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.

The decision to teach is generally seen as a turning point in this history. But only a few years previously he had suffered perhaps his most devastating breakdown, when ‘suddenly there fell upon me without any warning’, as he described the episode decades later in The Varieties of Religious Experience, ‘a horrible fear of my own existence’. His report of the crisis, which he attributed to an anonymous sufferer, takes the form of an encounter with an uncanny double: an epileptic patient ‘with greenish skin, entirely idiotic’, whom he had once seen in an asylum, ‘knees drawn up against his chin’ and clad only in a ‘coarse grey undershirt’. ‘That shape am I, I felt, potentially,’ he would write. ‘Nothing that I possess can defend me against that fate, if the hour for it should strike for me as it struck for him.’ As many commentators have pointed out, this experience strikingly recalls a similar episode of ‘perfectly insane and abject terror’ recorded by William’s father; and though the horror and the dread of it eventually faded, he was still haunted by its consequences when he began his anguished courtship of Alice Gibbens. Fearful for his own stability, worried that he might pass on his weakness to his children, he had long doubted whether he should marry at all. He once described himself as ‘chained to a dead man’; and it was this burden, by his own account, that marriage to Alice had lifted. ‘That poor diseased boy whom you raised up from the dust no longer exists,’ he told her in 1888. Through her belief in him, he said in another letter, she had wrought his ‘transformation’ into a ‘normal man and husband’: ‘As God made me, as I then made myself, so have you re-made me.’

Just how she managed to convey on sight that she was the woman for the job remains a mystery, but Susan Gunter’s new biography does offer some clues as to the experiences that prepared her for the role of rescuer. The oldest daughter of an affectionate but alcoholic doctor who committed suicide when she was 16, she was long accustomed to managing and protecting those around her. Like William, Daniel Gibbens was a graduate of Harvard Medical School; and as a young child in Weymouth, Massachusetts, Alice had accompanied her father on his rounds – a routine she apparently loved, and which made for an early intimacy with sickness and death. Both James’s restlessness and his vocational uncertainty also seem to have had their unhappy precursors in the history of Alice’s father. When Dr Gibbens’s drinking problem put an end to his career as a country doctor, he and his wife temporarily separated – the first of several such separations before Gibbens killed himself 11 years later. At the time, the couple had two daughters – there would eventually be a third – and in a pattern that would repeat itself many times in Alice’s own life, the mother and her children remained at home, while the father took himself elsewhere. The family was reunited when the California gold rush prompted Gibbens to try his luck at ranching, but that venture also failed. Wife and daughters were again left behind when he set off for England as a ship’s doctor and when he headed south to take up administrative posts during the Civil War. He was working for the federal government in Mobile, Alabama when he killed himself, possibly to avoid testifying in a trial over cotton fraud. (Gunter implies that he may have acquired the bulk of his small estate – approximately $200,000 in today’s money – thanks to a bribe.) Eliza Gibbens collapsed on hearing the news, and her oldest daughter stepped into her place. Both in the immediate aftermath of Daniel Gibbens’s death and on an economising trip to Europe several years later, it was Alice who made all the arrangements. Though she would not return to Europe for some time, her experience negotiating with potential landlords and shepherding her mother and sisters around the Continent would stand her in good stead when she led the way, William and children in tow, on their nomadic sabbatical more than two decades later.

Some of the Jameses’ travails on that journey sound all too familiar. The two middle children were seasick on the way over; the baby grew cranky in the summer heat once they arrived in Germany; the oldest showed no interest in touring Cologne Cathedral. (‘Are we never going to get out of this?’) But with neither lodgings nor schools arranged in advance and William himself always liable to take off at a moment’s notice, the sabbatical year, as Gunter describes it, has a peculiarly Jamesian frenzy. ‘We are primarily and essentially a nursery, with adults attached,’ William complained to his mother-in-law from Switzerland the following summer, ‘and I don’t think that my truest vocation is to be an appendage to a nursery.’

