• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Admirable Mrs. James

At the end of R.W.B. Lewis’s The Jameses: A Family Narrative there is an appendix, entitled ” The Later Jameses,” which is a godsend for novelists, geneticists, and anthropologists, to name just three groups who might take an interest in what happened to the James family between the death of Henry in 1916 and 1991, the year the book was published. Readers of Susan E. Gunter’s Alice in Jamesland, a fascinating new biography of the formidable wife of William James, which ends in 1922 with her death, will be eager to know, for example, what happened to Alice’s youngest son, Aleck, born in 1890, of whom Gunter paints a tender portrait. Of all of the family, he seemed the most vulnerable and the most sweetly indifferent to the legacy of the name he had inherited. Despite his father’s strict views, Aleck seemed to remain a free spirit.

In Lewis’s book we discover that he became a painter, which was what he wanted to be, and that he remained happily married to the woman of his choice, despite his mother’s early disapproval of her, and that, while his brother Harry “made money” and the next brother Billy “married money,” Aleck devoted his life to his art. Knowing about him is like knowing about the fate of the characters in Middlemarch. Slowly, with these books, the life of each member of the James family is being charted and, by implication, the history of many human types as they circle each other, nourish each other, and damage each other is being written.

Alice in Jamesland matches Jean Strouse’s masterly biography of the other Alice James, William and Henry’s sister—the one who stayed in bed—and Jane Maher’s A Biography of Broken Fortunes, the story of the two younger siblings, Wilkie and Bob, who fought in the American Civil War. Gunter’s book offers an ingeniously plotted microhistory of the period and its domestic life, and throws light on the personalities of two American geniuses. So, also, House of Wits: An Intimate Portrait of the James Family adds to and enriches what we already know from R.W.B. Lewis’s history of the family; from Alfred Habegger’s The Father, a life of Henry James Senior; and from the several biographies of William James and Henry James the novelist, including Leon Edel’s five-volume work. Slowly, the Jameses are matching the Bonapartes and the Kennedys. Every scrap of paper they left unburned is being studied for its significance.

R.W.B. Lewis wrote also, toward the end of his book, of the continued presence of Jameses in Bailieborough in County Cavan, Ireland, until the death of Bobby James there in 1932 at the age of ninety-two. It was from Bailieborough sometime between 1789 and 1794 that William James, later of Albany, set out for the United States, where he made a fortune “based on shrewd merchandizing and opportunistic land speculation in Albany as well as on his stake in the Erie canal,” as Paul Fisher writes. At his death in 1832, William James, a staunch Presbyterian, was one of the richest men in New York State. In his will he attempted to disinherit Henry, the fifth of his eleven children, because of his drinking habits. His inheritance restored, Henry James Senior devoted his life to freethinking, replacing his father’s stern authority with his own immense questing, restless spirit. In 1840, he married Mary Walsh, also of Irish Presbyterian stock, whom he had met at her family’s home in Washington Square in New York.

They had two children in quick succession. William was born in 1842; fifteen months later, Henry James Senior, who had a tendency toward restlessness, wrote to Emerson, whose work he admired and whom he had befriended, that “another fine little boy…preaches to me that I must be settled at home.” This was Henry, who became the novelist.

But the father had no intention of settling at home, much to Emerson’s horror. “Every week,” Emerson wrote, “I hear of some conspicuous American who is embarking for France or Germany and every such departure is a virtual postponement of the traveller’s own work & endeavour.”

In England, Henry James Senior, who had crossed the ocean with his wife, his sister-in-law, a nursemaid, and two infant sons, befriended Thomas Carlyle, who wrote to Emerson:

James is a very good fellow, better and better as we see him more—Something shy and skittish in the man; but a brave heart intrinsically…. He confirms an observation of mine…that a stammering man is never a worthless one.

Jane Carlyle noticed Henry James Senior’s wooden leg, a result of an accident when he was thirteen. He was, she wrote,

not a bad man”…”nor altogether a fool”—but he has only one leg—that is to say only one real available leg—the other…consisting entirely of cork—Now a man needs to take certain precautions…to use some sort of stick instead of trusting to Providence as this Mr James does. So that every time he moves in the room…one awaits with horror to see him rush down among the tea-cups, or walk out thro the window glass, or pitch himself foremost into the grate!

His wife and sister-in-law, she noted, “giggled incessantly, and wore black stockings with light colour[e]d dresses.”

