A sister in sorrow

Alice James was crushed by her remarkable family.

Like the family of the novelist Henry James, the Yeats family produced two brothers who specialised in finishing everything they started. While their father found it difficult to complete an oil painting or write a whole book, William Butler Yeats and his brother, Jack, the painter, produced a large quantity of work; they remained single-minded and dedicated throughout their lives, partly as a response to their untidy upbringing and their father's fondness for distraction.

In both the Yeats and the James families, there was also a talented, clever sister who did not marry and lived all her life in her brothers' orbit, whose letters remain fascinating for their sharpness, wit and intelligence. Lily Yeats and Alice James did not write novels or poems or make paintings, but for all that, their personalities emerge from the past with considerable gnarled energy.

Their lives were lived within limits - and how they managed within those limits tells us a great deal about the fate of clever women in
the second half of the 19th century - yet, in another sense, the limits left these two women free to be nothing but themselves. That ambiguous position is what makes them fascinating and it is why they had as much force and individuality as their better-known brothers and at times even more.

Jean Strouse's 1980 biography Alice James, newly republished, succeeds in giving Alice her full due, allowing a long-submerged figure to shine while also making clear that her unusual and unhappy fate was the result both of the rules and restrictions of society and of the eccentricities of a particular family. Alice appears as a woman caught between the demands of her own fierce intellect and the dullness of the domestic sphere occupied by her mother and aunt. Yet if her world was circumscribed, the limits were, as she well knew, of the highest and most interesting sort.

Evidently Alice was subject to damaging historical and family circumstances, but she was also in some ways heroic. She suffered for much of her life and struggled with her mysterious invalidism, yet she also wallowed in it, needed it. Some of the treatments that she endured, viewed from almost a century and a half later, seem like pure quackery. The field of medicine was groping to understand "nervous" disorders, and myriad useless "cures" were new and seemed credible at the time.

It was Alice's mother and father and, less directly, her brother William - in the sense that he teased her, flirted with her and insisted on pitying her, which she hated - who did most to crush her spirit. We can see the developing dynamics of destruction because what happened within the James family is unusually richly documented. Not only do we have letters that give a picture of ordinary life, of the context for the dramas and the crises; we also have Alice's diaries, and the novels of Henry, which reveal many things about his preoccupations and preconceptions. And finally, we have William's writings on psychology, which throw a strange light on his sister's dilemma.

Each of the five James children was treated differently by the parents. Strouse's disturbing biography clearly delineates the neurotic character of the search for power and space within the James family and household. Out of this neurosis, as if by right, grew two American geniuses. And out of it also emerged the wounded figure of Alice.

What she and her two eldest brothers shared, what sets them apart and makes their lives of such continuing interest, was the quality and intensity of their self-consciousness. These were lives deeply examined by the very subjects, and yet the subtlety and acuteness of their self-awareness render them highly unreliable as witnesses; they left clues or evasions or half-truths, versions that are hardly to be trusted.

The Jameses demand and can bear prolonged scrutiny. Alice's letters and diaries, her command of vocabulary, her savage wit, her indiscretion, her brittle lack of self-pity, her interest in the political world, her gift for friendship make her a character of huge interest.

In her final years in England, Alice became ever more of what Henry might have called “a case". Her taking to her bed and her intense relationship with her friend Katharine Loring, not to speak of her relationships with the doctors who treated her and the servants who looked after her, tempt us to feel that we are following a story that is either profoundly comic or utterly tragic.

What emerges from Strouse's biography is a portrait of a brilliant mind placed under the greatest pressure, of a family that was expert at doing damage to its members, and of a social and intellectual world in which William and Henry James were able to thrive while their sister moved wilfully or bravely into the shadows.

Colm Tóibín has written the preface to the new edition of "Alice James: a Biography" by Jean Strouse (NYRB Classics, £9.99)

This article first appeared in the 30 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, President Newt