I whine for her like a babe

Ruth Bernard Yeazell

  • Alice in Jamesland: The Story of Alice Howe Gibbens James by Susan Gunter
    Nebraska, 422 pp, £38.00, March 2009, ISBN 978 0 8032 1569 6

Sometime early in 1876, a person connected with the James family met a 27-year-old woman called Alice Howe Gibbens at the Radical Club in Boston and immediately concluded that William James should marry her. In one version of the story, Henry James Sr returned from a meeting and announced to those at home that he had seen William’s future bride. Another version attributes the discovery to the philosopher Thomas Davidson, who invited his friend to meet ‘the woman you ought to marry’. It may not be clear who saw her first, but everyone seems to have agreed that Alice Howe Gibbens was destined for William James. Having followed up the proffered advice, William himself dashed off a letter declaring that he had just met ‘the future Mrs W.J.’ Alice in turn told her mother that she had found the man she wanted for a husband. And insofar as one can judge of these matters from the outside, the union that eventually resulted bore out the collective verdict. She was, William later wrote, ‘my only absolutely satisfying companion’. Looking back on their engagement some years after his death, Alice recalled the ‘miracle’ of that day 44 years before when she and William were engaged: ‘The apple blossoms were out and all the spring seemed blessing us. I ought to go on my way gratefully, for I have had my turn.’ She died less than five months later.

From Alice’s perspective, there is something wonderfully ironic about the aura of decisiveness that attaches to this narrative. There were many satisfactions to marrying William James, but a sense of the definite was not among them. What Henry James called William’s ‘endless spontaneity of mind’ was inseparable from his great achievement, but it made living with him a constant exercise in patience and flexibility. Whether or not ‘change is … the most imperative of human needs,’ as he later suggested to a young woman with whom he was sufficiently intimate to arouse his wife’s jealousy, there is no question that changeableness was the very essence of William James. The other and more acerbic Alice James (his sister) privately termed him ‘a blob of mercury’.

Indeed, when Alice referred to their engagement as a ‘miracle’, she meant not only that she felt blessed by the result, but that it almost didn’t happen. Between William’s immediate conviction that he had met his future wife and his proposal of marriage more than two years elapsed: an interval that resembled not so much a dance of courtship as a protracted game of fort-da, in which he alternately declared his need of her and spun out arguments as to why the whole affair was impossible. Even the letter in which he first declared his love proposed to furnish her with ‘unheard of arguments against accepting any offer I can make’ before conjuring her ‘to absolutely disregard the thought’ of refusing him. A year later, his tone was more dispassionate but his logic no less tortuous: ‘I find myself always mentally turning to you for corroboration or approbation when a new thought or plan occurs to me – even when, as I said last time, the plan seems that of turning away from you.’ It is no wonder that soon after this Alice stopped writing to him and took off for a summer in Canada.

In a gesture that goes unmentioned here, she nonetheless seems to have left him a parting gift: a small compass that William’s most recent biographer, Robert Richardson, takes as a hint that her lover orient himself in her direction.[*] This may be over-reading – William was an enthusiastic hiker – but the temptation is understandable: both before the marriage and for more than 30 years afterwards, she is the fixed point in a dizzying whirl of Jamesian activity. Not that she wasn’t busy herself: with five children, one of whom died in infancy; frequent domestic moves, including the construction of one house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the renovation of another in the mountains of New Hampshire, and a restless sabbatical year in Europe; the work of transcribing and proofreading her husband’s manuscripts, as well as the labour of looking after him, there was plenty to keep her occupied. But much of their life together was lived apart; and even when it was Alice who decamped with the children so that William could work undisturbed, the impression remains that hers was the settled place in their joint arrangement. As for William, the pattern of turning to her in order to turn away from her – and vice versa – would persist throughout the marriage.

The vacillation of his courtship was not merely capricious. He was 34 when they met, but had only recently emerged from a long struggle with depression and begun to settle on a career. The previous decade had been spent in a restive search for a vocation that was frequently punctuated by bouts of ill-health and thoughts of suicide. Having renounced his ambition to be a painter, he had devoted himself, intermittently, to the pursuit of chemistry, comparative anatomy and physiology; enrolled in Harvard Medical School; abandoned medicine to accompany Louis Agassiz on a zoological expedition to Brazil; returned to medical school only to leave once more, this time for Europe, on a quest repeatedly disrupted by sickness both physical and mental; published a handful of book reviews; taken up medicine yet again to complete his degree – he never practised – and finally, in the summer of 1872, accepted an appointment to lecture on physiology at Harvard the following spring.

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[*] Michael Wood reviewed William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism in the LRB of 20 September 2007.