Leah Zander '12
Alice James is remembered as the brilliant invalid sister of author Henry James. In writing this vignette for "Historical Fictions", I drew upon Leon Edel's biographies of the James family as well as Alice James' own diaries.
There is a fly on the ceiling. Alice can see it from where she lies on the sofa. It creeps along the blurred meridian above the top of her book; every so often it pauses to rub its legs together, a gesture Alice cannot help but interpret as mocking. She wants very badly to throw her book at it, but this would be the act of a hysterical woman. Instead she resolves to ignore the fly. She will be a model of Christian restraint and forbearance. Vive et vivas.
Fortunately breakfast arrives before Alice’s tolerance is too sorely tested. Katherine carries the tray, looking, Alice thinks, more like a stern English governess than a Peabody-Loring in her muddy brown day-dress. While Katherine is bending down to arrange the tea tray on the table, Alice shrugs her shawl from her shoulders so that it falls about her knees. Katherine straightens to see Alice in wide-eyed disarray. Clucking her tongue, she tucks the shawl tight about Alice’s chest.
As Katherine unhinges the silver sugar dish, Alice kicks her foot-cushion to the floor. Katherine spoons twin lumps into Alice’s tea, stirs; she offers cup and saucer to Alice, who accepts with a tremulous hand. Katherine stoops to pick up the wayward pillow and replaces it beneath Alice’s slippered feet. She adjusts the shawl again and tucks back a strand of hair that has slipped from Alice’s braid. All this happens with the deft choreography of a ballet.
As Alice sips lukewarm tea Katherine begins her daily recounting of gossip, rumor, and news of dubious journalistic integrity. Alice supplements the narrative with dry remarks that make Katherine’s narrow shoulders quake with laughter. Katherine sits on the end of the settee; Alice can feel the warmth of her even through the thick cocoon of blankets, quilts, and shawls. The mid-morning sun that slants through a crack in the curtains illuminates Katherine from behind, giving her the golden aureole of a saint. Alice thinks of medieval paintings of the Virgin Mary, swathed in cerulean against a backdrop of pearly gold leaf; the knife-thin nose, pious mouth and almond-shaped eyes. She imagines Katherine fondling a fat baby and has to swallow an unrefined guffaw.
“Shall we go out today?” Katherine asks finally, once she has no more engagements and scandals to prevaricate upon. “The weather is very fine.”
Alice takes roster of her various ailments: the sore knee, agitated bowel, and head-ache that has been her constant companion for what feels like the age of the Earth. She thinks of sunlight, of fresh air. Is it spring? Will goldenrod grow woolly over the fence and meltwater rush in the brook again? Perhaps she will fling herself from her chair and roll bottom-first down a hill tangled with wildflowers, through the open gate of a cow-pen and onto the road, where she will set off into the great green beyond with weeds in her hair and dung on her skirt.
Or perhaps she will simply fall like an old woman and break something. Her hip, her wrist. It must be cold yet; she will catch a chill. The sunlight will blind her, the birdsong deafen her. She will be made mute by the chaos of color and noise. Or will she simply sit in her chair and smell the grass and remark upon the flowers and feel nothing but the ghost of sublime rattling through her?
Alice shakes her head. “Not today.”
The day passes. Alice lounges in the parlor, listlessly paging through her book. She does not know whether to blame the book for its dullness or herself for her indifference. Katherine has moved to the rocking-chair and is bent industriously over her embroidery. Alice watches her from around the sides of her book. Katherine’s face is a drama far more marvelous than that of Alice’s dreary novel. As her hands genuflect over the fabric her brows ascend and furrow, eyes squint and dilate, lips pucker and puff; within five minutes she has silently conveyed every agony and ecstasy of the human experience. The embroidered chrysanthemum on her lap has gained a leaf. Alice wonders what intensity of emotion a whole garden would require.
At noon her nurse brings lunch. Two boiled eggs and tomato sandwiches on blue china, as well as a bowl of what Alice has come to think of as invalid’s gruel: translucent chicken broth swimming with chopped greens. She sips it slowly while making faces at Katherine, who gives her an admonishing look over the rim of her teacup.
After lunch Alice takes the paper. It is heartier and more sustaining by far than the meal. There has been a deliciously gruesome murder in Cheapside; Alice reads the account out loud to Katherine, who listens with her mouth an O. Alice employs her most bombastic tones, like a prurient preacher whose enumerations of Hell’s lewdest horrors are accompanied with an ungodly enthusiasm. At the bloody denouement Katherine goes so pale that Alice pauses to ask if she should continue.
“Really,” she scolds, “we ought to regard fainting as wholly my office.”
“Oh, but do go on,” says Katherine breathlessly.
There is, Alice thinks, a little of the heathen in Katherine Loring.
