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Unsurprisingly Unable to See Eye-to-Eye

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 William and Alice James:

Unsurprisingly Unable to See Eye-to-Eye


It is rather safe to say that both William and Alice James were far from ordinary people. The eldest and youngest children, respectively, of one infamous Henry James Sr., their relationship was one that was seen as strained at best, and estranged at worst. However, the manner in which they viewed one other was far more complex than with mere animosity. Throughout their lives, up until and even after Alice’s death in 1892, the two ‘book-end’ James children maintained a kinship that fluctuated in both sentimentality and intensity. It would only be after the death of one of the siblings, however, that their relationship would not only permanently stabilize, but reach a level of understanding that was simply not possible during life.

Much like their father, both William and Alice had experienced mental distortions of some sort: William was visited by fearful visions, while Alice suffered mental breakdowns and suicidal urges. These occurrences worked to shape their later personalities, although so far as the James children were concerned, “All five presented the customary indications of high-strung nerves in childhood and adolescence, disliking the dark, being highly sensitive to pity and keen to all emotions. That this was an inherited susceptibility is readily seen when their father in his Autobiography describes his own emotional tendencies” (Burr, 39). As children, Alice and William had for the most part interacted as most siblings with their age dynamics were expected to, with the elder sibling constantly remaining ahead of the younger in some form of development. Alice details this in a much later diary entry of hers, in which she recounts that, “It reminds me of William in older days, when his eyes were bad and I used to begin to tell him something which I thought of interest from whatever book I might be reading, when he would invariably say: ‘I glanced into the book yesterday, and read that!’ ” (Burr, 165) As the two grew older, however, William began to interact with his sister quite differently than beforehand, as he focused his fraternal attentions to her in a way that would begin to characterize their relationship with one another for years to come.

To start off with, “William wrote her fond, playful, hyperbolical, adoring letters for years; it was a long, teasing, brotherly flirtation, an ironical but affectionate courtship that has a modern reader wondering at its excesses…There is no question that there was a strong current of feeling between sister and brother” (Richardson, 37). For within the James family, it seems that teasing banter was the typical sort of way for people to interact with one another, and William was certainly not one to miss out on enjoying himself slightly at his sister’s expense. For while Wilkinson and Robert, the two brothers closest to Alice in terms of age “…inflicted corporeal punishment on their sister…they had mastered the studied exclusivity a pair of boys can parade before a solitary girl” (Strouse, 52). William had instead opted to tease her in a way “…more subtly and affectionately than Wilky and Bob did—and his jokes were more overtly sexual. He addressed courtly, playful letters to her as ‘You lovely babe,’ ‘Charmante Jeune Fille,’ ‘Perfidious child!’ and ‘Chérie Charmante de Bal.’ He referred constantly to her physical attributes, and drew verbal portraits of her sensual, untutored, indulged feminine nature” (Strouse, 52). This sort of attention perpetually confused Alice, who was a mere child at the time; and while this type of behavior would continue for years to come, the youngest Jamesian would in turn falter back and forth between whether she should allow herself to be flattered and excited despite the fact that this was her brother treating her as such, or to in fact acknowledge the whole spectacle as altogether embarrassing. Therefore, in response to her brother’s forwardness, “Alice quickly learned to tease back. A bantering tone characterized all her relations with William, and when he went away from home he wrote of missing her chaffing. Still, his advances titillated and frightened her. They put her on display before the family audience like a bright ornament, calling attention to her female body with mocking praise” (Strouse, 54). In spite of the invigorating interactions William’s behavior towards Alice may have promised, however, there existed as well a barrier that would come to separate the two, mostly by means of the differences in the intellectual opportunities William had received that Alice had not. For to be quite frank, “William and Harry, became, by the mere fact of their different work and different circumstances, removed from the world of their juniors and a little set apart from it” (Burr, 33). Indeed, Alice felt this disparity quite deeply for the rest of her life. Many years later, Alice would come to write William over the discovery of some of their father’s letters that had concerned his children’s education, and smarted over what she had read from them, “ ‘Father announces…that none of the children ‘save Wm.’ show any intellectual taste—‘Just fancy that now!’ and me among the group…’ She [then] warned her eldest brother to ‘arm yourself against my dawn, which may at any moment cast you and Harry into obscurity’ ” (Strouse, 57). This last statement of hers promised him that she should not fail to keep up with her intellectual wonder of a brother, although of course doubt abounds as to whether or not the life Alice came to live could be considered successful enough to justify her claim.

