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.

James Sr’s ideas about what women should do with their lives differed from conventional ideas only in that he thought they were too good to do anything. ‘The very virtue of woman,’ he wrote, ‘disqualifies her for all didactic dignity. Learning and wisdom do not become her.’ Alice, his clever daughter, was – unlike her brothers – to make nothing of her cleverness. Was she then to be like her mother and her mother’s sister who lived with them? ‘Large florid stupid seeming ladies’ was how the pert Lilla Cabot described them: ‘the very incarnation of banality’. ‘Oh, Alice, how hard you are,’ her father once said to her and many years later she was still worrying about the remark: it was a fault in her – a lack of womanliness – not to have a gentler nature. She was, her family said, highly moral, the implication being that she was too highly moral, a Calvinist at heart. The sad fact is, as Ruth Yeazell says in the subtle and sophisticated biographical essay with which she introduces her selection of Alice James’s letters, that Alice, who wasn’t what her father said ‘woman’ ought to be, a ‘form of personal affection’, a lover and blesser of men, who never did anything, indeed who spent most of her life wanting it to end, came closest to fulfilling her father’s wish that his children should just be something.

Alice started to think about dying before she reached adolescence. ‘I had to peg away pretty hard between 12 and 24, “killing myself”, as someone calls it – absorbing into the bone that the better part is to clothe oneself in neutral tints, walk by still waters, and possess one’s soul in silence.’ She wrote this in the diary she began when she was 40, so it may be that her memory was coloured by the experiences of adult life. But when she was 17, William, on an expedition in Brazil, sent his love to Henry and Alice and asked: ‘Does the latter continue to wish she was dead?’ It may simply be that she saw no way forward for herself. Her father – who had taken on himself the task of defining reality for the rest of the family – had not offered her one; and her mother’s example was inappropriate: she wasn’t like her mother. Leon Edel, in his Life of Henry James, sees Alice as a casualty not so much of the family as of the age: ‘In our time,’ he says, ‘she might have learned to play tennis, to swim, to row, to ski, to drive a car.’ It’s hard to think of Henry in any age skiing his way out of his difficulties: but certainly, as Edel goes on to suggest, if Alice had been able to conceive of a life away from her family and an occupation other than wife-and-motherhood, she might not have spent so many years ‘chained’, as she said, ‘to a sofa’. ‘When I am gone,’ she wrote to 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.’ The remark is characteristically proud as well as far-sighted: there is no sense in dwelling on what her life could have been in an age of psychoanalysis or Valium.

The family returned from Europe in 1860 and settled down to a New England life, first in Newport, then in Boston, finally in Cambridge. Alice went to school, made friends, took up riding, swimming and sailing – the very activities Edel prescribes. Yet it was ‘under the low grey Newport sky’ that she took the decision to clothe herself in neutral tints. A ‘palpitating’ Alice, subject to mysterious pains and prostrations, now began to appear in family letters, and within a few years almost every reference to her was a reference to her health. Invited to spend a few days with the Emerson girls, she had to refuse because the excitement was too much: like other famous 19th-century invalids, and no doubt many who weren’t famous, she had started to limit her choices by being ill; and when Henry said of her in 1889, ‘she only gets on so long as nothing happens,’ he might have been speaking of the whole of her life.

‘Nerves’ were current in the family in the 1860s, as her brothers faced up to the necessity of leaving home and deciding what to do. The two younger boys went off to the Civil War and to their lives of un-Jamesian obscurity and failure, though they too sent back reports of illness and despair. Neither William nor Henry was fit to go: William indeed was in a state of hypochondriacal depression that was to last for something like 17 years – in effect, until his marriage. Their father loved his children even more when they were ill or in difficulty (‘there is nothing ... so full of hope and joy to me as to see my children giving way to humiliation’), so as the claims of Alice’s ill health grew more pressing her share of parental attention steadily increased. ‘To be menaced with death or danger [has] been from time immemorial ... the very shortest of all cuts to the interesting state,’ James wrote in the Preface to The Wings of the Dove. Alice’s body, however much she was to revile it, had done for her what her mind had been unable to do: it made her ‘interesting’.

In 1866, when she was 18, she spent six months in New York receiving a form of treatment for her nerves that was described as ‘motorpathic’ – it consisted largely of physical exercises to stimulate the muscles and bracing homilies to depress (in the old sense) the mind. A year and a half later she had her first breakdown. It lasted several months and her family praised her for enduring it so virtuously. While each of her unhappy brothers was blamed in turn by their mother for being ‘morbidly hopeless’, Alice was praised for her valour: ‘The fortitude with which our daughter carries the load which has been given her to bear is truly beautiful,’ Mary James wrote to the unlucky Robertson. Alice’s highly moral nature had at last found an area in which it was allowed to operate.

