The name Henry James is legendary in the literary world, but
a lesser known name is that of his sister – Alice James – who was born on this
day in 1848. Today, Alice is famous for her published diaries and her
tragedy-riddled life story.
Alice James is photographed lying in bed, where she spent the majority of her last years. In her own words, she had become “an appendage to five cushions and three shawls” (x).
Alice was born on August 7, 1848 in New York City. She was
the youngest out of 5 children to be born to the wealthy and intellectual James
family; most notable of her siblings were, of course, Henry James the novelist
and also William James the psychologist. From the early age of 12, Alice began
to show signs of what was then called “hysteria.” The only daughter of the
James family and thus the only James child whose intellect was snuffed out
instead of encouraged, she ended up having her first nervous breakdown at the age
19. A lifetime struggle with mental illness and sporadic physical ailments would
follow. While her older brothers were being sent to Harvard one after another,
Alice was at home taking care of their father and writing in her diaries that
illness was to be her life’s work.
A rare photo shows Alice (bottom left) posing with friends (x).
A gay man himself, Alice had a special relationship with her
brother Henry. Whereas most members of the family resigned Alice to a life of
misery in their minds, Henry was consistently writing letters to his little
sister encouraging her to “look for the little good in each day as if life
were to last a hundred years” and even to take opium if it would help with her
physical pain. Alice, for her part, was in a “Boston marriage” with a journalist
named Katharine Loring. During the 19th and early 20th
century, “Boston marriage” was a term used to describe two women who lived
together without any financial dependency on a man. While the public often
treated these women as simple “old maids” who lived together platonically, the
reality is that many of them were in romantic relationships. Alice and Katharine
were no exception, rather they were one of the most famous “Bostonians” of
their day – as the two were the inspiration for the protagonists of Henry James’s
1886 novel of the same name.
Katharine Loring reads to Alice in bed. According to one of Alice’s many biographers, Katharine acted as “man and woman, father, and mother, nurse and protector, intellectual partner and friend” for Alice from the day they met in 1873 until her death (x).
When she was 43, it was discovered that Alice had breast
cancer. After dealing with depression and suicidal ideation her whole life, she
was ecstatic about her diagnosis. She would die a year later on March 9, 1892.
One of the last entries in her diary would read, “I am working away as hard as
I can to get dead as soon as possible.” Although ignored during her lifetime, the
publishing of her diary in the 20th century would drag the name
Alice James right alongside those of her brothers’ in the history books.