The diary of Alice James. Edited with an introduction by Leon Edel. London, Rupert Hart-Davis. 35s.

This will mainly be read as the diary of Henry James’s sister, which is a pity. As the blurb says, Alice does have her own claim to posterity, though it certainly isn’t, as the editor says, the ‘claim of life against death’. In fact, the misprint on page 11 where ‘Alice’ becomes ‘Alive’, is a sadistic compositor’s irony. Alice herself says that her ‘death’ came in 1878, a decade before the diary was begun. What we have is the prolonged death-twitch of ‘a flaccid virgin’, obviously hypochondriac and seemingly a frustrated lesbian. What makes the book worth reading is that it is clearly because of social circumstances in part that Alice took to her couch. Father James was aggressively non-professional and set out to mould his children in the same image. Both William and Henry found their salvation through a full, even materialistic, commitment to a career, Alice had only ‘the safety valves’ of ‘the busy ineffectiveness of women’ and these she refused: all that was left to her was the living death which this diary terrifyingly records. Everything moves towards the immense relief she feels when, in 1891, the doctors at last find something organically wrong with her. It is the extended epitaph of a defeated feminism. It is precisely because it is not ‘highly individual’ that Alice’s claim to posterity is valid: hers is a predicament as salient as that of the morally-consumptive Olive Chancellor and the death-aspiring Milly Theale.

It is true that she had a certain social shrewdness, but the ‘bite of Alice’s prose’ is often bitchy and strident, and it is always contradicting itself. For example, she can sound just like Octavia Hill when she is talking about the working classes: she gets hysterical about their procreativeness and sees in the Eight-Hour-Day Movement a ‘lack of grit’ (she, of all people). She laboriously records all the malapropisms and indecencies of language (they actually use the word ‘swill’) and she notes down somebody’s calculation that, if the working man saved his beer money for 60 years, he wouldn’t be destitute. But together with this kind of complacency there is occasionally an almost touching sense of isolation from the working classes: ‘I did so long to stop them and ask them what they thought of it all.’ And she is genuinely bewildered by working-class solidarity: ‘these creatures, the disinherited with savage instincts all unsubdued, have divined that brotherly help is the path to Victory’. Most of this is a matter of rehearsing, dissecting and overturning clichés which don’t focus precisely on actualities. The same is true of her famous support of Irish Home Rule which is usually histrionic in an exact sense. And she is unaware of the complexities of the Civil War which her brother rendered so finely in The Bostonians. But then it is not the social comment in itself that makes this book worth reading, it is the muddle which so clearly derives from her class and sexual situation. She is intelligent, but she is also, much more than her brother, the trapped spectator. Thus the most articulate part of the diary is an inward and metaphysical turning back on a past which is essentially present, the Arnoldian ‘culture’ gone rotten: ‘une pensée unique, eternelle, toujours melée a l’heure présente’. Middle age becomes richer than youth because it can contemplate the sensations of youth without youth’s frustrations and involvement. And the eternal moment again and again sees the present hour as its obstacle. Very explicitly, Alice aspires to death: ‘but how heroic to be able to suppress one’s vanity and confess that the game’s too hard’. Finally, though, she rejects even the ‘heroism’ of suicide for a ‘heroism of mere resistance—to death as well as to life—‘forbidding. . . the relaxation of a muscle’. Being is congealing.

This is all very relevant to James, partly because it shows how distant James was from the concept of being he sometimes seems to be endorsing. But it is also very much part of a context which includes Annie Besant’s rebellion, Beatrice Webb’s apprenticeship and The Odd Women. Alice James’s diary records the breakdown of bourgeois modes of being in a context of defeated feminism. It vitally documents an important relationship. John Goode