Published by Counterpoint
Publication date: October 13th 2015
Genres: Fiction, Historical
The Alice in Alice in Bed by Judith Hooper is Alice James, the younger sister of Henry and William James—the author and notable psychologist, respectively. We meet her in late 1889 in a small town in England; she is forty-one and an invalid, unable to leave her bed and able to communicate largely through the copious letters she and her brothers send amongst themselves with a rapidity that feels almost like today’s texting. Hooper explores Alice’s life from a childhood spent in Paris and London before her family settled in Boston and on to her days in England. Although fiction, Hooper uses some of the siblings’ actual correspondence, combining it with a rich imagining of Alice’s inner life that renders her as a complex and interesting woman.
At less than 100 pages into Alice in Bed I wondered, if Alice James was going to spend her life beset by vague vapors how was I going to slog through almost 400 pages of reading about it. Sadly, aside from a brief period in her twenties when Alice did become quite active in a ladies educational society, most of her physical life was spent dealing with numerous physical ailments, but the novel is anything but dull, just like the woman herself. The James family was an unusual one and their dinner table, as reconstructed by Hooper, reads like theatre; witty, sharp theatre with Harvard academics mingling with guests from all walks of life. This was not a family where ideas or conversation were discouraged and topics ranged from mundane gossip to the most esoteric of spiritual and philosophical concepts. In this realm, as the youngest child and the only girl, Alice was viewed as both a marvel and a precious pet, something to be cosseted, but not taken too seriously. When she was young this allowed her the opportunity to learn when no one thought she was paying attention.
Yes, I was in the habit of reading any letter left lying around. In my defense I cite the lifelong necessity of compensating for being the youngest and most ignorant member of the family, as well as the fact that the others did it, too.
Later, life became more restrictive. As her mind expanded, but her choices shrank, her episodes of ill health increased. She was sent to doctors who used a woman’s very anatomy against her with terms like “hystero-epilepsy” in order to shut down their sexuality and create fear about the fragility of their own bodies. For Alice, this physical instability was compounded by the changing nature of her relationship with her brothers, especially William. From childhood on they were unusually close, so much so that when he decides to get married it marks the most substantial decline in Alice’s health. As both Henry and William begin to achieve success in the world she battles against the knowledge that
Whatever my brothers might do, I was doomed to remain behind.
In spite of her shrinking physical world, as Alice in Bed progresses Alice emerges ever more clearly as a keen and acerbic observer of the world around her. For the modern day reader this will evoke strong and contradictory emotions. On the one hand, there is sadness for an intellect, acknowledged even in her own family, to be one of depth, going to waste, turning in on itself and giving rise to illnesses that can’t be diagnosed or healed. On the other, there is the frustration born of our modern perspective, but which has to be acknowledged as unrealistic for the times. I wanted Alice to chuck it all and strike out on her own and was annoyed that her greatest form of self-expression was illness—illness that left her bedridden for the majority of her life. And yet, such rebellion would not have been remotely possible at the time. Still, for any woman to read of another woman’s journey as
I had to peg away pretty hard between twelve and twenty-four, “killing myself”—absorbing into the bones that the better part is to clothe oneself in neutral tints, walk beside still waters, and possess oneself in silence.
is heartbreaking and yet Alice does not ask for pity nor does Hooper construct her life in a way that demands it. Alice in Bed is a fascinating, maddening look at a woman who, while she does not correspond to our thoughts of freedom or a life fully lived, does manage to leave her mark on all those around her and through Hooper’s novel, anyone who journeys through that life with her. Somehow, within her own self she believed she had conquered that which she fought all her life. Her most poignant thought about herself is found in this glorious sentence she wrote to William, a year before her death:
Arm yourself against my dawn, which may at any moment cast you and Harry into obscurity.
With such powerful conviction and no sense of defeat, her brothers pale in comparison to the indomitable Alice.