Let’s honor International Women’s Day with a shout out to Alice James, the brilliant and witty invalid sister of big shots William James and Henry James. Hers was a short life plagued by what was then called “hysteria,” (this was the mid-19th century) when she resorted to cures such as massage, visits to specialists in NYC for ice and electric therapy, “blistering” baths, and stints in the “Adams Nervous Asylum” near Boston. A plague of sick headaches, fainting spells and other symptoms resigned her to “the chair,” and off and on suicidal jags throughout her life. Her father had no problem with this, begging her only to “do it in a perfectly gentle way in order not to distress her friends.”
Breast cancer finally claimed her, and she died in 1892 at the age of 44.
Her diary, published posthumously after the usual haggle of family and friends over what to censor, can now be read in full. It offers amazing insights into the world of the time — she spent the end of her life in London and received calls from leading lights — and personal impressions which are touching and occasionally scathing.
It’s difficult to choose just one to excerpt. Here is the invalid writing on her beloved garden, which she rarely had the strength to visit:
“In one’s careless days, one little suspects how elderly forlornities, out of sight, lap up crumbs of remembrance — not but what my little world remembers me 1,000 times more than I look for, I shall not sweetly say deserve. I went into the gardens to day, the roses exquisite, the geraniums not got supreme command as yet. When will the race be emancipated from them? […] If I make this [diary] a receptacle for feeble ejaculations over the scenery, what a terror it will be.”