The James ménage moved from London to Paris and then back to England where they rented Frogmore Cottage at Windsor from the Duchess of Kent. It was here that Henry Senior suffered an attack of hysteria, which filled him with fear as, alone in the house, he sensed “some damned shape squatting invisible to [him] within the precincts of the room.” This, Paul Fisher points out, could easily have been caused by drink, but its shivering victim later came to the view that he had undergone what Swedenborg called “a vastation.” Thus the Swedish philosopher replaced Emerson and Carlyle in Henry James Senior’s pantheon of saviors.

Once back in New York and then in Albany, where he moved for two years, the victim of the vastation began to correspond with other Swedenborgians, calling his next son, born in 1845, Garth Wilkinson after one of the most enthusiastic of them. Another son, Bob, was born in 1846. The Jameses finally moved back to New York and into a house, their first, on West Fourteenth Street. Their last child, Alice, was born in 1848.

The father of the five young Jameses did not cease his explorations; he flirted with socialism and with free love; he wrote many letters and gave lectures to whoever would listen to him. His wife, as Paul Fisher makes clear, learned to manage his “health and emotional stability” and ignore his more recondite and peculiar views. Of erotic passion, he wrote to a friend:

Who will then ever be caught in that foolish snare again? I did nothing but tumble into it from my boyhood to my marriage; since which great disillusioning—yes!—I feel that the only lovable person is one who does not permit himself to be loved.

His wife, despite these views of his, which were often expressed loudly and widely, “coped with him—sweetly, deftly, with an apparent innocence about what she was doing,” as Fisher writes. “Under Mary’s influence, Henry tempered passionate unconventionality with Victorian restraint—a paradox he would bequeath to his children.”

It is fascinating to study the creation of two of these children—the writers William and Henry James. It is interesting to watch how much of their ambition and achievement came into being precisely because of the attention their parents brought to bear on them, or how much came into being despite that very energy, or in ways which seemed to evade or oppose its force. As you read these books, it is hard not to wonder if these artists became who they were by some sort of design, from the education they received and from a set of circumstances put in place very early in their lives.

In the second half of the nineteenth century we can watch other sets of siblings also become artists—W.B. Yeats and his brother Jack, the painter, for example; Heinrich and Thomas Mann; Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell. In the case of all four families—the Yeatses, the Manns, the Stephens, the Jameses—there was a dynamic at work that involved a struggle for power, or something like power, between siblings, a sort of fierce ambition within families for recognition and escape. In the case of all four families the parents seemed to shine a light on some of their children and leave the others to their own devices.

In these families where geniuses were nurtured, there were also damaged ones begging for attention. Just as the artists lived in the light, their siblings lurked in the shadows—Lily and Lolly Yeats, for example, who ran the Cuala Press, one of them as clever and talented as her brothers, the other difficult and cantankerous, both uneasy and unfulfilled; or the two Mann sisters, who both committed suicide; or the brothers, step-brothers, and step-sister of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, who seemed to orbit the two artists like lesser planets. Or Wilkie, Bob, and Alice James. In any study of these families, it seems as though the work and theories of Foucault about power and control rather than those of Freud might best explain how things were managed and what the results were.

The formal education of William and Henry James involved what the latter would call “small vague spasms of school,” with many changes and tutors. But in the foreground was their father, at home all the time, filled with ideas and ambitions, never silent. It is perhaps too easy to say for sure that the sense of steely finish and the rigorous edge in the works of William and Henry James arose from the precise lack of this in their father, that the best education they got was from watching him and deciding not to be like him. What the Jameses got from their mother, which remains more difficult to describe, may have been equally influential.

It is also possible that the move back to Europe in 1855 may have made all the difference in taking the two intelligent teenagers, so different from each other, away from any peer group or place that might limit them or give them complacent roots. The family went to London first, then Paris, then Geneva, then London again, then Paris once more, then Boulogne-sur-Mer. They returned to America in 1858 to live at Newport, Rhode Island, but the following year, the entire family plus Aunt Kate (their mother’s sister) returned once more to Geneva. As they moved, Henry Senior seemed to grow increasingly restless. “Alice would remember,” Fisher writes,

that Henry [Senior] abandoned his family, every so often, for a few days at a time. In fact, certain Continental cities would be perpetually marked with the memory of his mercurial departures and his “sudden returns.” Quixotically, fresh from some train or steamer, Henry could reappear “at the end of 36 hours, having left to be gone a fortnight.”

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print