Alice, on the other hand, seems to have found her truest vocation in nursing Jameses. ‘I hold it to be part of the bargain that you are engaged, more or less, to the whole family,’ Henry had written on learning of the impending marriage in 1878; and to judge by subsequent events, she took that commitment seriously. Though she was helping to support her own family by teaching at a girls’ school in Boston when she and William first met, the Jameses had no need of the supplementary income – Gunter makes clear that this was an upwardly mobile match so far as Alice was concerned – and no one involved appears ever to have imagined that Alice would make teaching a career. As chance would have it, however, the post of chief nurturer and manager of the James household would soon be vacant, since William and Henry’s mother, Mary Walsh James, was to survive her oldest son’s wedding by less than four years. For a while it appeared that the first Alice James would step into the role, but when Henry Sr, too, began to decline some months after his wife, ‘sister Alice’, as this biography calls her, collapsed in turn; and the principal care of the dying man devolved on his daughter-in-law.

Henry Jr, alerted by a cable from his sister, arrived on the evening of the funeral; but despite the fact that William was also in England at the time, Alice chose not to summon him. (In a pattern that would recur with each child, he had taken off soon after the birth of their second son.) Richardson thinks that this particular departure also signalled a marital crisis. Gunter doesn’t speculate, but she does report that Henry openly pitied Alice in her abandonment and notes that their growing intimacy in the months after Henry Sr’s death prompted William’s jealousy. (Decades later, at a moment of friction between the brothers, Henry would pronounce her ‘the finest woman living, only criminally sacrificed’.) What seems clear in any case is that this was the beginning of a lifelong bond between Alice and her brother-in-law. In 1910, when both William and he were ailing, Henry would call for her across the ocean: ‘I dream of the companionship of Alice.’ Gunter suggests that he had already paid tribute to that companionship when he created the heroine of his late tale, ‘The Jolly Corner’; but whether or not he was thinking of his sister-in-law when he imagined Spencer Brydon’s return from the edge of death to feel himself ‘still propped and pillowed’ by the tender care of Alice Staverton, Henry was now more than ready for some propping and pillowing of his own. ‘I, who have no right to her,’ he wrote of William’s Alice, ‘whine for her like a babe.’

Though William and Alice first temporised by sending their older son, also called Henry, they ended up making the journey together. Alice took turns ministering to both patients, as they followed up a period of convalescence in England by further wandering in search of their health on the Continent. ‘Between the upper and the nether millstone of her two invalid companions she doesn’t have a very free time,’ William ruefully observed to his mother-in-law:

but the way she has taken up her cross and adapted herself to our convenience exclusively, will win her every privilege hereafter (I mean in Heaven) and I am thinking of getting her a red cross uniform, so as to excite less remark, as she crawls beside us, or sits with her back to the horses when we hire a cab.

There’s no evidence he ever bought her the uniform, though in the autumn of 1918 she did enrol in a Red Cross certification programme at a YMCA while visiting their married daughter in San Francisco. Gunter reports that she earned a 90 in her hygiene exam and an 82 in first aid; but by that time she was considered too old (at nearly 70) to take hospital nursing and too unqualified (because not formally trained) to care for patients in the current influenza epidemic, except under a doctor’s supervision.

It was not the first time she had attempted to turn her long experience to wider uses. In 1915, five years after William’s death, she declared herself ‘tired of my empty life’ and tried to enlist as housemother to a nurses’ corps in Serbia – only to be told that the Allied forces had no need of a well-intentioned woman of 65. Instead she would have to content herself, if that is the right word, with presiding at the deathbed of yet another James, when the news that Henry had suffered a stroke prompted her return to England at the close of that year. Having promised William that she would ‘see Henry through when he comes to the end’, Alice once more took up her role as the family’s angel of death. Other managing women were swiftly sent packing: Edith Wharton, most notably, but also Henry’s loyal secretary, Theodora Bosanquet, whose decision to pass on a message from Wharton led to her virtual banishment from the flat. (Alice had long resented Wharton’s interference in Henry’s affairs.) Like his father and William before him, Henry would die with Alice at his side. In his last days, he confused her with his mother.

