Alice in Jamesland: The Story of Alice Howe Gibbens James
by Susan E. Gunter
Reviewed by Colm Toibin
New York Review of Books
At the end of R.W.B. Lewis's The Jameses: A Family Narrative there is an appendix, entitled " The Later Jameses," which is a godsend for novelists, geneticists, and anthropologists, to name just three groups who might take an interest in what happened to the James family between the death of Henry in 1916 and 1991, the year the book was published. Readers of Susan E. Gunter's Alice in Jamesland, a fascinating new biography of the formidable wife of William James, which ends in 1922 with her death, will be eager to know, for example, what happened to Alice's youngest son, Aleck, born in 1890, of whom Gunter paints a tender portrait. Of all of the family, he seemed the most vulnerable and the most sweetly indifferent to the legacy of the name he had inherited. Despite his father's strict views, Aleck seemed to remain a free spirit.
In Lewis's book we discover that he became a painter, which was what he wanted to be, and that he remained happily married to the woman of his choice, despite his mother's early disapproval of her, and that, while his brother Harry "made money" and the next brother Billy "married money," Aleck devoted his life to his art. Knowing about him is like knowing about the fate of the characters in Middlemarch. Slowly, with these books, the life of each member of the James family is being charted and, by implication, the history of many human types as they circle each other, nourish each other, and damage each other is being written.
Alice in Jamesland matches Jean Strouse's masterly biography of the other Alice James, William and Henry's sister -- the one who stayed in bed -- and Jane Maher's A Biography of Broken Fortunes, the story of the two younger siblings, Wilkie and Bob, who fought in the American Civil War. Gunter's book offers an ingeniously plotted microhistory of the period and its domestic life, and throws light on the personalities of two American geniuses. So, also, House of Wits: An Intimate Portrait of the James Family adds to and enriches what we already know from R.W.B. Lewis's history of the family; from Alfred Habegger's The Father, a life of Henry James Senior; and from the several biographies of William James and Henry James the novelist, including Leon Edel's five-volume work. Slowly, the Jameses are matching the Bonapartes and the Kennedys. Every scrap of paper they left unburned is being studied for its significance.
R.W.B. Lewis wrote also, toward the end of his book, of the continued presence of Jameses in Bailieborough in County Cavan, Ireland, until the death of Bobby James there in 1932 at the age of ninety-two. It was from Bailieborough sometime between 1789 and 1794 that William James, later of Albany, set out for the United States, where he made a fortune "based on shrewd merchandizing and opportunistic land speculation in Albany as well as on his stake in the Erie canal," as Paul Fisher writes. At his death in 1832, William James, a staunch Presbyterian, was one of the richest men in New York State. In his will he attempted to disinherit Henry, the fifth of his eleven children, because of his drinking habits. His inheritance restored, Henry James Senior devoted his life to freethinking, replacing his father's stern authority with his own immense questing, restless spirit. In 1840, he married Mary Walsh, also of Irish Presbyterian stock, whom he had met at her family's home in Washington Square in New York.
They had two children in quick succession. William was born in 1842; fifteen months later, Henry James Senior, who had a tendency toward restlessness, wrote to Emerson, whose work he admired and whom he had befriended, that "another fine little boy...preaches to me that I must be settled at home." This was Henry, who became the novelist.
But the father had no intention of settling at home, much to Emerson's horror. "Every week," Emerson wrote, "I hear of some conspicuous American who is embarking for France or Germany and every such departure is a virtual postponement of the traveller's own work & endeavour."
In England, Henry James Senior, who had crossed the ocean with his wife, his sister-in-law, a nursemaid, and two infant sons, befriended Thomas Carlyle, who wrote to Emerson:
James is a very good fellow, better and better as we see him more -- Something shy and skittish in the man; but a brave heart intrinsically.... He confirms an observation of mine...that a stammering man is never a worthless one.
Jane Carlyle noticed Henry James Senior's wooden leg, a result of an accident when he was thirteen. He was, she wrote,
"not a bad man"..."nor altogether a fool" -- but he has only one leg -- that is to say only one real available leg -- the other...consisting entirely of cork -- Now a man needs to take certain precautions...to use some sort of stick instead of trusting to Providence as this Mr James does. So that every time he moves in the room...one awaits with horror to see him rush down among the tea-cups, or walk out thro the window glass, or pitch himself foremost into the grate!