William, for his part, set out to clear himself a career path; although his constant changes in occupancy would truly lend themselves to uncertainty as to whether or not he would succeed in making a name for himself in the professional world, before he eventually landed a position as a Harvard professor. Even after having left the James nest, William remained in touch with Alice, who in turn would respond to his letters in a sarcastic manner at her brother’s expense. For example, an 1867 letter details, “My darling Willy, Your letter was most gratefully received the other day…Father has desolated me this morning by telling me about your back. How perfectly dreadful it is to think of your having to go through with all poor Henry has suffered” (Strouse, 115). Despite whatever cutting remarks Alice may have ready to throw back at her brother’s incessant harassments, the feelings of superiority to him that were demonstrated earlier were also constantly matched with an inferiority complex that Alice was never quite able to fully resolve within herself. These thoughts did not remain entirely private either, as Alice closes this same letter with, “You must excuse the frivolity of this letter if you condescend to read it, on account of the frivolity and want of intelligence of the writer. You must remember that this mental baseness is not her own fault and that she is your sister her having so little mind may account for your having so much” (Strouse, 115). One may be brought back to how William had always been afforded more educational opportunities than his sister, both on the accounts that he was older and that she was female (in fact, the only daughter in the family, which also explains the alienating treatment Alice had received from her brothers).

William’s bantering with Alice, although to figure a relatively prominent position within the nature of their interactions for the rest of their lives, was soon to change rather drastically some time after the eldest James had left to begin his own life. For of all the people he could possibly choose to share these sentiments with, William primarily came to unload his desires for a wife upon the very sister he had arguably courted in a relatively similar manner, “At age twenty-five, he urged his nineteen-year-old sister to return to his arms…and invited her to provide him with a partner: ‘I wish you to find out some handsome, spirited & romantic creature whom I can fall in love with in a desperate fashion. The humdrumness of my life is very tiresome. Find her & bring her on’ ”(Strouse, 110). While it is a generally accepted notion that siblings should not attempt to pursue one another, Alice simultaneously could not deny that on a certain level, she actually appreciated her brother’s attentions. A few years later, however, William became engaged to one Alice Howe Gibbens, whose similarity in name to his sister was a fact that was not lost upon her. As the wedding drew closer, Alice’s thoughts on the matter grew ever more complex than before, but could be summed in that she truly did treasure the amorous advancements he made her, as not only did they elevate her to the status of an incredibly important woman in William’s eyes, but most importantly that there would be no other man on earth who would ever treat her in this same way. In this way, “She returned his mocking banter, and undoubtedly, in a suppressed way, his sexual curiosity. His engagement to a paragon of health and virtue was a profound betrayal” (Strouse, 182). The problem with the way William had envisioned his sister as he joked with her in this manner, however, was that “With her ‘transparent eyes soft step, and gentle hands,’ the woman whom William imagines at his bedside is less Alice herself than a faintly erotic Angel in the House…Yet with her ‘childlike form’ and ‘golden hair’ the heroine of William’s poem is not so much Alice as a sort of Bostonian Annabel lee. Amusing and suggestive as it is, all this ironic hyperbole finally tells us more about its author than its object—more about the imagination of the brother and even of the age than about the sister invoked as ‘so in all respects the thing that a brother should most desire’ ” (Yeazell, 9-10). This leads one to imagine that perhaps all this time, the woman William had been courting all throughout his young life was never really his sister to begin with, but a fantasized version of her that he had gradually realized would be impossible to obtain.

Despite whatever (private) misgivings Alice may have had about her brother’s engagement, he nonetheless proceeded with his marriage, which occurred almost as soon as his sister took to her bed, which was to be how she would remain for the majority of her life. As for her brother’s new wife, “There remains no record of a welcoming letter from sister Alice…Mother Mary told Bob that her daughter’s illness was ‘a nervous breakdown of a very serious character—an aggravated recurrence of her old troubles’ ” (Gunter, 55). In spite of the jealousy that this move was sure to have inspired within Alice, she found a way to convert this sentiment into something more positive, by feeding her inner sense of superiority over William in inviting her new sister-in-law to join her in doing so as well. For “She wrote in 1888 to William that ‘ladies…like Alice have little difficulty in managing shirking man.’ And she exhorted her sister-in-law…: ‘…if he is a less highly organized being than you, why deny the most sacred instincts of yr. nature to fit a lower form? Every woman, wife or maid, knows that her fellow, Man, is to FLATTERY as blotting-paper to ink, he soaks in it, in no matter how crude a form, or how wreathed about in mouthing ineptitudes, with endless ecstasy!’ ” (Strouse, 219) Therefore, regardless of whatever negative associations she may have held over the other Alice, the two would grow to become good friends, especially in that it would be “…sister Alice who could best see Alice for who she was, an intelligent, thoughtful, loving woman with a great interest in literature and liberal politics. As different as the two women were…both were keen observers of people. They were friends, albeit epistolary ones” (Gunter, 99). Nonetheless, even with Alice’s attempts to remedy her negative emotions over William’s marriage, it did not change the fact that she still found herself now utterly alone. To worsen matters, Alice was forced to acknowledge that perhaps all this time, she never truly held William’s love. She would reflect later on in life that it seemed “ ‘incredible that I should have drunk, as a matter of course, at that ever springing fountain of responsive love and bathed all unconscious in that flood of human tenderness.’…Her father and William, in particular, kept talking about their floodlike, overwhelming tides of feeling for her; but the emotion directed her way usually had more to do with the giver than the receiver: in its extravagance and drama, it drew insistent attention to itself” (Strouse, 184). Conversely, if she were to accept the lack of love she received, Alice would have also been forced into also accepting that she would never be able to receive it. Therefore, she decided to take to her bed, in the hopes that she would succeed in thereby extracting the love she has always wanted from her family. This resolution also held a more malignant tone to it in that, “…in punishing herself, in effect, with physical suffering, she exacted a measure of revenge—making her family suffer in sympathy, and forcing them to care for her (in both senses of the phrase)” (Strouse, 185). From that point on, Alice remained relatively bedridden for the rest of her life, although the question of sympathy would change with her as time wore on.