The rest of the paper is not, perhaps, quite as exciting, but Alice savours each detail nonetheless: the continuing madness of the German emperor; the dauntless Irish, clamoring, as always, for Home Rule; the marriage of one Ambrose Pringle to a Lady Patience Lovestrand; the death of a Dutch painter. The final page is attended by the same rush of desolation that might accompany the sudden loss of a dear friend. Alice sighs. The hours until her guests arrive for supper stretch out endlessly.
When six o’clock arrives Alice is, of course, entirely unprepared. She must verbally flog her Nurse and maid into swift action. Her dressing-room seems suddenly full of a disproportionate number of hands, brushing and pinning up her hair, wrestling her into her only evening dress, rolling stockings up her legs and gloves down her arms, and struggling to work her bloated feet, so accustomed to slippers, into a new pair of shoes which prove perversely reluctant to accommodate her toes. By the time she has been dressed and propped up in the parlor Alice is exhausted and out of sorts. A fine film of perspiration has collected at her nape. She must fight the strong urge to rip off her clothes, crawl naked into bed and hibernate like a bear.
Henry arrives at half past. How odd, Alice thinks, that he should always contrive to make such a humble entrance, sidling into the hall with his chin tucked into his breast as though he were an under-butler and not the greatest writer of his generation. The effect is compounded by the fact that all of Henry seems to be sagging these days. His eyes have sunk into dark pouches as though exhausted by his battle against the inexorable assault of gravity. He has grown vastly fat. There is little left of the dark romantic gypsy-child he had been, save his hands. Long-fingered, knotted and chapped by vigorous activity, with milky oval nails, they are the hands of a poet crudely jointed to the body of a banker.
“Alice!” Henry says, his voice, as always upon greeting her, holding some note of surprise—as though he had expected to find her moldering and insensate and is instead delighted to discover that she has dallied in the lands of the living for yet a while longer. When he kisses her cheek his lips are as thin and dry as wax paper.
Alice plays the genteel Boston hostess and ushers him into the parlor. Despite the vase of fresh flowers on the mantle there remains the lingering staleness of infirmity. Henry pretends not to notice. Of the many things Alice appreciates about Henry, perhaps above all, is the fact that he never bothers to condescend to her (as William never fails to) with conversational pleasantries. Instead he speaks to her as she imagines he would any of his brilliant friends. He is no longer writing novels, he says; rather he will devote his talent to plays and short fiction.
“My literary posterity, as it were,” he says, “shall be in a large number of perfect short things.”
Alice imagines her brother constructing stories as precious and baroque as Faberge eggs. The thought comes, unbidden and unwelcome, that he has become irreparably European. Instead of dwelling on this perverse observation, Alice replies, “I have every confidence that you will astonish the critics.”
It is the wrong thing to say. Henry’s lips thin to a grim equator that seems to split his face like the hinged jaw of a ventriloquist’s doll. Too late, Alice remembers the damning response of the critics to his last novel, The Tragic Muse. It is clear from the way Henry seems to dwindle in his somber evening-suit that he is now reliving the agony of that still-fresh humiliation. He had always been baffled by bad reviews, never failing to take them personally. It is clear that without immediate intervention he will sulk throughout supper and spoil everyone’s appetite.
“I cannot lend you my fullest support in your endeavor, however,” Alice continues hastily, “for I have always thought perfection an entirely dull and commonplace aspiration. Take for example—” she begins warming to her topic—“the face of the society beauty. How many times, Henry, have you seen a lady powdered and tweezed with the acutest precision, her every feature rendered flawless by her own excruciating energies, only to create an effect with so little to interest one’s eye that it cannot help wandering from this banal visage to the buffet table? And is the converse not true as well—that the most unique defects can rescue an otherwise trite countenance, bestowing upon the wearer an ineffable allure?”
“I have often seen the proof of this,” says Katherine, understanding the game at once.
Henry’s eyes are bright with amusement. “Yes,” he says, “as have I, many times.”
“In fact,” says Alice, thus encouraged, “I am of the opinion that if the writer is to generate anything of worth he cannot limit his frontiers to the merely perfect when the purely interesting is so much more engaging of the mind and soul. Indeed, I move that we consider it the most Jamesian endeavor imaginable.”
She is rewarded by one of Henry’s true laughs, rich and delighted and seeming to sound from the very depths of him. He is about to reply, no doubt with a spirited rejoinder, when they are interrupted by the arrival of William and his wife. Alice stands too quickly and must clutch, dizzy, at the arm of the sofa for support. Katherine is at her side immediately, hands fluttering to feel her pulse, her forehead; William and the other Alice enter to see Alice slumped against Katherine like a drooping aspen, with Henry looking on in concern.
“I see we have coincided with an apoplexy,” says William mildly, handing his hat to the maid.
“Not at all.” Alice lowers herself back down onto the sofa. “We were only just discussing Harry’s new artistic direction.”
