Friday, 14 February 2014

Alice James: A Biography by Jean Strouse


The edition I read was the 2011 reprint of the one first published in 1980. There is a three page preface by Colm Tóibín which seems an addition that is rather slight for its inclusion in the box of the N.Y.R.B. title on the cover. Following a practice which now seems antique but which I welcome is footnoting and not the usual endnoting. One tends to read them and they do add to the main body of the text like voices in another room counselling a larger discretion. Jean Strouse has excavated the land of the James Nation thoroughly. William James said of his brother Henry that he was 'a native of the James family, and has no other country' and the lifetime perigrinations of the family made their homeland into luggage or indeed baggage in the terms of the cliche ‘a lot of baggage’. The grim Calvinist Cavanman who ate his dinner out of a drawer William James established the family fortune. Because he did not approve of his children who did not keep to the true way he made an onerous will that was successfully challenged and Henry snr. came out with an income from property of $10,000 per annum and never worked a day in his life at a job. If the will had stuck none of his 5 children would have gotten a penny until they were 21. One can scarcely imagine the James clan landlocked. Henry Jnr. might have taken to ‘chaw’. Instead you have the exotic hothousing of all of them moving around Europe picking up languages and above all developing that intense family relationship which can be both a stifling and a resource.

For all their gifts Alice and the James Boys were a neurotic bunch. Where would they leave it? Old Father William, doommeister, then Son Henry an alcoholic who lost his leg in a drunken accident was afflicted in 1844 by a ‘vastation’. This was the Swedenborgian interpretation of a debilitating crisis in which he was oppressed by the fetid rays of a presence in his dining room after a good dinner. Henry Jnr. suffered a similar breakdown in his later years hoping that death might take him in his sleep. Brother William was also a ‘sick soul’ with suicidal ideation as a constant presence in his twenties. Wilky and Bob the less famous brothers one of whom was an alcoholic and the other a pursuer of the dream of fortune with schemes which failed. Both of them had fought in the Civil War and experienced the general restlessness of that generation. Then there is the subject of this book, Alice, who drained the Dismal Swamp of the family and throughout her life from adolescence was crippled by mysterious maladies that resisted the palpations and auscultations of quacks and knighted medics. The range of treatments that she underwent is a review of all that was available to the wealthy neuraesthenic of the 19th. Century. Strouse’s detail is excellent. In a curious way her book escapes the woman question interpretation that she promotes. It is clear that this is an under-determining factor, being a member of the James Nation is a sufficient explanation. They all had bad backs and stomachs, she simply moved it to the next notch of paralysis. Brother Henry (Harry) whom she was closest to was very kind and looked after her in her decline. There was also the resource of the Diary which she kept before her death in 1892 at the age of 44. The creative ebulliance which was the other hallmark of the James family if it had been expressed from an earlier point might have been sanitive. I haven’t read the diary but the extracts in the biography show the sharpness of her observation in a prose that is direct and vigorous.

This is a splendid biography and an essential primer in Famille James.

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