Alice James, brother to the famous writer Henry, died 120 years ago today. Towards the end of her short and unhappy life, she began keeping a diary. Ahough not published until 40 years after her death, it is revered today by some for its portrayal of a woman struggling against social and mental difficulties, and yet, nevertheless, finding her own individual voice.
Alice was born in New York in 1848 into a wealthy and well-educated family. Like her brother Henry, who would go on to become a famous novelist, she spent some of her youth travelling with the family back and forth from New England to Europe. But, while her brothers attended the best schools wherever they went, Alice was only given an education fit for a lady. As a young girl, during the civil war, she sewed bandages; and, as a young woman, she worked as a history teacher. She was very close to another brother, William, a pioneering American psychologist.
James was often ill, diagnosed with hysteria, and was largely cared for by her parents until they both died in 1882. Thereafter, she tried rest cures, electrical massage, as well as travelling to Europe with her close friend Katherine Peabody Loring. Through many of the last troubled years of her life, she was supported by Henry. She died from breast cancer on 6 March 1892. Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia and PBS, or in this article on chronic fatigue syndrome.
In 1889, when in London, James began writing a diary, a habit she kept up until her death. Soon after, Katherine Loring produced five copies of the diary and sent them to family members. It was not, though, made more widely available until 1934, when Macmillan published Alice James, her brothers, her journal with an introduction by Anna Robeson Burr. In 1964, Dodd, Mead published The Diary of Alice James with an introduction by the Henry James expert Leon Edel. This latter book is widely accepted as the most faithful reproduction of the original diary.
Some consider that the diary made Alice James into a feminist icon, a woman who struggled through illnesses to find her own voice, though this view is not universally held. Her diary, though, is very revealing of her inner self and thoughts, and full of self-analysis. Extracts can be read online at the Serendip website supported by Bryn Mawr College, a women’s arts college located in Pennsylvania, at the Civil War Women Blog, and at Googlebooks in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The yellow wall-paper.
31 May 1889
‘I think that if I get into the habit of writing a bit about what happens, or rather doesn’t happen, I may lose a little of the sense of loneliness and desolation which abides with me. My circumstances allowing nothing but the ejaculation of one-syllabled reflections, a written monologue by that most interesting being, myself, may have its yet to be discovered consolations. I shall, at least, have it all my own way, and it may bring relief as an outlet to that geyser of emotions, sensations, speculations and reflections which ferments perpetually within my poor old carcass for its sins; so here goes - my first journal!’
12 July 1889
‘It’s amusing to see how, even upon my microscopic field, minute events are perpetually taking place illustrative of the broadest facts of human nature. Yesterday Nurse and I had a good laugh, but I must allow that decidedly she ‘had’ me. I was thinking of something that interested me very much, and my mind was suddenly flooded by one of those luminous waves that swept out of consciousness all but the living sense and overpower one with joy in the rich, throbbing complexity of life, when suddenly I looked up at Nurse, who was dressing me, and saw her primitive, rudimentary expression (so common here), as of no inherited quarrel with her destiny of putting petticoats over my head; the poverty and deadness of it contrasted to the tide of speculation that was coursing thro’ my brain made me exclaim, ‘Oh! Nurse, don’t you wish you were inside of me?’ Her look of dismay, and vehement disclaimer - ‘Inside of you, Miss, when you have just had a sick head-ache for five days!’ - gave a greater blow to my vanity than that much-battered article has ever received. The headache had gone off in the night and I had clean forgotten it when the little wretch confronted me with it, at this sublime moment, when I was feeling within me the potency of Bismarck, and left me powerless before the immutable law that, however great we may seem to our own consciousness, no human being would exchange his for ours, and before the fact that my glorious role was to stand for sick-headache to mankind! What a grotesque being I am, to be sure, lying in this room, with the resistance of a thistle-down, having illusory moments of throbbing with the pulse of the race, the mystery to be solved at the next breath, and the fountain of all happiness within me - the sense of vitality, in short, simply proportionate to the excess of weakness. To sit by and watch these absurdities is amusing in its way, and reminds me of how I used to listen to my ‘company manners’ in the days when I had ‘em, and how ridiculous they sounded.
Ah! Those strange people that have the courage to be unhappy! Are they unhappy, by the way?’
12 December 1889
‘I wonder, whether, if I had had any education I should have been more, or less, of a fool than I am. It would have deprived me surely of those exquisite moments of mental flatulence which every now and then inflate the cerebral vacuum with a delicious sense of latent possibilities - of stretching oneself to cosmic limits, and who would ever give up the reality of dreams for relative knowledge?’
26 October 1890
‘William uses an excellent expression when he says in his paper on the ‘Hidden Self’ that the nervous victim ‘abandons’ certain portions of his consciousness. It may be the word commonly used by his kind. It is just the right one at any rate, altho’ I have never unfortunately been able to abandon my consciousness and get five minutes’ rest. I have passed thro’ an infinite succession of conscious abandonments and in looking back now I see how it began in my childhood, altho’ I wasn’t conscious of the necessity until ’67 or ’68 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. Owing to some physical weakness, excess nervous susceptibility, the moral power pauses, as it were for a moment, and refuses to maintain muscular sanity, worn out with the straining of its constabulary functions. As I used to sit immovable reading in the library with waves of violent emotion suddenly invading my muscles taking some one of their myriad forms such as throwing myself out of the window, or knocking off the head of the benignant pater as he sat with his silver locks, writing at his table, it used to seem to me that the only difference between me and the insane was that I had not only all the horrors and suffering of insanity but the duties of doctor, nurse, and strait-jacket imposed upon me, too. Conceive of never being without the sense that if you let yourself go for a moment your mechanism will fall into pie and that at some given moment you must abandon it all, let the dykes break and the flood sweep in, acknowledging yourself abjectly impotent before the immutable laws. When all one’s moral and natural stock in trade is a temperament forbidding the abandonment of an inch or the relaxation of a muscle, ’tis a never-ending fight. When the fancy took me of a morning at school to study my lessons by way of variety instead of shirking or wriggling thro’ the most impossible sensations of upheaval, violent revolt in my head overtook me so that I had to ‘abandon’ my brain, as it were. So it has always been, anything that sticks of itself is free to do so, but conscious and continuous cerebration is an impossible exercise and from just behind the eyes my heads feels like a dense jungle into which no ray of light has ever penetrated. 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 other, anxiety in the third and so on until life becomes one long flight from remote suggestion and complicated eluding of the multi-fold traps set for your undoing.’