Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Quote of the Day (Alice James, on a Landmark Year for Her Literary Family)

“Within the last year [Henry] has published The Tragic Muse, brought out The American and written a play, Mrs. Vibert . . . combined with William's Psychology, not a bad show for our family! especially if I get myself dead, the hardest job of all.”—Alice James (1848-1892), entry for June 16, 1891, in The Diary of Alice James, edited by Henry Edel (1964)

Brothers William James and Henry James Jr. became famous in their lifetimes for their powers of observation as respectively, pioneering psychologist-philosopher and fiction writer. It took over 70 years after her death, with the publication of her diaries, for the world to know that their younger sister, Alice James, had her own penetrating vision of the world, albeit one experienced from the bed where she languished as an invalid recluse.

The diary entry above conveys her pride in her two older brothers’ literary achievement in the prior year, as well as a gallows sense of humor bordering on stoicism in the face of the declining health that finally claimed her life a year later.

Alice was the youngest child of Henry James Sr., a wealthy, one-legged philosopher whose eccentricities affected, for good and ill, the lives of his five children—perhaps none more so than his daughter.

"In our family group, girls seem scarcely to have had a chance," Henry Jr. wrote. Irritated and uncomfortable because their father felt that women were mere appendages of men, Alice fell ill or sometimes pretended to be ill, with fainting spells or headaches. Some doctors diagnosed the underlying ailment as suppressed gout, others as “wandering womb.”

But the one applied most commonly to her (a particular favorite of male doctors of the time) was known as “neurasthenia,” a form of what European doctors saw as “hysteria.” We know recognize what she had as a depression so devastating that Alice became suicidal. “A hoop skirt is a death trap,” she would observe.

Oddly enough, perhaps because Alice finally felt she could be useful, the one period of her life when these conditions abated was when she had to care for her father when his health started to decline. But with his death in 1882, her condition worsened again.

Even confined to her bed, Alice missed little. The diary entries she began writing in 1889 (dictated to her longtime companion, Katherine Loring) were sometimes sharp, often funny, and usually unconventional.

Anglophilic Henry Jr., for instance, was astonished to discover, when Loring presented to him a copy of the diary after Alice’s death, that his sister “was really an Irishwoman.” It wasn’t simply because she ardently believed in Home Rule, but that she had assessed Britain’s role in fostering the conditions for this rising movement—and found their disclaimers of blame all too wanting:

“The behaviour of the Unionist and Tory is simply the bete carried to its supreme expression. It is truly a great misfortune for a people to be so destitute of inspiration, and so completely without honour, as to be left absolutely naked to itself. If you could read, too, the chorus going up to heaven on all sides over the love of manliness and fairness in the Briton's bosom! — those qualities of which they are always assuring the rest of the world they hold the monopoly. The Englishman, however, should not be held accountable for being mentally so abject before the Irishman; he is helpless, for there is absolutely nothing in his organization wherewith he can conceive of him, and his self-respect naturally has no other refuge save in loathing and despising him. He has no wings to his mind to bear him whither his leaden feet are inapt for carrying him; so that it is only now, at the end of seven centuries, that he is beginning faintly to divine that in Ireland, above all other lands, there are impalpable spiritualities which rise triumphant and imperishable before brutalities.”

Alice James died in 1892 of breast cancer. Although her brothers sensed her keen intellect, even they must have wondered at times what to make of her. We may be only coming to terms with her now.

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