Saturday, May 16, 2015

Making friends...

   I have made a new friend. She is intelligent, witty, observant, and sadly, deranged. She is also dead.
   On a recent trip to the Montague Bookmill I found a copy of Jean Strouse's Alice James: A Biography. I know who Alice James is: she is the sister of author Henry James (Portrait of a Lady) and William James, considered by many to be the father of modern psychology. So why is this sister worthy of a biography of her own? Because she is (was) an incredible person: she was an avid writer of charming, witty letters to friends and family, letters that allow her personality to shine; her diaries (published in 1964) show a woman of deep, complex thought who saw, heard, and processed everything around her; finally, she taught history from 1873 to 1876 for the Society to Encourage Studies at Home, a Boston-based correspondence school for women founded by Anna Ticknor. So how is it that this person has been shrouded in shadows through history?
   The first (and probably main) reason is that she was a woman. As much as I love the society and culture of the nineteenth century, if I had lived it, I too probably would have been considered one of those 'unsettled' women whose minds were sadly offset by too much reading. (How that was justified as a basis for female insanity I have yet to figure out.)
   The second reason, of course, being that she was mentally ill. I haven't read enough of the biography to find out exactly what Strouse thinks the issue may have been, but internet sources say that Alice (she and I are on a first-name basis at this point) had at least two major breakdowns by 1882, and would experience several more before her death from breast cancer in 1892.
   For years my scholarly focus has been on Louisa May Alcott and the struggles she had with her father that drove her to create both exquisite happy childhoods and violent threatening worlds in her writing. Last summer I read the diary of Dorothy Wordsworth, another famous sister to an even more famous brother, also suffering from the Victorian 'female complaint.' Alcott herself recorded similar low points in her diary, though never succumbed to the title of 'invalid' until her physical health finally gave way as a result of lupus. These three brilliant women are barely a fraction of the women that Victorian society deemed unstable (actually, Alcott managed to avoid that stigma) and are only known to us through their literary works. Even this may not have happened had someone not seen the value of their thoughts. How many other women have been lost?

Photograph of Alice James


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