The dark wit of Alice James

is nowhere to be found in the series The Gilded Age.

I recently had a conversation with a profesional arborist who also happened to be an English-literature nerd. We were comparing favorite authors, and I told him I loved the novelist Henry James and also his brother, the philosopher William James. When I added that I thought the James’ sister Allice was fascinating, too, he said, “Now you’ve rocked my world! I didn’t know there was a sister in that family.”

Well, yes. It is interesting to have watched the latest attempt to capture the gilded age on camera, Julian Fellowes’ glossy The Gilded Age, and realize just how much texture it leaves out. Maybe Alice, an amazing creature in her own right, apart from her James lineage (fifth of the children), will make an appearance, but I somehow doubt it. The series is all surface shimmer and snark, and I find the dialogue to be cardboard at best. A deep, wounded, brilliant creature like Alice James might have no place in this superficial jaunt. We have, it seems, only one picture of her.

It is now a going thing, for a novelist to slip a real live historical person into the pages of a book, and animate him for a different age. I’m just now reading the Colm Toibin book The Magician, which tells the life story of Thomas Mann, author of Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain. The bio is conveyed as though it were fiction. Trotsky and W.H. Auden prance through the pages’ cafes and cocktail parties, and I was not sure which conversations were invented and which borrowed from letters or diaries. It’s enjoyable to read in any case.

In my suspense novel Savage Girl, set at the same time as The Gilded Age, I folded in a few real-life characters, just for fun. Among them, the James gang. First, Alice is introduced at a fancy dinner at Delmonico’s, which stood at Fifth Avenue and 14th Street.

At that time the Statue of Liberty had not yet been fully assembled, and the torch was traveling the country as a sort of fundraiser. It would have been visible from the restaurant windows.

Later, after some twists and turns, our troubled hero-narrator Hugo visits with his Harvard professor William James at the James family’s Cambridge home. Father and mother are both present, exhibiting qualities that made sense from my biographical studies. Also figuring into things, Alice. To her, the lofty professor was always “Willy.” He liked to sketch.

The Alice I invited into my book is a curious creature, also drawn from life–in fact, virtually all her dialogue in my novel is drawn from her Diary, which is rather famous in academic women’s studies circles if nowhere else. Alice (1848-1892) led a sheltered life, afflicted by poor health and debilitated by ”nervous problems.” She died of breast cancer at the age of 43, leaving behind a romantic partner who took it upon herself to make copies of the Diary for the James brothers, thus securing it for posterity. Alice’s brothers gallivanted around the world but she stayed mainly  in her sickroom, so I think they might have been somewhat surprised about just what was going on in her secret life all those years.

In Savage Girl, Alice approaches the group in the vestibule of the James home on Quincy Street, “attired in spider-grey velvet.” Hugo, William James and Alice stroll around Harvard Yard, speaking of things that matter. William asks his sister if she has any thoughts on the subject of “self-death.”

“What to do about it is the question,” says Alice. “My best answer: clothe oneself in neutral tints, walk by still waters and possess one’s soul in silence.”

“That is precisely what I have thought,” says James.

It’s so easy to write a character when they’ve given you terrific lines!

The conversation among the characters in continues.

“Nonetheless I have found that of all the arts,” says Alice, “living is the most exquisite and rewarding.”

Then she asks if she might “tell … a beautiful, touching tale.”

“Here we go,” says James. “Now, listen.”

Alice, verbatim from her Diary: “An old couple near Boston who had lived together for half a century became destitute and had to sell all their things, and had nothing before them but the dreaded poorhouse, where they would have meat and drink, to be sure, but where they would be separated. They could handle all but that, so one day they went out together and never came back, and their old bodies were found tied together in the river. How perfect a death!”

“Alice is having a good day,” James says mildly. Back to fiction.

I firmly believe that had she not been heartsick through her life, Alice could have achieved public greatness on a par with her family members. At that time, a woman needed the strength of a lioness like Edith Wharton if she was to thrive outside domestic precincts. The televised Gilded Age features real-world New York characters such as Caroline Astor and Ward MacAllister – I’d love to see Alice James crack open the show the next time I tune in.


Filed under Jean Zimmerman

5 responses to “The dark wit of Alice James

  1. Jennifer

    The Gilded Age should leave Alice out of it. She is safe in your hands but not in theirs!

  2. wertmane

    Hi Jean,
    Love your articles. I didn’t know that you had books published and now will check them out.
    I agree with your comments on the show Gilded Age. I am hopeful that they will continue showing strong rolls and intelligent conversation and opinions by the women. Hope springs eternal.
    It also makes me sad to think that so many gifted women have barely made a blip in history. I feel like I have missed out on so much art that I would enjoy if these women were brought forth to the public. Thankfully, there is the internet, LOC, and people like you that is doing the hard work and reintroducing them to us.
    Thank you, and good health to you,

  3. Thank you Jean for weighing in on the Guiled Age. You are an expert on that era. Looking forward to more of your posts.

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