Alice James, Gifted Neurotic and Writer

According to her biographer, Jean Strouse, Alice James knew she would be judged a failure: “She was not socially useful, particularly virtuous, or even happy.” Yet she wanted her life to mean something, even if it was that she was the most successful of the James family invalids. “When I am gone pray don’t think of me simply as a creature who might have been something else, had neurotic science been born,” she wrote to her brother William. As F.O. Matthiessen (yes, that one) noted in his study The James Family, Alice James was gifted at explicating her own neuroses. And her neuroses were her life: she suffered her first breakdown at nineteen, and her condition was called, “at various points in her life, neurasthenia, hysteria, rheumatic gout, suppressed gout, cardiac complication, spinal neurosis, nervous hyperesthesia, and spiritual crisis.”

A letter from her brother Henry urged his sister: “Try not to be ill — that is all, for in that there is a failure.” Henry James’s biographer Leon Edel disputes this word choice. Did Henry mean to write future instead of failure? Strouse wryly asserts that future and failure amount to the same thing in the James family, especially in Alice’s case. “The Jameses, isolated during her childhood by money, travel, and the particular chemistry of their personalities, constituted a self-consciously ‘special case,’ self-enclosed and self-referring.” Alice had no consistent schooling or access to friends; even by nineteenth-century standards she was not very “accomplished.” Her mother, the “incarnation of banality,” was no match for the influence of her father Henry Sr., whose powerful ideas Alice could never quite come to accept nor fully reject, leaving her in a netherworld of frustration that had nowhere to go but inward.

Jean Strouse, writing in the wake of feminist biography about the sister who had been relegated to a minor character in the biographies of her more famous brothers, penetrated the dynamics of the James household at her own peril. In a lecture she gave about writing Alice James (1980, now resissued by the New York Review Books Classics imprint), she talked about how difficult it was to figure out the Jameses: partly because “what the Jameses had to say about each other was so opaque, elusive and confusing that it practically needed a translator,” and partly because what went on inside the family was so cloistered. Although Alice and Henry both described their childhood as utopian, and their mother as perfect Strouse quickly figured out their accounts simply could not be true: How could people who suffered from such misery as adults have had that mother, that father, that childhood?

Strouse also disavows strict “psychobiography,” its “jargon and smug reductionism,” yet as the editor of a 1974 collection called Women & Analysis: Dialogues on Psychoanalytic Views of Femininity, she certainly knows her Freud and his critics. When she says, “It’s hard now to see such polymorphous suffering as unrelated to the unique experience of this particular family,” her “polymorphous” — meaning occurring in many different forms — is rooted in Freudian ideas. “Polymorphous suffering” is also a fitting description of Strouse’s experience as Alice James’s biographer.

Biographers and their subjects often meet by accident, and this was certainly the case with Strouse and Alice James. She stumbled upon Alice James as a subject altogether by chance. While reading about Sara and Gerald Murphy, denizens of the Lost Generation in Calvin Tomkins’s book, Living Well is the Best Revenge, the Murphys pay a visit to Alice James in Cambridge. She later found out the Alice James mentioned there was William’s wife, but she had become curious about the other Alice, Henry and William’s sister. She found a copy of F.O. Matthiessen’s book, “which is really about William and Henry and Alice and which takes her mind seriously, using her diary and her letters. And just at that point I needed someone of Matthiessen’s stature to say, ‘Yes, this is an interesting person; you’re right to be curious about her.’ Still I hesitated because her life was so depressing and limited — I was afraid I couldn’t stand to be around her for what I thought would take two years. (It turned out to be five.)”

Strouse’s fear that there was “no exciting plot line to Alice’s life” was valid. But, Strouse said, she found enough things to make it interesting, a “family of characters — two real geniuses, a couple of other, ne’er-do-well brothers, a father who was something of a genius himself — and they were all absorbed with one another and with their own experiences, so they wrote all the time, and you had a wonderful record of what was going on because they were amazingly articulate.” Feminism informed Strouse’s decision as well: “I wanted to know what it was like to be not a famous person — and a girl — in this family, how social history questions about femininity in the late nineteenth century came into Alice’s story, all about the nervous disorders that she was struggling with, and how science was thinking about those physical/psychological problems.” The book, as she said, took five years, and was challenging, as Alice was a difficult person. Strouse grew to realize as she neared the end that she “didn’t want it to have such a sad ending,” she wanted to write Alice a better life. But biographers are not fabulists; they don’t have the luxury of happy endings.

