Although Henry James’s sister Alice was five years his junior, they were the closest among the five James siblings. In her biography of Alice James, Jean Strouse has written:
Alice and Henry shared throughout their lives a deeper intellectual and spiritual kinship than either felt with any other member of the family. Within the family group the second son and only daughter were more isolated than any of the others…. What bound Henry and Alice together was a…profound mutual understanding. Henry had withdrawn early from the competitive masculine fray to a safe inner world.
As a way of escape Henry James found his “safe inner world” through reading and writing; this was not available in the same way to Alice. Henry created a vast imaginative terrain which he inhabited with considerable determination, independence, and strength of will; his only sister, on the other hand, became a reverse image of him—she was a weak patient, dependent on others, suffering from ailments not easy to name and impossible to cure. Henry James did not keep a personal diary and nowhere set down his dreams and fears, but it is clear from his letters about her, especially when she arrived in England in 1884 and after her death eight years later, that Alice’s fate and her suffering preoccupied him a great deal while he also sought fame as a writer and managed a varied and busy social life.
Just as it is possible to read the character of Rosie Muniment, the witty invalid, in The Princess Casamassima as a version of Alice James, it is also possible to read the children Miles and Flora in The Turn of the Screw, written three years after Alice’s death, as versions of the two James siblings, Henry and Alice, who both lived unmarried and in exile in England, oddly abandoned and orphaned and, in certain ways, emotionally unprotected. In February 1895 James wrote in his notebook the idea of a
possible little drama residing in the existence of a peculiar intense and interesting affection between a brother and a sister…. I fancy the pair understanding each other too well—fatally well…. [They] abound in the same sense, see with the same sensibilities and the same imagination, vibrate with the same nerves…. Two lives, two beings, and one experience.
Although he never wrote this story, the notebook entry is fascinating for anyone interested in James’s nonchalant masculinity and Alice’s neurotic inertia, as it is for anyone looking at the richly complex emotional and creative life of Henry James and the diaries and letters of his sister Alice.
In his Memoirs, Tennessee Williams, a writer both homosexual and hypochondriac who also devoted fierce energy to his work while his only sister suffered from a mysterious mental illness, wrote about his relationship to his sister Rose:
I may have inadvertently omitted a good deal of material about the unusually close relations between Rose and me. Some perceptive critic of the theatre …