His wife and sister-in-law, she noted, "giggled incessantly, and wore black
stockings with light colour[e]d dresses."
The James menage moved from London to Paris and then back to England where they rented Frogmore Cottage at Windsor from the Duchess of Kent. It was here that Henry Senior suffered an attack of hysteria, which filled him with fear as, alone in the house, he sensed "some damned shape squatting invisible to [him] within the precincts of the room." This, Paul Fisher points out, could easily have been caused by drink, but its shivering victim later came to the view that he had undergone what Swedenborg called "a vastation." Thus the Swedish philosopher replaced Emerson and Carlyle in Henry James Senior's pantheon of saviors.
Once back in New York and then in Albany, where he moved for two years, the victim of the vastation began to correspond with other Swedenborgians, calling his next son, born in 1845, Garth Wilkinson after one of the most enthusiastic of them. Another son, Bob, was born in 1846. The Jameses finally moved back to New York and into a house, their first, on West Fourteenth Street. Their last child, Alice, was born in 1848.
The father of the five young Jameses did not cease his explorations; he flirted with socialism and with free love; he wrote many letters and gave lectures to whoever would listen to him. His wife, as Paul Fisher makes clear, learned to manage his "health and emotional stability" and ignore his more recondite and peculiar views. Of erotic passion, he wrote to a friend:
Who will then ever be caught in that foolish snare again? I did nothing but tumble into it from my boyhood to my marriage; since which great disillusioning -- yes! -- I feel that the only lovable person is one who does not permit himself to be loved.
His wife, despite these views of his, which were often expressed loudly and widely, "coped with him -- sweetly, deftly, with an apparent innocence about what she was doing," as Fisher writes. "Under Mary's influence, Henry tempered passionate unconventionality with Victorian restraint -- a paradox he would bequeath to his children."
It is fascinating to study the creation of two of these children -- the writers William and Henry James. It is interesting to watch how much of their ambition and achievement came into being precisely because of the attention their parents brought to bear on them, or how much came into being despite that very energy, or in ways which seemed to evade or oppose its force. As you read these books, it is hard not to wonder if these artists became who they were by some sort of design, from the education they received and from a set of circumstances put in place very early in their lives.
In the second half of the nineteenth century we can watch other sets of siblings also become artists -- W.B. Yeats and his brother Jack, the painter, for example; Heinrich and Thomas Mann; Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell. In the case of all four families -- the Yeatses, the Manns, the Stephens, the Jameses -- there was a dynamic at work that involved a struggle for power, or something like power, between siblings, a sort of fierce ambition within families for recognition and escape. In the case of all four families the parents seemed to shine a light on some of their children and leave the others to their own devices.
In these families where geniuses were nurtured, there were also damaged ones begging for attention. Just as the artists lived in the light, their siblings lurked in the shadows -- Lily and Lolly Yeats, for example, who ran the Cuala Press, one of them as clever and talented as her brothers, the other difficult and cantankerous, both uneasy and unfulfilled; or the two Mann sisters, who both committed suicide; or the brothers, step-brothers, and step-sister of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, who seemed to orbit the two artists like lesser planets. Or Wilkie, Bob, and Alice James. In any study of these families, it seems as though the work and theories of Foucault about power and control rather than those of Freud might best explain how things were managed and what the results were.
The formal education of William and Henry James involved what the latter would call "small vague spasms of school," with many changes and tutors. But in the foreground was their father, at home all the time, filled with ideas and ambitions, never silent. It is perhaps too easy to say for sure that the sense of steely finish and the rigorous edge in the works of William and Henry James arose from the precise lack of this in their father, that the best education they got was from watching him and deciding not to be like him. What the Jameses got from their mother, which remains more difficult to describe, may have been equally influential.