Twenty years later, after reading an account that William, by now a professor of philosophy at Harvard, had written of the work the French physician Janet had done with hysterics, Alice gave a memorable description in her diary of the ‘violent turns of hysteria’, as she rightly called them, which she had suffered in her late teens. ‘As I used to sit immovable reading in the library with waves of violent inclination suddenly ... taking some one of their myriad forms, such as throwing myself out of the window, or knocking off the head of the benignant pater as he sat with his silver locks, writing at his table, it used to seem to me that the only difference between me and the insane was that I had not only all the horrors and suffering of insanity but the duties of doctor, nurse and straitjacket imposed upon me too.’ While the pit of her stomach, the palms of her hands, the soles of her feet suffered their discrete insanities, her mind remained ‘luminous and active’, unaffected by what was happening to her but quite incapable of stopping it. ‘Her mind does not seem at all involved in it,’ her mother observed. Jean Strouse alludes to what Charcot called the belle indifférence of the hysteric, but it could equally have been the healthy indifference of the stoic. It’s tempting, given her later history, to settle for stoicism.

‘Alice is busy trying to idle,’ Mary James wrote to Henry as Alice recovered. For the next ten years her life alternated between getting better and getting worse: these were her two chief occupations. When she was better, she cycled and gossiped and picnicked with other sisters and daughters of Cambridge intellectuals, wrote them letters that were often heated and sentimental when they were away in Europe, which they frequently were, took part in sewing bees and amateur theatricals. Occasionally she was fit enough for short holidays away from home and her parents; and in 1872 she spent a triumphant summer in Europe with Henry and her Aunt Kate. Although she was sometimes ill, and although Edel suggests that anxiety on her behalf undermined Henry’s pleasure, it was the only period in her life of which one can say that she enjoyed herself. Five years afterwards, she wrote to a friend: ‘I am frightened sometimes when I suddenly become conscious of how constantly I dwell on that summer I spent abroad.’ Part of the enjoyment derived from the realisation that her sensibilities weren’t after all inferior to her brothers’: ‘Imagine the bliss of finding that I too was a “sensitive”.’ When she, returned to Cambridge, her family, impressed by her enthusiasm and vigour (William said she was in all respects more ‘elastic’), concluded that the ‘journey was a great thing for her in every way’. Yet there was no question of repeating the experience. ‘Her greatest delight would be to go again and stay longer,’ Mary James wrote to Henry, adding that this would not, of course, ‘be possible during Father’s lifetime’. He ‘would not’, Jean Strouse comments, ‘sacrifice his pleasure in her company to her pleasure at independence.’

Miss Strouse’s dim view of Henry James Sr and his accomplice wife is catching; and after a while it becomes difficult to resist the thought that James’s oppressively (Strouse would say selfishly) loving personality and eccentric (equally selfish) ideas were in many ways to blame for Alice’s fate. One might call this the Laingian version, and it’s reinforced here by the fact that her history up to the death of her parents is largely presented through her parents’ eyes: not what she was but what they said she was – i.e. what they made her into. To some extent, this is a consequence of the material that is available, but it also accords with some – very persuasive – comments that Strouse herself makes about the effect on Alice of having such a father. (Looking at what Edel has to say about Alice, one may feel that the two writers are describing different sets of parents.) The Laingian view isn’t, of course, the only possible view of Alice’s troubles – nor the only one Miss Strouse takes. She writes very well about her relation to her times, and particularly about her health and its relation to the times. It is, however, the case that the Alice who is the subject of her book is a victim whereas the Alice in Miss Yeazell’s essay is her own worst enemy.

There was nothing very unusual in Alice’s condition (so far); and many reasons for this kind of nervous weakness can be found both in the social history of well-to-do young women, whose uselessness reached its lowest point in the second half of the 19th century, and in the history of medicine, which was just beginning to address itself, through the new science of neurology, to diseases that were not entirely to do with the body and not entirely to do with the mind. Hysteria was thought to be a female affliction, but beyond that most neurologists didn’t know what to make of it: ‘It were as well called mysteria,’ said the excellent Weir Mitchell. Different doctors optimistically devised different treatments, the majority of which were tried on Alice, but most shared the view of Charles Taylor, Alice’s first doctor in New York, that the body should be stimulated and the mind soothed. From this it was only a short step to saying, as several neurologists did, that too much education was a bad thing for a woman. ‘For patience, for reliability, for real judgment in carrying out directions, for self-control,’ Taylor was to write, ‘give me the little woman who has not been “educated” too much, and whose ambition is to be a good wife and mother ... Such women are capable of being the mothers of men.’ Jean Strouse picks up the fact that Alice’s diary description of her hysterical attacks had pictured her either in her father’s library or in the schoolroom, as if the attacks only occurred when she was trying to use her brain. On the other hand, it may be that these were the occasions when she most resented their occurrence. Whatever the reason, Alice had concluded that ‘conscious and continuous cerebration’ was ‘an impossible exercise’ – thereby incidentally, or not so incidentally, proving both her father and her doctor right: thinking was an unsuitable occupation for a woman. What is missing from Strouse’s common-sense, as well as sisterly, account of Alice’s maladies is the interpretation that Freud would have put on them. Miss Yeazell, quite properly, points out the similarities between Alice’s symptoms and those of some of Freud’s most famous patients. It’s impossible to believe that there wasn’t a strong sexual element in Alice’s sufferings.

