b. New York, 1850; d. London, 1892
Henry James wrote in a letter to his brother Robertson's daughter Mary James Vaux that "in our family group girls scarcely seem to have had a chance." Alice James was the one girl in the James family group, and her life bears witness to Henry's pronouncement. In 1853, three years after Alice's birth in New York, Henry James Sr. had written in an article on the "Woman's Movement": "The very virtue of woman... disqualifies her for all didactic dignity. Learning and wisdom do not become her." Alice's youth was marked by the same uprootedness as her brothers. In the family's travels between Europe and America, the boys attended a variety of schools -- the quality of which varied, but they received formal and organized education nonetheless. Alice's case was different. In America she attended several private schools for girls, but the education she received here was as much about female "accomplishments" as it was about academic study. In Europe, she attended no school at all, receiving instead desultory instruction in French and math from a series of governesses, but nothing consistent and nothing that would prepare Alice for an independent life away from her family.
The Affliction of Hysteria
The youngest of the five James children, Alice never married and lived with her parents until their deaths only months apart in 1882. After their deaths, Henry assumed much of the responsibility for his sister, seeing to her finances and health care. By this time, Alice had already suffered two major nervous and physical breakdowns, which would recur a number of times in the years following their deaths as well.
Alice James's medical history reads like a primer on Victorian psychiatric treatment. She traveled to New York for "therapeutic exercise" in 1866; she took the "rest cure" in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, in 1883; and she received electrical "massage" in New York from another doctor and in another clinic in 1884. In late 1884, Alice traveled to England with her companion, Katherine Peabody Loring, believing that a change of scene and circumstance would improve her health. For the next eight years, until her death from breast cancer, she suffered recurring bouts of what was diagnosed as hysteria, a systemic nervous and physical collapse occurring almost exclusively in leisured female patients (Not until World War I would "male hysteria" also be diagnosed, specifically in men returning from the horrors of battle. For a thoughtful exploration of the factors common to the experiences of both genders under such widely different circumstances, view the episode In Search of Ourselves from A Science Odyssey, available on PBS home video.
What Alice Knew
To identify the class and gender biases underlying the 19th-century diagnosis of hysteria in women is not to discount its reality or to dismiss the seriousness of its symptoms. As a number of feminist thinkers have argued in recent years, hysteria may well have resulted from the widespread suppression of women's energies and talents in the name of "femininity" and ladylike conduct. Alice James certainly recognized this, understanding her own collapses as the failure to control feelings of rage that were leveled primarily at the father who kept his daughter in the house, tied to him and removed from outside stimulation and outlets.
Alice did circulate to a small degree in the life of New England. As a young girl, she sewed bandages for the Newport Women's Aid Society during the first two years of the civil war. In 1868, she joined the Female Humane Society of Cambridge with her mother. Five years later, she embarked on a three-year engagement as a history teacher with the Society to Encourage Studies at Home, a national correspondence course for women based in Boston. But in her own correspondence, she tended to discount the importance of this work, focusing instead on her failure to marry or to have any prospects for marriage as the defining feature of these years.
A Posthumous Career
If Alice James during her lifetime lived a largely private and confined existence, she has become a feminist icon as a result of her posthumously published diary. For years, Alice had rejected (at least privately) her family's understanding -- or misunderstanding -- of her. Her breakdowns had only exacerbated this misunderstanding, giving her parents and brothers, especially the psychologist William, license to study her as a "collection of symptoms" rather than to view her as a human being. In 1889 in London, she began to keep a diary, in which she recorded her own understanding of herself. Seeking freedom through writing as her father and two of her brothers had done, Alice finally found her own words and her own voice in which to tell her own story.
Alice died in London of breast cancer in 1892. She entrusted the diary, for posthumous publication, to Katherine Loring. Henry James feared that the diary's gossip -- with recognizable names attached -- would endanger his own social standing and access if it were published. It was first published in 1934 (18 years after Henry's death) as a kind of tribute to Garth Wilkinson and Robertson James, the "lesser" of the James brothers, by Robertson's daughter, Mary James Vaux, who called it Alice James: Her Brothers -- Her Journal. The diary had been corrupted by a number of editorial excisions, and it was not until 1964 that Leon Edel, Henry James's biographer, published a restored version based on Katherine Loring's transcription of the original. Since then, Alice James has become a figure in her own right, viewed not only as a representative of Victorian womanhood and of the neuroses of her famous family but also as herself.
Susan Sontag's play about Alice James, called Alice in Bed, opened in New York in a new production in the autumn of 2000.