It is also possible that the move back to Europe in 1855 may have made all the difference in taking the two intelligent teenagers, so different from each other, away from any peer group or place that might limit them or give them complacent roots. The family went to London first, then Paris, then Geneva, then London again, then Paris once more, then Boulogne-sur-Mer. They returned to America in 1858 to live at Newport, Rhode Island, but the following year, the entire family plus Aunt Kate (their mother's sister) returned once more to Geneva. As they moved, Henry Senior seemed to grow increasingly restless. "Alice would remember," Fisher writes,
that Henry [Senior] abandoned his family, every so often, for a few days at a time. In fact, certain Continental cities would be perpetually marked with the memory of his mercurial departures and his "sudden returns." Quixotically, fresh from some train or steamer, Henry could reappear "at the end of 36 hours, having left to be gone a fortnight."
In 1860, the James family returned to America again, and to Newport. While William took classes in painting, Henry followed suit, but in a way that was halfhearted. As talk of civil war began, it was unclear what either of them, so out of touch with America, would do.
Their father, in the meantime, on the advice of Emerson, enrolled his two younger sons, whom he and his wife viewed as less talented, almost less worthy, than their two older siblings, in an academy run by an abolitionist agitator, Frank Sanborn, where Hawthorne's son Julian and John Brown's daughter were also pupils; Thoreau guided the students in walks in the woods.
In April 1861, at the time of Lincoln's call to arms, William and Henry James were, at nineteen and eighteen, the exact age at which young men were joining the Union army. Many of their friends and a few of their cousins were joining. William, instead, went to Harvard. Henry may or may not have had an accident -- Fisher allows for the possibility, but it seems rather unlikely -- while fighting a fire two days after the call to arms. This "horrid even if...obscure hurt," as Henry James later coyly called it, meant that he could not join the army. Instead, in 1862, with his father's approval, his younger sibling Wilkie joined, and in 1863 brother Bob followed him.
Both Wilkie and Bob, aged just seventeen and sixteen, witnessed the most appalling carnage. Wilkie was badly injured; Bob was deeply shaken by what he saw. Neither of them ever fully recovered from the war. Neither of them, as Fisher writes,
would find the challenges of ordinary life as stimulating as the dramatic, draining, and emotionally fraught experience of war. After the close bonds of soldiering and the heightened adrenaline of battle, these young men would find it difficult to return to lives where they were no longer heroes, where they in fact felt somewhat second class.
In the meantime, Alice James, the youngest of the five, was also damaged by being what was jokingly called "a native of the James family" rather than a native of anywhere else. Alice was intelligent, witty, sharp, and, within a limited circle in which she felt relaxed, almost brilliant, but she was also sensitive, awkward, self-conscious, and fragile. "One feels," Leon Edel wrote, "that she doffed her swaddling-clothes but to don a spiritual straitjacket." "She was," in the words of Jean Strouse,
growing up into a world in which she still seemed to have no place, and her spirit rebelled against the enforced uselessness of a female adolescent that coincided with the greatest national crisis of the century. Since her nature was ardent, she had to struggle constantly to quench its unruly assertions. It was the struggle of a lifetime.
In the novelist Henry James's tender writings about his mother, especially after her death, and in the surviving letters between them, one notes Mary James's intelligence, kindness, and maternal indulgence. It is easy to see how she applied herself to the welfare of her talented and sensitive second son, but it is less easy to see what she did for Alice, other than force her into a routine of dullness and duty, which may have been customary for young women of the age, but was not helpful for someone whose background and upbringing were as unsettled and unusual as Alice's and whose personality was as brittle.
In 1864, the Jameses moved to Boston. William traveled and studied medicine; Henry began to publish short stories. In 1869 Henry finally left for England, then began to travel on the European mainland. Although he would return home in 1870, the scene was set for his long exile. Fisher is enlightening about the financial cost of this. While the new family home in Quincy Street had cost $20,000, and while Wilkie and Bob had been sent to work, both eventually being employed as payroll clerks for a railroad company in the Midwest, Henry James's first year in Europe cost his family $2,000.
In 1872, William James began to teach physiology at Harvard, thus beginning a long association with the university. Henry, who had published his first novel and was writing many pieces for magazines, returned to Europe with his sister Alice; and following a five-month tour and her return home, Henry went on to Rome, then Paris, and finally in 1876 settled in London. When he was visited in Italy by William, who suggested that he should marry, he refused point-blank, as William reported to Bob. Both Wilkie and Bob, on the other hand, soon married rich women, Bob's fiancee arriving at the James's home in Boston, much to the horror of the family who disliked display and vulgarity, wearing "two thousand dollars on her fingers," and five thousand dollars hanging "pendant from her ears."