As her twenties progressed, and more and more of the women she knew got engaged, her letters to her few remaining unmarried friends, began to fill up with catty remarks:

What do you suppose I heard the other day? Nothing less than that those dreadful Loverings had had no end of offers ...

Between ourselves, can you conceive what the youth wants her for? You may say money, but after all she hasn’t got enough in her own right to make it worth while and her mother may live half a century ...

Sargy [the man who was to marry Lilla Cabot] always had the capacities of a cormorant, so he is able to swallow her whole, not having to think about her as she is going down must make it much easier...

One or two young men briefly took her fancy, but they had no interest in her and she remained proposal-less. Strouse observes that her family never encouraged her to think of marriage (Too delicate? Father wouldn’t have liked the idea? Too obviously a spinster?), while she confined herself to jokes about ‘unattractive youths’ who couldn’t see her qualities. The only man to flirt with her was her brother William. The romance with William – or the appearance of romance, it’s not easy to tell how much of it was irony – had begun when she was a child, and in the 1870s he was still, for example, addressing her as ‘sweetlington’ and ‘beloved beautlet’ in letters charged with amorous suggestion. In 1878, when Alice was 30, he announced his engagement to another Alice, a ‘peerless specimen of “New England womanhood” ’, according to Henry. The first Alice was unable to go to the wedding – she had again collapsed.

This time, too, she had physical symptoms: her stomach was a ‘nest of snakes coiling and uncoiling themselves’, her legs gave way and a year later she could still barely walk. She was however, much more unhappy than she had been during her first breakdown, and talked to her father about killing herself. Characteristically, he gave her permission to do so – or, as he put it, granted her the ‘freedom to do in the premises what she pleased’ – attributing her unhappiness to ‘our trouble as a race’ (the human race, that is) and ‘the burden of the mortal life’ He was confident that once he had given his permission she wouldn’t do it, and he was right. However, if her diary is to be trusted, she found a way round him. ‘The fact is,’ she wrote shortly before her death, ‘I have been dead so long and it has been simply such a grim shoving of the hours behind me ... since that hideous summer of ’78 when I went to the deep sea, its dark waters closed over me and I knew neither hope not peace, that now it’s only the shrivelling of an empty pea pod that has to be completed.’

There were another 14 years to go. In 1881, her mother died of an attack of bronchial asthma, and Alice didn’t collapse as everyone expected her to do. The usual bulletins were issued: she was seen by Robertson to ‘thrive under the ordeal of nursing’ her sick mother, and after Mary James had died Aunt Kate reported that ‘her mother’s death seems to have brought new life to Alice.’ She was happy, or ‘almost happy’ – content to think of her mother as a ‘beautiful illumined memory’ – and enjoying her new responsibilities. At the end of 1878, talking about her recent breakdown, she had said in a letter: ‘For a young woman who not only likes to manage herself but the rest of the world too, such a moral prostration taxed my common sense a good deal.’ Now she had a chance to manage and for the most part did it well. What she dreaded was that her father, too, would die, and soon enough he did. Whether or not he had an illness isn’t clear: for the most part he wanted to die, ‘yearned unspeakably’ to do so and thus rejoin his wife, who grew ever more perfect in his eyes. He stopped eating – another kind of Irish fasting to add to those described here by Sean O’Faolain – complained that ‘this dying’ was ‘weary work’, and according to Alice’s new friend Katharine Loring, got over ‘the delay in dying by asserting that he [had] already died’. His last words were for his sons – ‘such good boys’. Henry returned from England two days after his father’s death and, true to the family metaphysic, read aloud over his grave a farewell letter from William that had arrived too late to be read at his bedside. Henry told William he was sure their father heard it ‘somewhere out of the depths of the still, bright winter air’.

