Alice James: A Biography
by Jean Strouse (1980)
NYRB Classics (2011)
When I read Henry James, I always come away feeling somehow haunted. Ghosts of dreams and passion run through the pages, and physical death, at times, seems almost redundant. Consequently, Jean Strouse’s marvelous Alice James: A Biography struck me as particularly Jamesian.
Alice James was the youngest child of Henry James, Sr. and Mary Walsh James. She had four older brothers, the two oldest being William and Henry, commonly (and rightly) considered two of the greatest minds in American history. In learning about William and Henry I’d heard of Alice, but really I knew nothing about her. I am extremely happy to say that I enjoyed learning about her from Strouse as much (well, almost) as learning anything from William and Henry.
Strouse opens the biography with the control of and insight into the material we soon realize we will find on each page:
“When I am gone,” Alice James wrote to her brother William as she was dying, “pray don’t think of me simply as a creature who might have been something else, had neurotic science been born.”
By neurotic science she meant the science of nervous disorders, since her existence had long been dominated by mysterious illnesses for which no organic cause could be discovered and no cure found. Her prescient plea to William insisted that her life be judged on its own terms, without apology or excuse. At the same time, it recognized the temptation her friends and posterity would feel to explain her somehow, to imagine what she might have been. And in recognizing that temptation, Alice acknowledged that her life appeared to have been a failure.
This sense of failure due to sickness (though not the plea to be judged on her own terms) immediately brought to mind the character Mrs. Costello in Henry James’ “Daisy Miller”: “Mrs. Costello was a widow with a fortune; a person of much distinction, who frequently intimated that, if she were not so dreadfully liable to sick-headaches, she would probably have left a deeper impress upon her time” (my review of “Daisy Miller” — which includes the quote — here). Indeed, Alice James had a brilliant mind which she applied to culture and politics, though her mental and physical capacity couldn’t support it. Of course, we’re talking about society at the end of the nineteenth century: the odds of Alice making use of her brilliant mind, regardless of physical problems, were never going to be good, something Henry James picked up on early.
The James family had the money to chase education wherever they thought they’d find it (and Henry James, Sr. spent his time trying to figure out the best way to parent and educate children), so the James children enjoyed “a sensuous education” from American and Europe. But as much as Alice was encouraged to partake, she was still expected to remain at home, waiting to get married (she never did get married — no signs she ever had any love interest). As much as she loved her father and as much as he supported the development of her intellect, years later, in her now famous diary, “[s]he could not turn the towering rage that comes through in her writing even twenty years after the experience itself against the kind father who had so blithely stimulated and thwarted her.”
While Strouse makes it clear that Alice was highly intelligent (something her two oldest brothers, especially Henry, saw and seemed to appreciate) and was thwarted by her father, this biography doesn’t go so far as to definitively blame her fragile mental state on anyone. Though the relationship caused strain, Alice was obviously close to her father, even going so far as to discuss her suicidal thoughts with him, receiving, in the process, his permission to commit suicide as long as it was truly the best option and she did it in a way that wouldn’t upset everyone. She thanked him for his permission (and he effectively took away her opportunity to rebel against him by committing suicide, since he now permitted it, which seems to have been his intent all along). Alice was also very close to William, and he seemed at times to be strangely flirtatious with her. Strouse downplays the potential connections, but it was in the summer of 1878 when she had the first, and maybe her worst, major breakdown, just before William was married.
Of course, this doesn’t mean Alice and William had anything untoward in their relationship. Alice’s breakdown seemed to coincide with times when someone’s affections threatened to be focused elsewhere, whether it was William or, later, Alice’s dearest friend Katherine Peabody Loring (another relationship where Strouse emphasizes that there is no real evidence that there was anything other than strong mutual, un-sexual affection on both sides). Strouse presents Alice’s infirmity as a means to get people to focus on her, however intentional or not it may have been. Late in her relatively short life (she lived from 1848 and died of breast cancer in 1892), she was too sick to go anywhere and was tended closely by her brother Henry and Katherine Loring. She was simply waiting for death:
“The fact is, I have been dead so long and it has been simply such a grim shoving of the hours behind me as I faced a ceaseless possible horror, since 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; that now it’s only the shrivelling of an empty pea pod that has to be completed.”
It was also late in her life that Alice started her diary, which in large part she dictated to Katherine Loring. This is her literary legacy, and it has been said to be the equal of anything Henry or William wrote (I’ve never read the diary and find this hard to believe, but she certainly shows a sensitivity to the nuances in the world around her and an ability to look coldly inward that we might expect in William and Henry’s writing). William and Henry found out about the diary only after Alice died. Their responses to it are fascinating. Henry’s in particular shows just how insightful that man was as he seems to get Alice’s predicament perfectly:
The diary, he wrote, had impressed him immensely, “but it also puts before me what I was tremendously conscious of in her lifetime — 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.”
As a final note, though Strouse keeps the focus on Alice throughout, this book is also a great look at the entire James family. It doesn’t overlook the two middle brothers, Wilki and Rob, and some of the best portions are spent looking at potential ways Alice’s life affected William and Henry’s work (Strouse later brings up the potential connection between Alice and Mrs. Costello). I enjoyed each page and highly recommend it.