Since Henry had escaped to Europe, and Alice spent her time in bed or recovering from sessions there, and Wilkie and Bob had moved away (or been banished) and found wives, the attention of Henry Senior and his wife, who longed to give advice and interfere in their children's lives, could now be focused sharply on William. In his early thirties, he was still living at home "under their watchful eye." Like Henry his brother and Alice his sister, William was much given to illnesses which could not be fully explained. He was often miserable.
Early in 1876, his father arrived home one evening to announce, perhaps playfully, that he had caught a glimpse of the woman who was to be William's wife. Her name was Alice Howe Gibbens. "Although more intellectually engaged than Mary James," Fisher writes,
she reminded Henry Senior very much of his wife: she rated as the same kind of no-nonsense marriage prospect that Mary Walsh had been almost forty years before. Hence Henry's view that this was just what his son needed.
Susan E. Gunter in Alice in Jamesland draws a sharp, subtle, and sympathetic portrait of the woman whom Henry James Senior announced would be suitable for his ambitious and neurotic son. The fact that Alice Gibbens emerges as the most sane member of the James family does not perhaps mean much; luckily for us all, the family did not value sanity as highly as, say, talent, or the molding of talent toward genius. In her biography, Gunter manages to recreate, with some ingenuity and tact, the life of a wife and mother in these years in an upper- middle-class Boston household; she charts what it was like to care for one of the most needy and talented figures to emerge from that class.
She shows how, despite much self-sacrifice and self-suppression, Alice Gibbens actually survived, almost thrived in this role. Perhaps because she does not dwell as much as she might on the response of Alice James, William's sister, to the new Alice in the family, or emphasize the new Alice's general bossiness around other women -- most notably Katharine Loring, her sister-in-law Alice's companion, or Theodora Bosanquet, the secretary of her brother-in-law Henry James -- or her disapproval of Edith Wharton, Gunter's portrait of Alice Howe Gibbens James depicts an admirable figure, filled with strength and understanding, calmly intelligent and immensely capable.
Just as Aunt Kate had burned letters and papers after the death of Henry James Senior, and Henry James had lit a number of significant bonfires at Rye toward the end of his life, both Alice Gibbens James and her son Harry burned many letters. Harry destroyed, in fact, all but two bundles of his mother's letters as they did not seem to him "to possess the special interest that attaches more or less to all of my father's letters." This makes Susan Gunter's achievement in not only piecing together a life of Alice Gibbens James, but creating a full portrait of her without recourse to guesswork or speculation, all the more remarkable.
Perhaps the single event in Alice Gibbens's life that caused her determination to create emotional stability around her was her father's suicide in 1865, when she was sixteen. She had survived, Paul Fisher writes, "by becoming a provider, a caretaker, a manager, a pillar." She took responsibility for her two younger sisters and her mother, and had, by the time Henry James Senior laid eyes on her, been teaching for some years at a school for girls in Beacon Hill.
Her relationship with William James began slowly and was often filled with uncertainty, mainly due to William's indecision and his highly developed sense of an interior darkness. He was given to being tortured and distraught. "I renounce you!" he wrote when they had known each other for more than a year.
Let the eternal tides bear you where they will. In the end they'll bear you round to where I wait for you. I'll feed on death now, but I'll buy the right to eternal life by it.
But he did not really renounce Alice Gibbens, nor indeed did he feed on death; instead he seemed to enjoy agonizing over the possibility that he might or might not marry her. He was lucky she waited. More than two years after he met her, they became engaged.
Soon after their marriage, and established in Boston, Alice Gibbens began to work closely with her husband, whose ideas about psychology were slowly developing. When he delivered a series of six lectures entitled "The Brain and the Mind," "the bulk of the outlines," Gunter writes, "and fragments of extant drafts are in Alice's hand." The following year, when an article by William appeared in the magazine Mind, most of the manuscript was also in Alice's hand. After their first child was born, he wrote to her: "Dearest, I do feel as if I were related to you by a peculiar kind of tie."