This time Alice did, briefly, collapse: but now she had Katharine Loring to look after her (at least when Miss Loring was able to get away from the sick members of her own family). They had become friends some years earlier when Alice was recruited to teach history – it was the only thing she ever ‘did’ – by a group of Boston women who had started a charitable correspondence course for women: Katharine was head of the history department. It may sound like the beginning of a True Romance: in effect, it was the start of what was then known as a ‘Boston marriage’ – of which there were quite a few among the James’s acquaintance. ‘I wish you could know Katharine Loring,’ Alice wrote to Sara Sedgwick, ‘she is a most wonderful being. She has all the mere brute superiority which distinguishes man from woman combined with all the distinctively feminine virtues. There is nothing she cannot do from hewing wood & drawing water to driving run-away horses & educating all the women in North America.’ Katharine was indeed an admirably practical woman – and an all too inspiring nurse. None of the other Jameses seems to have been at all fond of her (William’s wife suspected that she was Alice’s lover, which seems unlikely, and if any part of their relationship is described in The Bostonians, it’s clear that Henry didn’t like it), but they agreed that she was an unusual ‘blessing’ to Alice.

In 1884, Katharine Loring brought Alice to England, where she would spend the rest of her life, most of it in bed. She was now a full-time invalid, one pain succeeding another without interruption; and everything that happened to her, whether she was living in a room in Bournemouth or in a room in Leamington, happened within that room. There are many descriptions in her letters of what it was like to be so confined and so uncomfortable, all of them written with a robustness that seems to contradict their subject-matter. There is also a great deal that isn’t about illness: but about the friends she liked and, more often, those she half-liked, about Henry and his work, about England, the contemptible English and their contemptible politics. ‘I never expect to be deader than I am now,’ she wrote to William and then attacked him for his ‘bourgeois’ attitude to The Princess Casamassima. The poverty of the English poor, unemployment, strikes, the inequities of the Empire, and especially the Irish Question, were treated in her letters and her journal with a radical passion that is the only evidence we have that she may – possibly – have regretted not leading a more active life. As it was, she consoled herself with the thought that it was ‘a wonderful time to be living in when things are going at such a pace’.

It was in any case Alice’s view, so she said in her diary, that ‘the paralytic on the couch can have if he wants them wider experiences than Stanley slaughtering savages.’ Yes and no: but the notion mattered to her. At the end of her life Alice had found a philosophy which enabled her both to accept what was happening to her and – more important – to think well of herself. It wasn’t a grandiose vision such as her father’s discovery of Swedenborg had offered, but it made a virtue of her nonlife. ‘We do not take our successes with us only the manner in which we have met our failures, that never crumbles in the dust,’ she wrote to the unfortunate Robertson’s wife. She read the three volumes of George Eliot’s Journal and Letters and despised her for her ‘futile whining’. It’s reasonable to suppose, as everyone who has written about her does, that some part of Alice’s English decline can be attributed to a desire to have Katharine Loring’s full attention – and quite a bit of Henry’s. As before, her body said one thing and her mind another. She didn’t complain and made no explicit requests for sympathy. William, who always got it wrong, irritated her with pitying remarks about her sufferings and frustrations. To a letter in which he had her ‘stifling slowly in a quagmire of disgust and pain and impotence’ she replied that she had roared with laughter. ‘for I consider myself one of the most potent creations of my time, & though I may not have a group of Harvard students sitting at my feet drinking in psychic truth, I shall not tremble, I assure you, at the last trump.’ By then she had made not trembling at the last trump the thing that mattered most.

In 1891, doctor at last diagnosed a plausible (and fatal) organic illness: she had cancer of the breast and it was incurable. ‘To anyone who has not been there,’ she wrote in her diary, ‘it will be hard to understand the enormous relief of Sir A C’s uncompromising verdict, lifting us out of the formless vague and setting us within the very heart of the sustaining concrete.’ Impending death brought to her life the definition she required. It also brought her Katharine Loring’s absolute devotion. ‘As the ugliest things go to the making of the fairest,’ her diary reported, ‘it is not wonderful that this unholy granite substance in my breast should be the soil propitious for the perfect flowering of Katharine’s unexampled genius for friendship and devotion.’ She died, not trembling, but, said Katharine Loring, ‘very happy’ in the knowledge that the last trump was at hand. ‘Her disastrous, her tragic health.’ Henry wrote after her death, ‘was in a manner the only solution for her of the practical problem of life – as it suppressed the element of equality, reciprocity etc.’ It isn’t clear whether he meant that life was too much for her or that she was too much for life: both are distinct possibilities. ‘I have always had significance for myself,’ she had said in one of her retorts to William; after she died her brothers, reading her diary for the first time, found she had significance for the family too: the diary, they both agreed, constituted ‘a new claim for the family renown’. Unfortunately, Henry, fearing some ‘catastrophe of publicity’, didn’t want it given ‘to the world’, and it wasn’t until 1964 that the full text, edited by Leon Edel, was finally published. Katharine Loring never had any doubt that it was written for posterity to read.