That earlier Mrs James has long tempted biographical curiosity; but too little evidence remains, by all accounts, to construct a plausible life. Gunter reports that for a time she likewise despaired of writing this biography, since Alice and her family had destroyed many of the relevant documents, including diaries to which an earlier biographer of William, Gay Wilson Allen, still had access. Some of the destruction may have been intended to conceal signs of friction in the marriage: for all his gratitude to Alice, William seems to have been an inveterate womaniser, whose lifelong habit of ‘falling in love with every girl I meet’, as he once put it to a friend, must often have wounded his housebound wife. Whether any of these attachments entailed more than flirting is impossible to say, though Richardson does not rule out an affair with Pauline Goldmark, an attractive young feminist more than 30 years younger than him, whom he first met when he was in his early fifties and to whom he was still writing yearning letters over a decade later. Unlike Alice, who struggled all her life with her weight – Gunter reports that she was 40 pounds heavier than William on their wedding day – Pauline was an athletic type, who began accompanying him on extended hikes in the Adirondacks even before she had graduated from Bryn Mawr. On one expedition in 1898, William apparently suffered permanent heart damage after she allowed him to shoulder a heavy pack as he scrambled up a high peak in pursuit of her. Though we do not know if Alice was fully aware of their intimacy, we do know from her son’s report that she never forgave Pauline.

Other women in William’s life met with more sympathy. Relations between the two Alice Jameses were initially fraught: as a young man, William had flirted shamelessly with his sister; and when he announced his decision to marry another woman called Alice, the first Alice collapsed in a nervous breakdown. But she was also quick to acclaim the new addition as ‘a healthy lovely being so sweet and gentle & then with so much intelligence besides’, and in later years they developed a warm, if long-distance friendship, conducted largely by correspondence. When the first Alice was dying of breast cancer in 1891, the second is said to have exclaimed: ‘What a big void there’ll be for us when Alice is gone! She stands for the wider sphere of reference!’ – a tribute that testifies to the acuity of both. Richardson’s recent biography makes much of William’s love for Minny Temple, the vibrant cousin of the Jameses who died of tuberculosis while still in her twenties, six years before William met Alice; but this book says almost nothing about her, presumably because it adopts the perspective of the woman who followed. One allusion Gunter does quote, however, suggests that Alice must have been quite aware of William’s feeling for Minny. In 1913, John Gray, then dean of Harvard Law School and another of the men who had once been in love with Minny, gave his share of her correspondence to Alice for safekeeping; and it was Alice who in turn sent the letters on to Henry for the second volume of his autobiography, Notes of a Son and Brother. After the book appeared, she wrote to Henry: ‘You may not understand in the least how I feel but it almost seems as if I had had all that she deserved. Were you ever haunted by a “vicarious atonement” feeling? That someone else was going without that you might be blessed?’ Evidently she didn’t know that Henry had expressed almost the same feeling in a letter to his mother a few days after he learned of Minny’s death.

Alice had long been a responsive reader of Henry’s work. ‘You seem to me to have crossed the border into the kingdom of the Great, into the land where the few, the Masters live and create by laws and immensities of their own,’ she wrote after finishing The Tragic Muse:

The book is new, unlike any other – so new that perhaps people won’t take it in today or tomorrow, but its own day is waiting for it. The delightful talk, the serene good nature, the revelation of the artistic nature – it’s all wonderfully fine. And it all fits and rests in its own whole. I mean the feeling of structure which it gives me, as does a beautiful piece of architecture. The sensation is rare enough to be revelled in when at last it is vouchsafed.

More charitable than William, who frequently chafed at the obliquities of Henry’s late style, she characteristically attributed any difficulty it posed to her own deficiencies: ‘I am beginning to love his “later manner”,’ she wrote of ‘The Beast in the Jungle’, ‘and see, or rather feel, what I have long suspected, that the lack, the want is in me, not in these works of Art.’ (In a passage Gunter doesn’t cite, she had earlier ventured a small but revealing criticism of Henry’s 1885 essay on George Eliot: ‘If he had only said a word more about generosity of character being the main preoccupation of G.E. in all her novels, it would have been absolutely perfect.’) As for Alice’s own style, what survives of it here testifies to an alert and sensitive intelligence, but without the other Alice’s ironic bite or the iridescence of Minny Temple. ‘If my existence is to justify itself it must be through other lives,’ she wrote at one point; and in the sense of leaving a mark on the world she was right.

