Alice James (b. 1848) was the younger sister of novelist Henry James and philosopher/psychologist William James. The fact that it is easiest to describe who she is in relation to the famous men in her life pretty much sums up the difficulty in being Alice. A younger sister with a brain and potential who was coddled, smothered and groomed to be dainty, delicate, and above all pure.
This biography starts with Alice’s parents and their odd ideas on childhood and parenting and then moves through Alice’s childhood where the boys of the James family (William, Henry, Bob, and Wilkie) had their education prioritized with little thought to Alice’s future. The reader then learns about Alice’s bouts with nervous illness, her friendships, and her growing restlessness. Alice never married, but had a “Boston marriage” with her friend Katherine Loring. There is speculation as to whether Loring and James were simply close friends or had more of an intimate connection (I’m on team queer Alice). Alice cared for her father after her mother’s death and soon after her father’s death she traveled to England to live near her brother, Henry. Strouse extends Alice’s biography past her death and discusses the publication of Alice’s diary and the editorial changes made throughout the years.
I’ve always been intrigued by Alice James. I’ve read bits and pieces through the years about her and those descriptions of Alice rested on her relationship with her brothers, her spinsterhood, and her rumored hypochondria. After reading Strouse’s biography, I’m aware that her physical and psychological issues were much more complex. Strouse reports the various diagnoses given to Alice throughout her life (both physical and psychological) but doesn’t spend time trying to land on a precise cause for Alice’s frequent bouts with illness. In fact, what I enjoyed most about Strouse’s writing is that she situates Alice within the cultural context of Victorian-era America. Woman’s education, suffrage, and healthcare are all discussed in this biography and that macro view of history helps the reader to understand Alice.
One example is Strouse’s explanation of illness in the Victorian-era:
“The symptoms that led Alice to seek treatment from Dr. Taylor were never mentioned. Certainly she was ‘delicate’ — easily excited, high-strung, ‘nervous.’ But that was the way middle-class Victorian young ladies were supposed to be. With its range of meanings, from refined, sensitive, subtle, and gentle to sickly and frail, the word delicate described the mid-Victorian ideal of beauty: a graceful languor, pallor, and vulnerability – even to the point of illness – were seen as enhancing the female form. ‘Refinement’ drew attention away from the base, ordinary body; illness delicately drew it back.”pp. 100-101.
Strouse also includes a note about one Victorian doctor’s popular rest cure:
“Mitchell’s rest cure removed the patient from her family and put her to bed. There, she was fed (often to excess), massaged, read to, helped to sit up, turn over, bathe, and urinate. Under this infantilizing regime, Mitchell’s patients generally gained weight and lost their neuroasthenic pallor.”p.105
These rest cures were further seen as dependent on the strength and forcefulness of the male doctor to ensure that there were no women who enjoyed being separated from household duties and child care. Women were isolated, infantilized, force-fed, and trivialized until they were able to suppress high-strung emotion, energy, and nerves. That certainly increases the horror of books like The Yellow Wallpaper.
Reading about Alice James has intrigued me and I’m eager to get a copy of her journals to read and I’d also like to explore some more books on women’s healthcare (spoiler alert: it still sucks), education, and political involvement from this time.