It was around now that the better-known and estranged relationship between Alice and William began, as the latter began to settle more into his new family life, leaving his sister out as a kind of after-thought. In effect, “Now that his marriage-cure had begun to work, William established his distance from the ‘neurotic’ unhappiness of his sister (and of his brother Bob). He alone, among Alice’s relatives and friends, never understood that she hated to be pitied” (Strouse, 196). He would in time come to resume his correspondence with her, although the teasing tone he had used with her before never did quite leave, as demonstrated in one of his letters: “I am glad you think you are doing well and are managing to live comfortably. I little thought you would be able to do so without me and my pills” (Strouse, 99). This sort of patronizing tone tended to dominate the rest of whatever subsequent communication he shared with Alice, mostly due to his wish to distance himself from her and her ‘neurotic suffering’ which he had been so sensitive to as a younger man. This did not stop him from offering heaps of unwelcome medical advice and diagnoses, which Alice was always quick to dismiss and ignore entirely. Their relationship with one another began to balance out somewhat soon afterward, as “Except for an occasional contretemps between William and Alice (and these were always mediated by Henry), most of the tension remained between the lines of their correspondence—they did maintain their old fondness and a wary mutual respect” (Strouse, 257). Indeed, Henry would oftentimes find himself the moderator between his two siblings, as both of them invariably got along better with him than with one another, particularly Alice. In terms of sibling dynamics, these two of the James children did grow the closest together, particularly since “More than any other member of the family, Henry treated Alice as an equal, and rejoiced as if he were a participant in her improving health…This artful fraternal empathy differed markedly from the sexually charged idylls offered by William. William’s scenarios highlighted the polarities of their two natures—he the masculine force and she his nurturing complement. Henry envisioned a sexually neutral scene in which brother and sister offer mutual consolation, hand in hand” (Strouse, 139). It is no surprise to say, therefore, that with the way William behaved and framed his mindset around Alice, that this only resulted in erecting barriers between the two that would in effect become insurmountable. William would, however, admit to even himself that when faced with people like himself who automatically attempted to dispense sympathy, Alice would steadfastly reject these notions, and as a result keep others from focusing solely upon her illness. For as he writes, “ ‘Alice met all attempts at sympathy with jeers and laughter, having her own brave philosophy, which was to keep her attention turned to things outside her sick-room and away from herself’ ” (Burr, 179). One could only wonder at this point then, why it is that a person as clever and strong-willed as Alice, would not only commit herself to a life of perpetual bed-confinement, but remain there willingly. A generally-accepted theory on this subject suggests that in doing so, Alice would be afforded “…an escape route—a way out of having to choose between a safe boring life of devotion to others and a dangerous assertion of intellectual competence. And it justified her failure to achieve while allowing her to preserve a sense of potent capability” (Strouse, 121-122). In other words, living in this way would allow for Alice to remove herself from the society that was so incredibly stifling to her as a woman, and instead make for a comfortable position as an observer.