“Oh dear.” William smiles indulgently. “Henry, I hope you shall not prove one of those writers who cannot commit themselves to a single mode but rather skip from one to another as the fashion changes, like a mondaine at the hat-shop.”
“Henry isn’t a faddist, dear,” chides the other Alice, laying a gloved hand upon her husband’s arm.
“No, indeed,” says Henry, “I consider myself a bulwark of stolid integrity in a world where the novel is too often as cheap, as promptly obsolete and as easily disposed of as the New York World.” He licked his lips. “In fact, I find I have altogether grown out of the form.”
“Like last season’s bonnet, I suppose,” says William.
“Instead,” Henry pushes forth, “instead I shall write for the theater.”
William tugs his whiskers in an expression of pompous benevolence that is so very the mirror of their father that for a moment Alice can see the translucent image of the dead William transposed over that of the living. As soon as it is come it is gone again, leaving her with the sudden sure premonition that William is about to utterly ruin the evening.
“Let us adjourn to the dining room,” she says quickly, but it is too late; William has begun to speak and will not be interrupted.
“Henry, allow me to speak plainly. The truth of it is that you simply cannot call yourself an artist if you allow yourself to be influenced by these petty aesthetes. I have always said that the critic is nothing more than the merest chaff of human wit. Your last book was, perhaps, a mistake; still, you must not permit yourself the false comfort of self-pity. Take your inspiration from Socrates.”
“Socrates committed suicide,” Henry remarks.
“But his legacy endures. And so too, my dear brother, shall yours—but only as long as you do not allow this disappointment to drive you from the novel, the form which has made your career, and into the callow embrace of the theater. Chin up, Henry! Have done with regret; it is within you to make good your name once more.”
He stands back, beaming, as though he has just delivered the most soul-stirring address imaginable.
“The critics have never understood Henry,” says Alice. “Posterity shall vindicate him.”
But it is too little too late. Henry has receded into himself entirely, the folds of his suit closing around him like Ophelia’s waterlogged rags. William will be smug and self-satisfied all night. Everything is spoiled. Alice thinks sourly that family conversation is one arena in which the interesting can be held as subordinate to the perfectly dull.
Supper is that peculiarly British indulgence, the Sunday roast. Their plates are heaped with glistening slabs of beef and thick potato slices slathered with herbed mayonnaise; sweet buttered rolls, roast carrots, and faintly stinking Brussels sprouts. The excess makes Alice feel ill. She pushes a potato around her plate with her fork and surreptitiously watches the other Alice.
Naturally, other-Alice’s manners are impeccable. Each bite is precisely proportioned, speared elegantly on the end of her fork and lifted to her mouth; then a flash of pearly teeth, discreet mastication, and a slight bob of her slender throat as she swallows. Once the procedure is complete she lays down fork and knife crosswise across her plate and dabs delicately at her lips with a napkin.
Meanwhile William has been allowed to go on in sonorous tones about some subject or another which has been caught in the illuminating beacon of his attention. Alice has the unkind thought that her brother is at times a kind of human dirge. What is it he is speaking of, anyway? Ah, the Mind. Of course. And what is this obsession amongst their family with the Mind? Why has it become with William clinical, Henry literary, and Alice pathological? For a moment Alice allows herself to imagine them as disembodied brains, floating in the soup of human experience. Or drowning, as it were. She almost laughs—grimly, hysterically. She mustn’t be morbid. It worries people.
It is at this time that Alice notices the fly. It is the same fly from this morning; she is sure of it. The fly is crawling across the wallpaper above and to the left of Henry’s head. It stops and rubs its legs together, as if in greeting.
In her childhood Alice had once been permitted to look at a fly under a microscope. Beneath the miraculous glass Alice had perceived the minutest details of its features: the swollen, refracted eyes, the exquisite delicacy of the gossamer wings. It had bristled, she remembers, all over with hair, like the fuzzy down on the head of a human baby. It had fangs; she can recall them acutely. Terrible hair-thin fangs, each one like the needle of a syringe.
Alice must have stood without realizing. The conversation has ceased. At the corner of her eye she can see William and Henry exchanging looks of concern. The other Alice’s expression is entirely blank. She raises her fork to her mouth. Alice thinks of the flexing pincers of a fly. She will not remember collapsing; only the sudden smell of ozone, the brief, perfect joy of Katherine’s hand on her own.
James, Alice. The Diary of Alice James. Ed. Leon Edel. Dodd Mead & Company: Scranton, 1964.
James, Henry. Henry James Letters 1883-1895. Ed. Leon Edel. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1980.
James, Henry. The Notebooks of Henry James. Ed. F.O. Matthiessen and Kenneth B. Murdock. Oxford University Press: New York, 1947.
Strouse, Jean. Alice James: A Biography. Houghton Mifflin Company: 1964.
Toibin, Colm. The Master. Scribner: 2005.
Leah is a literature student at Bennington College.