Her independence of mind displayed itself in her attitude toward her children. When the doctor instructed that she should not feed her first child between ten at night and six in the morning, she decided to ignore him. "I concluded after much thinking that it was our own affair...and so to the great joy of the poor little thing I let him nurse just as often as he chooses." While Gunter emphasizes, with considerable display of evidence, Alice's sexual closeness to William, she also makes clear that Alice's religious beliefs were more traditional and much firmer than William's. When Henry James Senior died, Alice wrote to her husband, who was in England: "If one impression, stronger than all others is left to me from those days, it is the unutterable reality, realness, nearness of the spiritual world." As Alice and William dabbled in spiritualism all of their lives, Alice seemed to believe in mediums and seances more fervently than William, who was, however, always fascinated by them. They both regularly saw Mrs. Piper, a medium, who seemed to know a great deal about them.
Alice's involvement increased when she lost her baby son Hermann. Gunter writes with real insight and tenderness about this loss, which haunted Alice James for the rest of her life. Twenty years after it occurred, for example, she wrote to William:
I have such curious dreams, and one unhappy thing keeps recurring. I seem to be wandering in difficult places...and always I am carrying in my arms a baby, whose I know not, a weak ailing child whom I cannot get rid of or lay to rest.
The relationship between Alice James and her brother-in-law Henry, who was visiting Boston when Henry Senior died and his brother William was in England, was close and warm. It must have been a relief for Alice to meet him; his calm reticence, firm ability to listen, and general equanimity must have come as a surprise. It was not shared by any of his siblings, William included. William, in fact, became jealous of their closeness when he was in England. When he expressed a wish to return, Henry wrote to him:
Your wife strikes me as distinctly distressed at the prospect of your return, and she could not restrain her tears as she spoke of it to me today.
Alice, in turn, wrote to William about Henry:
My depression last night was not for your postponed return. No dear! it was the after effect of Harry who is to me like a strange perfume, very pleasant but leaving a curious lassitude behind. And he is so good!
William wrote back:
I shiver through and through with longing to be with you and never to leave your side, to melt into your being, to be rolled in your arms and silent in a last embrace.
Alice Gibbens James was, in fact, besides his own mother, the only American woman with a husband and children whom Henry James came to know well. She made her way into his fiction in three stories written in the early 1880s, when he had been in her company in the aftermath of his father's death: "The Impressions of a Cousin," in which he drew her as steadfast and dutiful, and "Pandora" and "Lady Barbarina," in which he dealt with scenes from her earlier life when, after her father's suicide, the family had lived in Germany. He also used her name, some of her address, and her personality ("a model of stability and love," as Gunter writes) in "The Jolly Corner," one of his last stories, written in 1907.
She thus joined his cousin Minny Temple (whose aura led him to "Daisy Miller," Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady, and Milly Theale in The Wings of the Dove); Lizzie Boott, whom he had known in Boston and in Italy (whose circumstances led him to Pansy Osmond in The Portrait of a Lady and Maggie Verver in The Golden Bowl); his sister Alice (aspects of whom he used for Rosie Munniment in The Princess Casamassima and for Flora in The Turn of the Screw). His sister- in-law was clever enough perhaps to allow it to escape her attention that there are elements of her in The Ambassadors in the formidable figure of Mrs. Newsome, who did not believe in nonsense. (Alice Gibbens James's view of Rome, for example: "But I belong to the north and not all this beauty can repay to me the filth, cruelty and crime-tainted atmosphere of the place.")
She was also an avid reader of Henry's work, writing to him of his novel The Tragic Muse, for example:
You seem to me to have crossed the border into the kingdom of the Great, into the land where the few, the Masters live and create by laws and immensities of their own. The book is new, unlike any other -- so new that perhaps people won't take it in today or tomorrow, but its own day is waiting for it. The delightful talk, the serene good nature, the revelation of the artistic nature -- it's all wonderfully fine. And it all fits and rests in its own whole. I mean the feeling of structure which it gives me, as does a beautiful piece of architecture. The sensation is rare enough to be reveled in when at last it is to be vouchsafed.
William and Alice built a large house on Irving Street near Harvard and a summer house at Chocorua in New Hampshire. They had four children, Harry, Billy, Peggy, and finally a boy whose name changed many times, but eventually became Aleck. William in these years was often as restless as his father had been. "No matter where he was," Gunter writes, "someplace else might be better." He traveled alone to Europe and then with his family. He was not an easy traveling companion. While visiting Europe in 1892, Gunter writes,
the couple fought often during their stay in Florence, usually over children and money.... [One] day he came home with paintings, an unauthorized purchase. When she protested, William took a pair of scissors and cut the landscapes into pieces while his son Harry watched in horror.