William himself once said that he had chosen Alice more for her moral than for her intellectual qualities; and her greatest influence on her husband’s work may have been as an exemplar of that lived religion that would become one of his principal subjects. The daughter of a devout Congregationalist on her mother’s side and a father who had been attracted, like Henry Sr, to Swedenborg’s mystical teachings, Alice seems to have retained a lifelong, if doctrinally unspecific faith in divinity, as well as a firm commitment to make of herself what Swedenborg called ‘a form of use’ – a phrase which appears, somewhat chillingly, to have been one of William’s pet terms for his wife. What mattered for William was not religious institutions or doctrines but the psychological consequences of belief; and in Alice he would have found at least one good reason to contend, as he did in ‘The Will to Believe’, that ‘by obstinately believing that there are gods … we are doing the universe the deepest service we can.’

Certainly Alice in her turn seems to have had a strong investment in his work on religious subjects. She was quite dismayed, Gunter reports, when in 1897 he declined an invitation from the Gifford committee to lecture on natural religion in Aberdeen – he was hoping for the more prestigious post in Edinburgh – and correspondingly delighted when his gamble paid off and he committed himself to the lectures that would subsequently be published as The Varieties of Religious Experience. Since he was already in frail health, there was much nursing to be done before he could recover enough strength to carry out the assignment; and Alice reluctantly left her youngest son with her mother in Massachusetts while she accompanied her husband for two years of recuperation and lecturing in Europe. (The Varieties of Religious Experience is dedicated to Eliza Gibbens.)

More dubiously, William’s long fascination with psychic phenomena also seems to have originated with Alice and her mother. It was Eliza Gibbens who first discovered Leonora Piper, the medium who for more than two decades provided William’s best case for the possibilities of spiritualism. (He later called her his ‘white-crow’ – the one exception who disproved the rule that every psychic was a fake.) Having initially been drawn into Mrs Piper’s orbit by her apparent ability to make contact with the Jameses’ dead baby, Hermann, Alice remained a loyal adherent for the rest of her life. Despite the other Alice’s fierce scepticism – ‘I do pray to Heaven that the dreadful Mrs Piper won’t be let loose upon my defenceless soul,’ she wrote in her journal a week before she died – her sister-in-law duly attempted to communicate with her in the afterworld too; and the medium would continue to serve as a conduit to dead Gibbenses and Jameses, as well as a spiritual adviser to living ones, until she apparently lost her ability to enter trances after 1909. Presumably this is the reason Alice appears to have made no effort to contact William through Mrs Piper’s agency when he died in 1910, though her oldest son reported that she never stopped hoping for a message from him. Other mediums also won Alice’s trust, yet her approach to the spirit world seems not to have been altogether lacking in irony. In a reminiscence Gunter doesn’t quote, the same son reported that his mother once went ‘to a theosophical medium who told her she had thrice been burned to death as a heretic, once in Egypt, once during the Roman Empire, once by the Spanish Inquisition’; and the ‘news of these appalling experiences … kept her in good spirits for a week.’

Alice in Jamesland is a conscientious biography and a valuable addition to the literature on the family. Gunter’s prefatory remarks suggest that she will partly compensate for gaps in the evidence by treating Alice as what Henry called a ‘ficelle’, an intelligent observer who helps to illuminate the compelling deeds of the principals; yet the fact remains that the other Jameses have put in livelier appearances elsewhere. Part of the problem may be what Gunter calls Alice’s ‘penchant for sobriety’, the ‘overabundance of common sense’ that despite the séances and other lapses makes for a comparatively dull mirror in which to reflect the history of the family’s more spirited members; but the flatness of Gunter’s own style and her reluctance to interpret the evidence she does possess contribute to the effect of inertness. References are scrupulously footnoted, but a tendency to quote without quotation marks produces some disconcerting effects – as when the honeymooning Jameses are said to have ‘spent their days reading, swimming and walking, Alice often wearing a green plaid dress and laughing at William, her nostrils dilating.’ (Those dilating nostrils come from a letter of William’s.) On the other hand, Alice in Jamesland is refreshingly honest about its subject’s less admirable qualities – not just some of the usual prejudices of her day but an appetite for shopping that reached serious proportions in her later years and a habit of dodging customs with the results – a skill that came in handy when she managed to smuggle Henry’s ashes back to the US, so that he could be buried in the Cambridge cemetery with the rest of the family.

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