Strouse is explicit in her book about building on Edel’s work as well as Matthiessen’s, specifically using Edel’s ideas about the bond between Henry and his sister. She writes, “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.” While eldest brother William looked to their father and the outside world for approval, and middle children Wilky and Bob clung to each other, “what bound Alice and Henry together was a different kind of exclusion, and a profound mutual understanding. Henry had withdrawn early from the competitive masculine fray to a safe inner world, taking the part of the docile, easy, ‘good’ James child.” Henry had unknowingly occupied the “girl’s place,” which he and Alice then had to share, somewhat uneasily.

In his biography, Edel dubbed this phenomenon Henry’s “spiritual transvestitism.” Strouse explicitly ties it to Alice: Henry James found it was safer to be a little girl than a boy, and thus gravitated toward intelligent women like his sister his whole life. Alice “met her novelist brother at a kind of intersection between masculinity and femininity, each participating imaginatively in aspects of what the other possessed by nature and social decree.” With Bob and Wilky essentially treated as a unit, and William under particular scrutiny as the eldest, Henry and Alice formed their own alliance against the sometimes-brutal treatment of the others.

Alice’s relationships with her other male relatives ranged from strained to abusive. Strouse explains that teasing was “a favorite form of social exchange in the James household.” Much of Alice’s particular suffering was because she was a girl and could not adequately defend herself or fight back. One example of this is the story of when the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray came to dinner and pronounced, upon seeing the eight-year-old Alice’s outfit, “Crinoline — I was suspecting it! So young and depraved!” leaving the girl horrified by her unwitting transgression and mortified by her family’s laughter. Edel uses the incident to introduce Alice, which he significantly neglects to do until the second volume of his five-volume biography of Henry James.

Don’t Ask Alice

But Strouse sees it as one of many betrayals at the hands of the men in her family, who often used Alice’s unworldliness to gain advantage over her. Wilky and Bob, in the way of older brothers everywhere, enjoyed “inflicting corporal punishment” on their little sister. But William was even “more overtly sexual” — he wrote her flirtatious verses, and pretended to be a spurned suitor who would marry her if only he could. Alice did not really have the nerve or knowledge to retaliate. “Sex was not a topic of discussion in the James household,” Strouse dryly reports. As Henry Senior’s biographer, Alfred Habegger, writes, “One great irony in the life of Henry James, Sr., is that the man who looked forward to the inevitable demise of monogamy became one of the most devoted family men of all time.” This was a man who advocated free love as the natural outcome of the breakdown of major social institutions, including organized religion and the family. Yet as an adult Alice was not entirely a prude: she writes in her diary about a friend reading Montaigne, with the “‘naughty’ pages gummed together; could there be anything more deliciously droll!” Strouse’s discussion of Alice’s mistreatment at the hands of her male relatives is forthright and revelatory — the kind of issue where modern biography often feels exploitative or dirty is deftly handled here.

Alice’s life was a struggle to quell her “ardent” nature and numb herself completely, for desire could only lead to disappointment. Alice’s description of her first breakdown sets up this dichotomy: “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.” Many years later in her diary she put it this way: “I have never unfortunately been able to abandon my consciousness and get five minutes rest… conceive of never being without the sense that if you let yourself go for a moment your mechanism will fall into pie and that at some given moment you must abandon it all, let the dykes break and the flood sweep in, acknowledging yourself abjectly impotent before the immutable laws.” There is an implicit you in this statement, the reader of the diary, and/or the person who has suffered in the way that the writer has. There is a sense that, for women especially, illness serves as an escape route, “a way out of having to choose between a safe boring life of devotion to others and a dangerous assertion of intellectual competence.” To endure illness is claim moral superiority, and keep the family close and concerned, a similar observation to ones Freud made about his hysterical patients.

When Alice died, she left her diary in the hands of Katherine Loring, her closest friend — whom her sister-in-law Alice strongly suspected was Alice James’s lesbian lover — with instructions to give copies to Henry and William, who found it too damning for public consumption. So it was not circulated until Harry James, William’s son, had it printed under the title Alice James — Her Brothers — Her Journal in 1934, when it received praise from Nation book critic Diana Trilling, among others. It is the best key we have to her personality, and what she might have accomplished had her circumstances been less constricted — all of the things that make her such a great rallying cause for modern feminist literary biography (it has since been edited by Leon Edel and published as The Diary of Alice James).

In her diary, Alice recorded her desire to “[be] her own Boswell,” and when she became too weak to write, she dictated (as Henry did in his later years to a series of secretaries, or as the most prominent of them called herself, his “amanuensis”) to Loring. Alice, like Henry, was not a huge fan of biography. After finishing one of her favorite writer, George Eliot, she wrote: “What a lifeless, diseased, self-conscious being she must have been!” Harsh words from invalid par excellence Alice James.