Henry James, as he observed them, did not envy his brother and sister-in-law their brood or their responsibilities. When William and Alice came to England alone, having left their children in schools on the European mainland, Henry told his friend Francis Boott that if he were in their place, "he would not return to Switzerland to get the children." Four years later he wrote The Turn of the Screw. "In the end," as Robert Lowell wrote in his poem "Obit," "every hypochondriac is his own prophet." In 1898, at the age of fifty-seven, on a long and strenuous walk in the Adirondacks, William James damaged his heart. Alice Gibbens James was to spend the next twelve years nursing him, traveling with him to places, especially Bad Nauheim in Germany, in search of a cure, and worrying in the meantime about her children. Between the ages of eight and ten, her youngest son, Aleck, was left with his grandmother while his parents traveled. Peggy James, who was as sensitive, intelligent, and vulnerable as her aunt Alice, was placed in unsuitable schools in England while her parents moved uneasily about.
While Gunter charts the difficulties in their marriage, she also emphasizes their closeness and William's gratitude to his wife for her dedication. "Darling in all seriousness," he wrote to her in 1890, when she had read the proofs, 1,400 pages, of The Principles of Psychology,
you have lifted me up out of lonely hell.... You have redeemed my life from destruction and crowned me with loving kindness & tender mercy, and my fortunes are entirely linked with yours.
Sixteen years later, he wrote:
Never have you seemed as near and dear to me as in the past six months. It is a good thing, little as you think of "friendship," to have friendship grow deeper and deeper -- after 27 years of matrimony! Isn't it?
The marriage, as Gunter writes, "was more than either imagined it could be when they first met: it was a genuine love story."
Alice's intelligence and her calm involvement in her children's lives made a considerable difference to her two younger children. While Harry and Billy, who would eventually marry suitably, had no problems with the world in which they were brought up -- a world of old Boston money and respectability, matched with a belief in books and ideas -- and were careful not to disappoint their father, Peggy required close attention as she grew into her teens and suffered a great deal as a young woman. Aleck caused consternation to his father by his lack of interest in his studies. William wanted all his sons to go to Harvard. Aleck, who was dyslexic, had no interest in Harvard. For years he was made miserable, forced to study, and generally hectored.
His mother, at the same time, watched over him with care, less concerned about his father's ambitions for him. In the same way, she watched over Peggy (whose father wrote to the dean of Bryn Mawr that she was "sweet but boring"), so that neither of them followed members of the previous generation such as Aunt Alice (who had removed herself to England, where she suffered still from nervous maladies) or Uncle Bob (who was now heavily drinking and making a total nuisance of himself). This did not prevent Aleck's mother, however, from later trying to stop his engagement to a young woman of whom she disapproved, although she later grew fond of her.
Henry James took an enormous interest in his three nephews and his niece, growing close to each of them in different ways, much encouraged by their mother. Toward the end of William's life, as Henry's heart also began to show signs of strain, William and Alice crossed the Atlantic to be with Henry in England. Despite his long exile and the many close friendships he had made, it was absolutely clear that Henry had never emotionally left his family, and that his sister-in-law, now that he was in distress, was the person he most needed to see. When William stayed in Bad Neuheim, Alice remained with Henry, and then was torn between the two brothers and their illnesses.
As one got better, the other would get worse. Since they both had suffered from illnesses, many imaginary, all of their lives, as a way of gaining attention or avoiding trouble, neither was quite sure that the other was really sick now. "Henry," Gunter writes, "insisted that his brother's condition was a nervous one, just as William insisted that Henry's ailments were the result of melancholia." At one point Alice noted: "William cannot walk and Henry cannot smile." Neither brother wanted to be without her. She wrote to her mother: "Though my presence seems often to be a doubtful blessing I can not be free to go off and risk either of them missing me."
"She was no longer a virtual bride for two brothers," Gunter writes, "she was now literally a life partner to both." It seems unfortunate, to say the least, that Henry's great energy and dedication as a writer were a thing of the past, because these months as he and his brother fought for the loyalty and attention of Alice Gibbens in London, Rye, Bad Neuheim, and points in between offered a subject to which he could have done great justice, as indeed could have Oscar Wilde.