Many years would pass in between when Alice decided to move to London in order live closer to Henry, and when William would go to see her again. While it may be assumed that Alice would have achieved a greater degree of peace over in her own rooms without William to distract and taunt her, she does admit within her journal to missing the humor that only he and her father were capable of producing, “Shall I ever have any convulsive laughs again? Ah me! I fear not. I had such a feast for thirty-four years that I can’t complain. But a curious extreme to be meted out to a creature, to have grown up with father and William, and then to be reduced to Nurse and Miss Clarke for humourous daily fodder!” (Burr, 101) Alice did not have much to fear in this regard, as William was planning on soon paying her a visit in London; although he of course sent her no word of doing so ahead of time, as he described her as becoming ‘perturbed at expecting things’ (Richardson, 292). He planned it out with Henry that the latter should go up and visit Alice as he normally did, and would approach the balcony with a handkerchief once he believed it to be alright for William to enter. The visit seemed to have done both siblings quite a world of good, as this managed to break down the estranged silence that had mostly comprised their relationship for the better part of five years. In a rare moment of what seems to be actual sincerity, William wrote later over his new impressions of Alice that “She was exceedingly elegant and graceful both of gesture and of voice, more so than of yore, and talked and laughed in a perfectly charming way making me feel ashamed of my dull and ponderous moral way of taking her these last years. She was witty and animated and curious about everything…Suffice it for now that the electric current is closed between myself and sister, and that the non-conducting obstruction is wholly melted away. It is a great relief” (Richardson, 293-294). Alice, for her part, also appears to have breathed her own sigh of relief at the idea that William did not quite match the vilified state he had previously occupied within her mind, “…with the assistance of two hundred grains of bromide, I think I behaved with extreme propriety…He [William] doesn’t look much older for the three years, and all that is to be said for him, of course, is that he is simply himself…What a strange experience it was, to have what had seemed so dead and gone all these years suddenly bloom before one, a flowering oasis in this alien desert, redolent with the exquisite family perfume of the days gone by…” (Burr, 107) Notwithstanding their reinvigorated relationship, it was to soon come again to another end; this time permanently.

On May 31, 1891, about a year and a half after the siblings’ reunion, Alice was diagnosed with breast cancer, an ailment which at the time carried with it a virtual death sentence. Although she would live for approximately one more year after having received the news, she felt it best that “ ‘…William, with his exaggerated sympathy for suffering isn’t to know anything about it ‘till it’s over’ ” (Burr, 81). He somehow managed to find out, in either case; but rather than react the way in which his sister had expected him to, William wrote her what one may consider a congratulatory epistle, which was in fact similar to what he did as well in response to their father’s impending death some ten years prior, “ ‘Your fortitude, good spirits and unsentimentality have been simply unexampled…when that which is you passes out of the body, I am sure there will be an explosion of liberated force and life, till then eclipsed and kept down’ ” (Burr, 81). He remained in America throughout the duration of her cancer, while Henry cared for Alice in England, periodically writing back to the family to update them on Alice’s (worsening) condition. The day before she died, Alice had reached the point where it was nearly impossible for her to speak, nonetheless she managed to be able to whisper “…a message for Henry to cable to William: ‘Tenderest love to all. Farewell. Am going soon.’ The next day, in the evening, another telegram came, this time from Henry: ‘Alice just passed away painless. Wire Bob’ ” (Richardson, 325). William remained in a state of shock for some time, not entirely able to accept the fact that Alice was now gone; although a few days later he sent an impassioned letter to Henry that was bursting with all the different emotions that his reaction comprised of: “ ‘What a relief!...Poor little Alice! What a life! I can’t believe that that imperious will and piercing judgment are snuffed out with the breath…Now that her outwardly so frustrated life is over, one sees that in the deepest sense it was a triumph. In her relation to her disease, her mind did not succumb. She never whined or complained or did anything but spurn it. She thus kept it from invading the tone of her soul…Her life was anything but a failure’ ” (Richardson, 325). From this point forward, it appears that William kept a far more respectful mental image of his sister than in years previous, all jesting and arrogance forever gone. The year after Alice’s death, in fact, William approached her grave with a marble urn he had designed for her: “On it, he had inscribed two lines from Dante’s Paradiso in commemoration of Alice’s life: ‘…ed essa da martiro, e da essilio venne a questa pace. From martyrdom and exile to this peace” (Strouse, 317).

The extraordinarily complex relationship that characterized William and Alice James’ dealings with one another fluctuated greatly in life; with flirtatious closeness as children, a cautious estrangement as adults, and concluded with an almost reverent understanding following Alice’s death. It of course could only reach this pinnacle after such a life-altering event, such as the end of a life, occurred; but remains the most balanced result that either sibling could have hoped for. To be sure, concerning Alice at least, “We are constantly being told that despite her ill-health she was a ‘comfort and delight; full of patience and affection instead of being irritable and inconsiderate as is so often the case’ ” (Burr, 77). One may just as easily take this to refer to Alice’s opinion of William, and that no matter what she may have believed his shortcomings as a brother to be, her patient nature would carry her as far as it was needed until they could finally reach a consensus of sorts, and finally fully understand one another as had never been possible in life.

Works Cited

Burr, Anna Robeson. Alice James: Her Brothers, Her Journal. Cornwall, New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1934. Print.

Gunter, Susan E. Alice in Jamesland: The Story of Alice Howe Gibbens James. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2009. Print.

Richardson, Robert D. William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006. Print.

Strouse, Jean. Alice James: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1980. Print.

Yeazell, Ruth Bernard. The Death and Letters of Alice James. Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1981. Print.