REVIEW: Alice James: A Biography, by Jean Strouse

In her introduction to Alice James: A Biography, Jean Strouse references Virginia Woolf’s now-famous “what if?” in A Room of One’s Own.* Woolf wonders, in her long essay on the state of women and creativity, what would have happened if Shakespeare had an equally talented sister named Judith. Woolf narrates for her readers how the talent is quickly snuffed out of Judith by the social expectations for a woman in the sixteenth century. Woolf’s examination of Judith humanizes the faceless, systematic denial of female artistic talent. The problem that proves Woolf’s point, however, is that no such talented sister is known to have existed. So it’s no wonder that those like Strouse and Sontag see in Alice the chartable incarnation of Woolf’s shadowy Judith Shakespeare.

It would be easy to project onto Alice James the image of a tragic cipher for all that ailed and addled past women of intelligence and wit (and to some extent still ails and addles such women). But that is contrary to the purpose of any well-written biography, which is to look through the mythology and reveal the person, as best as a biographer can. Strouse uses the materials at her disposal—materials that is, that weren’t disposed of by Henry James Jr. What this adds up to is a prolific correspondence between Alice James and her relatives, and a journal, kept in the last three years of Alice’s life.

Alice James’ spirit is imbued with the talent for a turn of phrase that the male contingent of her family is famous for. Her family was celebrated for its tireless effort not to be bores, but to be extraordinary. The James family dinners are that of legend—children arguing with parents, members pushing back their chairs and pacing the room as they formulated arguments. Those discerning enough to toil through Henry James’ texts for expository gems would find a more personal, self-depreciating and witty cipher in Alice.

She believed in the transcendence of education, especially for women, and became a proctor of what might be called one of America’s earliest distance-learning courses, the Society to Encourage Studies at Home. And this in spite of growing up as the youngest child and only daughter to a father who’s own body of work boldly proclaimed “Woman is…inferior to man…She is his inferior in passion, his inferior in intellect, and his inferior in strength.” Alice grew up in a family where conventional, “obvious” success was not as worthy of praise as “interesting failure.” In many ways Alice James was ahead of her time.  What nineteenth-century woman would turn to another and say that men “have as much manners and civilization as gorillas?” Strouse does an excellent job of showing us James’s knack for humor, the mot juste, and self-deprecation. But to think that Alice James was like today’s young women would be a dreadful mistake.

Any student of a certain literary time period (namely Hawthorne’s generation) is familiar with the most en vogue affliction for the pitiful, beloved upper class female: consumption (i.e. Tuberculosis). This disease, literally a body consuming itself from the inside, appealed to the literary male’s sexual appetite for pale, frail, thin women, preferably tubercular. This was because the disease emphasized the attributes of women most prized at the time—slight of body, pale of skin, still retaining mental faculties to swap pleasantries, but simultaneously tragic and in need of a man’s care.

Around the time of Alice James, however, the tide of womanly afflictions turned. The newest medical complaint became hysteria and “neurasthenia.” Both diseases of nervousness, their symptoms were many and their diagnoses a matter of subjective choice. “Nervousness,” Strouse tells us, “like a becoming consumptive fragility, was seen as a sign of complexity and sensitivity; it marked intelligence, subtlety, a finely tuned nature.” Also, importantly, it allowed a woman like Alice two things: freedom from complete participation in a society that would not allow her to accomplish the intellectual pursuits of her brothers or father, and a chance to opt out of the life her mother led, which Alice clearly didn’t want or believe herself capable of. Her illness also allowed her to keep the people she cared about most around her, especially during her nervous breakdowns, temporary paralysis, and suicidal and homicidal urges.  She was subjected to (and often willingly submitted to) crazy treatments –Alice tried many different “Cures”, none of which really lived up to their name. She tired the rest cure, the exercise cure, the electro-shock cure, the hypnosis cure. Apparently, chronic pain and illness ran in the family. Either that, or Alice and her brothers were a bit touched with hypochondria.

The book is most delightful in Strouse’s curation of the correspondences. Charming turns of phrase flit in and out of the letters, and you get a sense that despite the familiar familial ties, each member was establishing a unique and entertaining voice for their siblings. Alice’s voice in her letters was knowledgeable, hilarious, and almost always self-deprecating. Her journal is littered with references to her “restricted career,” her body as “a little rubbish heap,” “a friendless wisp of femininity tossed upon the breeze of hazard in the land of the stranger,” a “mildewed toadstool,” and finally, a “collection simply of fantastic unproductive emotions enclosed within tissue paper.” These quips are inventive, hilarious, and yet also sad: her energies are spent here, instead of in academia or literary circles, like her brothers.

Alice’s two strongest, most profound relationships were with her older brother Henry and her long-time companion, Katherine Loring (Alice’s “better half,” the “beloved K”). These two seemed to be at odds with one another—or more accurately, Henry Jr. did not fully approve of his sister’s dependence on Katherine. Alice and Katherine Loring’s relationship is deep and devoted. Today’s reader would most likely ask if this relationship was passionate. Assuredly it was in some sense of the word, but Strouse does not go into sexual appetites in this book. She only cautions us with a few notes about how conversation and correspondence in letters are not helpful in decoding sexual proclivities, nor any specific urges or actions. Women who wrote to each other or who carried on friendships, Strouse cautions us, shared in a kind of performance of intimacy that the modern reader would find much more suspect. Apparently they had a term for two intimate, intellectual bourgeois female friends at the time—a “Boston Marriage.”

You can take what you will of Strouse’s argument against assuming sexual orientations for Alice and Henry. We can all have our own opinions (I would strongly guess they were both gay) but that is a subject that could be discussed and analyzed in a whole other book, which is perhaps why Strouse shied away from the topic in the first place. Unfortunately, however, the book suffers from not taking a stand on Alice’s sexuality, or outwardly denying she had any sexuality (which is something often done to her brother Henry). Like Alice’s shadowy illness, a lot of questions remain, and Strouse seems unwilling to add much conjecture.  This can frustrate the reader who craves this personal glimpse into Alice’s inner-life. But ultimately one can’t fault Strouse too harshly for sticking to the evidence.

Of course, there is the strange sexual confusion of the James family itself to consider, which Strouse does mention. This muddles the picture further. Alice’s relationship to her brother William James’ is frankly creepy. William’s letters to his sister (and accounts of their childhood) are tinged with sexual longing and weird comparisons of William’s paramours to the aspects of his sister he finds so admirable. Needless to say, Alice was much more at home in Henry’s company than William’s.

Alice succumbed to cancer at the age of 44. She welcomed death in her writings, and was pleased to succumb to a disease that she could say was a definite diagnosis, unlike the shadowy nature of her “nervous disorder.” She left us with a beautiful journal and a story worth telling. And Strouse is an accomplished story-teller. At the end, taken as a whole with the benefit of hindsight, Alice’s life was truly tragic. But it was still a life, and one worthy of study. Those who have been consuming too much nostalgia for James’ era will find the biography a helpful tonic in snapping out of their infatuation with a bygone age of social caste and feminine expectations, and will thank themselves for being born a century or two later.

* Susan Sontag asks us to consider the same Woolfian proposition when writing about her play, Alice in Bed, in 1994.

Michelle Lipinski

Leave a Comment

Filed under review

Leave a Reply