After William's death in 1910 Alice became active in promoting his work and establishing his reputation. Although Peggy remained close to Henry, and eventually married a friend of his, a man to whom he had once written ardent letters, she noticed on a visit to England the difference between her uncle and her father, essentially the difference between a novelist and a philosopher:
To be quite candid, I miss any of Dad's qualities in Uncle Henry -- especially any spiritual or speculative turn. Speculative about people yes -- but of any abstract occupations of mind I can see no glimmer.
In the last week of his life, William James had asked his wife to promise "that you will see Henry through when he comes to the end." By this time Wilkie and Bob and Alice James were already dead; Henry was the last of the five siblings. He was alone in England as the war broke out. Thus in December 1915 when she received a telegram that he had had a stroke, Alice Gibbens James set out for England. Henry was in bed when she arrived, his amanuensis Theodora Bosanquet managing his affairs and often taking dictation from him in his room, where he had delusions, as he lay stricken, that he was Napoleon. Gunter is gentle about what happened next:
One of her first tasks was to take authority for Henry's various affairs, a task that, in addition to household management, included negotiating Theodora's involvement. Alice judged that Theodora had done admirably, but the woman looked weary. Slowly but surely, Alice weaned Henry's amanuensis from his side, confident she was doing what was best for the ailing giant. The doctor advised keeping all visitors away, as they would tire his patient, but Alice feared that Theodora would try to countermand this order, especially in the case of Edith Wharton. When [Theodora] let a message from Wharton through, Alice reacted quickly and virtually banned the woman from Henry's Chelsea flat....
She wanted to give Theodora some sort of settlement if Henry had not remembered her in his will. Theodora represented everything Alice disliked about the women's movement. Alice's vocation had been different: her work, since she resigned her teaching post in 1878, had been unpaid but demanding. She was on firm footing now, doing the work she had done all her life, tasks that she believed were her rightful purview.
While Miss Bosanquet might have represented all that Mrs. William James disliked about the women's movement, Edith Wharton must have evoked stronger, more Bostonian, emotions. Once again, Henry James would have written beautifully about his sister-in-law's banishment of both.
Miss Bosanquet later told Leon Edel:
Edith Wharton...was such a well-established and firm friend of Henry James, and so very unhappy about his condition.... Looking back on those difficult days, I rather imagine that Mrs. James very much preferred having her dau. [Peggy] at hand rather than a secretarial assistant for whom there was so little work.... I can only regret more than ever that Mrs. William James appeared to have no use for me or my services after a short time.
As James lay dying, his sister-in-law remained with him day and night. Sometimes he confused her with his mother. After his death, he was cremated, and Alice, who was an expert at evading customs, smuggled his ashes back to the United States; she buried them in Cambridge near the remains of his brother William, his sister Alice, his parents, and her son who had died as a baby.
Later, as the family decided to prepare an edition of Henry James's letters, Alice prevented Edith Wharton's involvement. When the book appeared, she took the view that there had been excessive mention of Wharton. Wharton, in turn, disliked the edition and made this clear in a letter to the family. On receipt of this letter, Peggy wrote to her mother that Wharton's letter was "disgusting -- deliberately insulting and cold. I am very sorry you sent her the book. She is a minx and not in the least a lady." As readers of the volume of letters began to note the unusually amorous tone in some of her brother-in-law's missives to younger men, Alice Gibbens James, steadfast and loyal to the end, wrote to her son: "People are putting a vile interpretation on those silly letters to young men. -- Poor dear Uncle Henry."
Colm Toibin is the author of five novels, including The Story of the Night, The Blackwater Lightship, and The Heather Blazing. The Master, a novel based on the life of Henry James, was published in 2004 and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Among his nonfiction works are Bad Blood: A Walk Along the Irish Border, Homage to Barcelona, The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe, and, most recently, Love in a Dark Time. In 2004, his first play, "Beauty in a Broken Place", was produced in Dublin. His most recent novel, The Master, which is based on the life of Henry James, won the Los Angeles Times Novel of the Year Award in 2005 and the Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger in France. He lives in Dublin.