was brought to the London hospital the other day with a very bad bite on her arm. The doctor asked whether she had been bitten by a dog. “No, sir, ‘twas another lydy did it.”
Nor is this quality of “Irishness” (if that is what it is) enhanced by her humorous habit of frequently substituting the pronoun me for the possessive my.
Alice James possessed an extraordinary moral courage, but one becomes aware of this slowly, and only as one nears the end of her diary, because it is often obscured by an intrusive stoicism and denigration of pain more nearly related to vanity and self-aggrandizement than anything else. The pulling of a tooth provides an occasion for this quality to be put on view:
The dentist seized my face in his two hands and exclaimed, “Bravo, Miss James!” and Katherine and Nurse shaking of knee and pale of cheek went on about my “heroism” whilst I, serenely wadded in that sensational paralysis which attends all the simple rudimentary sensations and experiences common to man, whether tearing of the flesh or of the affections, laughed and laughed at ‘em.
This pose of the doughty little woman who comes through without a fuss where strong men break causes one to remember with pleasure and gratitude those richly orchestrated epical moans of self-pity Coleridge was in the habit of posting to his friends whenever he was suffering from atonic gout, looseness of the bowels, or the …
Letters December 17, 1964