Death and the Maiden

Mary-Kay Wilmers

  • Alice James by Jean Strouse
    Cape, 367 pp, £9.95, February 1981, ISBN 0 224 01436 6
  • The Death and Letters of Alice James edited by Ruth Bernard Yeazell
    California, 214 pp, £6.95, March 1981, ISBN 0 520 03745 6

Alice James died in London at the age of 43, regretting only that she would not have the pleasure of knowing and reporting herself dead. The reporting was done instead by her favourite brother: ‘I went to the window to let in a little more of the afternoon light, and when I went back to the bed she had drawn the breath that was not succeeded by another,’ Henry James wrote to their eldest brother, William, in America, as if, in the now fashionable way, defining death to a Martian. Eager to do what justice she could to the occasion, Alice had sent William a farewell telegram the day before, which Henry later confirmed. William, nonetheless, feared that her death might simply be an illusion: ‘her neurotic temperament & chronically reduced vitality are just the field for trance-tricks to play themselves upon.’ It was very like William – or her idea of William – to try to rob her of her greatest, her only achievement.

She died in March 1892. Looking back on the previous year, she made a note in her diary of the books her brothers had written or published and added: ‘not a bad show for one family. Especially if I get myself dead.’ The James family was exhilarated by the thought, and the proximity, of death. ‘When that which is you passes out of the body, I am sure that there will be an explosion of liberated force and life, till then eclipsed and kept down,’ William wrote to Alice when he learnt that she was dying. It was the lesson their father had taught. ‘We have all been educated by Father to feel that death was the only reality and that life was simply an experimental thing,’ Robertson James, the youngest son, said after their mother’s death. ‘We feel that we are more near to her now than ever before, simply because she is already at the goal for which we all cheerfully bend our steps ... The last two weeks ... have been the happiest I have known.’ So exalted was the James idea of death that it sometimes seems as if they thought ‘the distinguished thing’ was too distinguished for anyone who wasn’t a member of their family.

Being a James was a complicated business, and the five children all too obviously divide into the two who succeeded, William and Henry, the two who did not, Wilkie and Robertson (who once said he thought he was a foundling), and Alice, the youngest and the only girl, who both did and didn’t. It was complicated principally because their father made it so. Henry James père had spent his own childhood and youth haunted by his father’s stern Irish Calvinism, which he both flouted and feared; and the kind of father he eventually became was a direct repudiation of the father he had had. Where his father had exacted discipline he exacted freedom, where his father had been remote and authoritarian he was loving and indulgent. It’s been said that the only right the James children didn’t have was the right to be unhappy, but they weren’t allowed to think badly of themselves either: to have done so would have been to admit what their father’s philosophy proscribed – the presence of evil in the James household. Jean Strouse, in her excellent biography of Alice, points out the difficulty that all this positive thinking caused James’s children: ‘To be innocent and good meant not to know the darker sides of one’s own nature. To love and be loved ... required the renunciation of certain kinds of knowledge and feeling.’ It was a renunciation that Alice couldn’t in the end manage without renouncing practically everything else.

James Sr’s idiosyncratic philosophy derived by an eccentric route from Swedenborg: in 1844, on a visit to England, he had what he came to see as a Swedenborgian ‘vastation’, an experience of ‘perfectly insane and abject terror’, from which he emerged with a new faith in God’s benevolence and man’s spiritual capacities. From then on his faith was his occupation. Henry, troubled by the fact that his father had no recognisable job, asked him how he could describe what he did to the children at school. ‘Say I’m a philosopher,’ his father replied, ‘say I’m a seeker for truth, say I’m a lover of my kind.’ Henry continued to look with envy on the friend who told him ‘crushingly ... that the author of his being was in the business of a stevedore.’ Their father’s philosophy didn’t make much impression on the world at large (William Dean Howells said of his book The Secret of Swedenborg that James had ‘kept it’), but it dominated his children’s lives as his own father’s Calvinism had dominated his. None of them ever altogether rejected it.

He was ambitious in his expectations of his children, but what he required of them was intangible: neither achievement nor success but ‘just’ that they should ‘be something’ – something unspecifiably general, which could loosely be translated as ‘interesting’. Their education was eclectic – ‘sensuous’ was the word their father used – designed to develop their sensibilities rather than train their minds; and both Alice and William later wondered whether they had any. Alice, typically, consoled herself with the thought that to have had one would, as she put it, ‘have deprived me ... of those exquisite moments of mental flatulence which every now and then inflate the cerebral vacuum with a delicious sense of latent possibilities’.

‘A delicious sense of latent possibilities’ was precisely what their father wished for in his children, and as they grew up he went out of his way to discourage them from settling down to any one activity. The fact that the family had money, and that their father had never had to do anything, made choice more difficult. In ‘Notes of a Son and Brother’, Henry summed up their father’s expectations, and in doing so incidentally revealed how closely the cast of his sentences mirrored the cast of his father’s mind – the claim that James’s fiction elaborately borrowed from his father’s Swedenborgianism is something else again. What James Sr wanted, Henry said, was ‘something unconnected with specific doing, something free and uncommitted, something finer in short than being that, whatever it was, might consist of’. That, on the other hand, might have been a good deal less strenuous.

What place Alice had in her father’s grand design was unclear. She was much closer to him than she was to her mother, celebrated by Alice as the ‘essence of wife-and-motherhood’, but seeming to lack any more colourful qualities. Henry was Mary James’s ‘angel’, and there is no evidence to suggest she had a special interest in her daughter. Alice, unlike her mother, was imaginative and quick, and her father found the company of this ‘heir to the paternal wit’, as he called her, enchanting. ‘Her presence is a perfect sunbeam to Father,’ her mother remarked. Yet while her father took the family first to Europe, then from country to country, in search of the right atmosphere and the right school for her brothers, Alice merely sat at home, learning a bit of this and that, partaking of the atmosphere. Her father took pleasure in her intelligence but did little to encourage it, and for most of her life she had a fierce sense of her capacities and an equally fierce sense of their not being wanted.

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