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Alice James (August 7, 1848 – March 6, 1892) was an American diarist, sister of novelist Henry James and philosopher William James. Her relationship with William was unusually close, and she seems to have been badly affected by his marriage. James suffered lifelong psychological problems, that were generally dismissed as hysteria, in the style of the day. She is best known for her published diaries, which reveal much about her obsessions and mental imbalance. They display sharp insights into psychosomatic illness as a deliberate flight from reality.
Born into a wealthy and intellectually active family, daughter of Henry James Sr. of Albany, and Mary Robertson Walsh, James soon developed the psychological and physical problems that would plague her until the end of her life at age 43. The youngest of five children, she lived with her parents until their deaths in 1882. She taught history from 1873 to 1876 for the Society to Encourage Studies at Home, a Boston-based correspondence school for women founded by Anna Ticknor. James never married, seeking affection from her brothers and female friends instead. By 1882, she suffered at least two major breakdowns and would experience several more before her death from breast cancer.
Era of hysteria
In the Victorian era, hysteria was an extremely common diagnosis for women. Almost any disease a woman had could fit the symptoms of hysteria because there was no set list of symptoms. In 1888, twenty years after James was "overwhelmed by violent turns of hysteria", she wrote in her diary that she was both suicidal and homicidal. She was struggling with the urge to kill her father, though this diary entry does not state the reason why she was patricidal. In 1866 James traveled to New York to receive "therapeutic exercise", and in 1884 she received electrical "massage". Hoping that a change of scenery would improve her health, she traveled to England with her companion Katherine Peabody Loring. She suffered recurring bouts of "hysteria" for the next eight years until she died from breast cancer. James sought various treatments for her disorders but never found significant relief.
As Alice was suffering from breast cancer, her brother, William James, wrote her a letter explaining how much he pitied her. He advised her to "look for the little good in each day as if life were to last a hundred years." He wanted her to save herself from suffering the torment of physical pain. "Take all the morphia (or other forms of opium if that disagrees) you want, and don't be afraid of becoming an opium-drunkard. What was opium created for except for such times as this?" While opium was a freely available panacea at this time, it is unknown if Alice James used it prior to her cancer, late in life.
James began to keep a diary in 1889. Full of witty, acerbic, insightful comments on English life and manners, it included excerpts from various publications to support her opinions. The diary was not published for many years after her death due to sharp comments on various persons whom she had mentioned by name. A poorly edited version of the diary was eventually released in 1934. Leon Edel published a fuller edition in 1964. The diary has made James something of a feminist icon: she was seen as struggling through her illnesses to find her own voice. Henry, one of Alice’s brothers, read this work with deep alarm (because of its candid indiscretions about family and friends) but also with enormous admiration. He wrote another of the James brothers, William, that he now understood what had caused their sister’s debility. The diary, he said, displayed for him Alice’s great "energy and personality of intellectual and moral being," but also, "puts before me what I was tremendously conscious of in her lifetime -- that the extraordinary intensity of her will and personality really would have made the equal, the reciprocal life of a ’well’ person—in the usual world—almost impossible to her—so that her disastrous, her tragic health was in a manner the only solution for her of the practical problems of life—as it suppressed the element of equality, reciprocity, etc."
Alice herself, however, did not see her illness as a product of conflict between her character and her "usual world" surroundings. To her it was instead the outcome of a struggle between her "will" or "moral power" and her "body." "In looking back now," she wrote toward the end of her life, "I see how it began in my childhood, altho’ I was not conscious of the necessity until ’67 or ’68 [when she was 19 and 20] when I broke down first, acutely, and had violent turns of hysteria. As I lay prostrate after the storm with my mind luminous and active and susceptible of the clearest, strongest impressions, I saw so distinctly that it was a fight simply between my body and my will, a battle in which the former was to be triumphant to the end...."
She eventually found, she continued, that she had to let loose of her body, giving up "muscular sanity" in order to preserve her mind: "So, with the rest, you abandon the pit of your stomach, the palms of your hands, the soles of your feet, and refuse to keep them sane when you find in turn one moral impression after another producing despair in the one, terror in the others, anxiety in the third and so on until life becomes one long flight from remote suggestion and complicated eluding of the multifold traps set for your undoing."
James described two opposing views of what causes many ill-defined "psychosomatic" illnesses. In one of these a "flight into illness" relieves the individual of the burden of unbearably conflicted impulses, feelings, or social demands. In the other, the afflicted individual, far from taking refuge in illness, tries desperately to become or feel healthier. James suggests that illness may in fact be willed in order to avoid different social problems. According to her, chronic fatigue, irritable bowel movements, and migraines may be some of the illnesses that are feigned to avoid society.
Relationship with William
Alice and her brother William had a close relationship that has been argued to consist of eroticism. William would write “mock sonnets” to Alice and read them to her in front of their family. One such sonnet has William declaring his desire to marry Alice to which she replies that he had told her not “to hope for love from [him].” William concludes the sonnet by saying that he will commit suicide since Alice will not marry him. There were also times where his letters to her were candidly erotic—he would describe her physical and personality characteristics and state how “desirable” and “lovable” they made her.
William used his artistic skill to draw five sketches of Alice. These pictures also demonstrate erotic overtones. Three of the sketches form a triptych. All of the panels exhibit Alice drawn older than she was at the creation of these sketches, as she was eleven at the time. She is sitting in a chair on a top floor while William is in a room below her. William is seen hunched over an instrument as he is serenading his sister in the first panel. He stands more erect in the next two panels. William is wearing a large head feather in each of the panels which progressively gets closer to the ceiling until it is pushing against it in the final panel. Growing from the outside of the building is a full bush in the first panel. The bush in the second panel is almost completely devoid of leaves and in the third panel, it is no longer there. The walls of the building shrink throughout the panels until they are almost nonexistent in the final panel. It has been argued that this triptych is a visual representation of a defloration fantasy.
The fourth sketch created by William of his sister contains a drawing of her head when she was a young teen. Alice’s eyes are cast downward and underneath her head, William wrote the caption, “The loveress of W.J.” The fifth sketch William drew of Alice when she was in her late teens. She is seen wearing a tight bodice and a feather hat. Across from her eye is a heart with an arrow through it, suggesting that she is in love. William’s initials are drawn on the sleeve covering Alice’s arm. This has been suggested to mean that William has branded his sister as his and she was content with this as she wore her ‘heart’ on her sleeve.
In 1878, William married Alice Howe Gibbens. Soon after, his sister became ill. When Alice James was close to death in 1892 she wrote this in her journal: “the fact is, I have been dead so long and it has been simply such a grim shoving of the hours behind me…since the hideous summer of ’78, when I went down to the deep sea, its dark waters closed over me and I knew neither hope nor peace.”
Anna Robeson Brown Burr wrote a biography, Alice James, Her Brothers – Her Journal (1934). Jean Strouse published what has become the standard life (Alice James: a Biography) in 1980. Strouse steered something of a middle course between Alice-as-icon and Alice-as-victim. Ruth Bernard Yeazell published James' correspondence in The Death and Letters of Alice James (1981). Susan Sontag wrote a play about James, Alice in Bed (1993), which seems to waver between sympathy and impatience with its subject. More recently, Lynne Alexander wrote a sympathetic novel about Alice James, The Sister (2012).
- Feinstein, Howard (1984). Becoming William James. London: Cornell University Press.
- Anna Robeson Brown Burr, Alice James, Her Brothers – Her Journal (Longwood Press 1934).
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