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Berke, L. (1983). Alice James: A Biography. Jean Strouse. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1980, xv + 367 pp.. Psychoanal. Rev., 70:625-627.

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(1983). Psychoanalytic Review, 70(4):625-627


Alice James: A Biography. Jean Strouse. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1980, xv + 367 pp.

Review by:
Laura Berke

Alice James is basically the story of a woman who was, by all conventional standards, a failure: she wrote no books (except a journal), created nor espoused no particular philosophy, dedicated herself to no social cause. Instead, she was dependent first upon her parents, later upon Henry James and a friend, Katherine Loring; “delicate” as a child and adolescent; periodically ill and breaking down during her early womanhood; and finally completely invalided during her last years and until her death in 1892. What Strouse does with such apparently scant raw material is weave a complex mesh of sociological and psychological details around the life of one woman, born into a family in which, as Henry James pointed out, “girls seem scarcely to have had a chance.”

Although the James “family group” was assuredly unusual, even eccentric, it was not unusual for a girl in the American Victorian era to find herself in a position where she had little chance to grow, to become, to work. Alice James abounds with relevant sociological data of the 1800s—and some of the more interesting and revealing information might be noted. For example, during the Civil War years, when politics were uppermost in all minds, and battles personally interesting to many (the James family did send two sons off to war), young ladies were not supposed to read the newspapers nor even be told about the course of the war—lest they become overexcited. And, even in the enlightened James household, Alice was given Godey's Lady's Book, a compendium of fashion, piety, entertainment, and advice, whose only mention of the Civil War was in short works of romantic fiction about nurses. It is to Alice's credit that in later years she took a strong interest in politics.

Yet this notion of overstimulating a young girl was prevalent in the 1800s, and it was Dr. Charles Fayette Taylor's belief (when Alice was placed under his care at age 18) that girls, exposed too early to intellectual and emotional stimulation, would, like Alice, succumb to attacks of “nerves.” For such young ladies, more delicate Victorian flowers, various cures were administered: rest cures, massage cures, exercise cures, even a version of shock treatment. Interestingly, although all of the James sons (as well as Henry James, Sr.) evidenced symptoms similar to those of Alice (Robertson, for

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