Unadulterated Thoughts of Alice James

I am having a weak day.

Today has been unpleasantly dreary. For a while this morning I watched the grim haze of rain. I complained of the cold and Katharine drew the curtains shut. Now there is nothing interesting upon which to fix my eyes. On any other such a day, I would certainly spend the time writing in my Journal, or composing letters – I have yet to answer William and Alice’s last letter. Today, holding a pen does not appeal to my fingers. I attempted it just following breakfast. After setting down a few words I had to set down the pen, as I could focus neither my eyes nor my hand on the paper in front of me.

Days like this one can be difficult. I have been able to do nothing but lie down, excepting the effortful meals during which I consumed a few bites before having to lie down again. If I must stay in all day with no visitors, I prefer to write something. It is, unfortunately, one of those rare times when the preliminary efforts of the morning sapped what little strength I have, and my exhaustion now prevents me even from dictating. Silent and helpless, my thoughts have nowhere to go. There is no choice but to content myself with thinking them.

Katharine sits beside my bed. She has been reading to me all afternoon, in a low, under-dramatic voice. The small pile of books next to her consists of ones I read as a child. It was thoughtful of her to select volumes with which I am already familiar. I could tune in to each at any point and understand what was happening. She must be aware that I am not listening attentively. Even so, her voice is a comforting and grounding presence, without which I might simply float away.

I wonder what the time is. Several hours should have passed since noon, it seems, but if that were so they would have disturbed me for afternoon tea by now. Perhaps it had only been an hour, or less, and time had decided to drag horrendously.

In one simple way, I almost prefer times like this to my most productive days. I have the chance to interact with my thoughts in their original, unadulterated form. Knowing that no one will write them down today, I allow the thoughts to come to me as they will, and then leave or sit still in my mind, being nothing but exactly what they are. The act of putting words to thoughts changes their shape. Once it is done, even the source of the thought cannot recall the original impression. Emotions are even worse in this respect, as well as being unjustly difficult to translate into words. I do not often write of complicated emotions in my Diary. I believe that any such account would be indecipherable by anyone but me, and therefore not worth recording. I expressed all of this to Harry once, and he nodded contemplatively, although I could not tell if he actually agreed with me.

I adore Harry’s visits. I am excessively glad that he has not come today, as I would be incapable of enjoying his presence. In addition to that, I do not think I have the strength today to endure his departure, which always strikes me as vastly unpleasant. I should cry hard for two hours, after he goes, if I could allow myself such luxuries. He is perfect company. There are times when I think that he is my sole reason for carrying on in this world. When my reason for carrying on comes by and I have no strength to greet it, I believe that to be a disgraceful state of affairs.

For as long as I can remember, I have enjoyed Henry’s presence more than almost anyone else’s. He is incontestably my most intellectually stimulating companion, as well as wonderfully empathetic. He comes at my slightest sign and gives me calm and solace by assuring me that my nerves are his nerves and my stomach his stomach. We are the kindred spirits of the James family. There is nothing to the fact that we are each other’s only family in London, or that we are the only living Jameses of our generation who are not married. The possibility that one of us is not married because the other one is not crosses my mind from time to time. It is, of course, nonsense – neither of us ever really intended to marry. Perhaps if I had gone to live with a handsome butcher-boy or married a Duke, certain people would have been happier, but I have no doubt that I would have ended up here regardless. I would feel much worse about my condition if I had children. I cannot imagine that I am missing anything that I was not meant to miss, and I have Katharine and Harry who are both wonderful.

Katharine reads on, her voice like a hum that has set me drifting. I have within me a cluster of memories testifying that this is not unusual for me to do. I am sure that I often listened very closely when Father or one of the boys read aloud, preparing myself for the day when the deep James family discussions would include me, the only girl. I am also sure that my mind had wandered during many such readings, despite my efforts.

I conclude, years later, that my mind had to wander. Most of my important revelations on life came to me during the years of my childhood; while my brothers soaked up the ideas of others, I was busy pondering my own. While family friends and dinner guests seemed to find me most amusing when I made comments like “I wish that your mashed potatoes might always have lumps in them!”(though I would bet that they remembered it as having been said by Wilky or someone else), I knew that my moments of delicious clarity while walking on the cliffs of Newport were vastly more important.

I understood too much for an adolescent, as the knowledge crystallized within me of what life meant for me. It was all I could think of, up on those cliffs, the winter sea and the gray sky melting into each other at the horizon like life and death. When I returned to the house, Aunt Kate would load me with a shawl and a cup of tea after placing me in front of the fire and Harry looked at me as though he could almost sense that I had solved the mysteries of life. For me, the moment had passed, and I settled into the heat of the tea and the fire, the comfort of home.

I thought that I would miss home greatly when I came here, even with Henry’s reposeful presence, and of course I did. Since arriving in England, the “home” feeling which you can fabricate between any four walls has slowly infused these two rooms. Every inch of wall-paper and carpet and every piece of furniture is by now so familiar that I can picture to the minutest detail the entire apartment as I lay with my eyes closed, and I can, with concentration, conjure the feeling of the place when I am elsewhere and wish to feel at home. When Harry visits, the feeling is most complete.

Yes, I am quite happy that he has not come today. It would have been a waste and a disappointment.

I can hardly remember what it felt like to be healthy. I can picture my present self traipsing through Europe as I did when I was a girl – indeed, with my mind it would be surprising if I could not – but I can’t imagine how it would feel. It is just as well; I should not try to feel the way things could have been, but the way they are. There is something very exhilarating in shivering whacks of crude pain. Most people avoid it avidly, undergoing all kinds of medications, sedations, and anesthesia to escape. I find that it is an important part of a life experienced through the senses, which after all is how we experience anything.

I covet the awareness of pain because it is awareness. My lazy state at this moment might appear out of character if I did not know how hard my mind now works. I may not be aware of the words Katharine reads, or the time of the day, or Henry’s present actions and condition, but I am aware of myself. There is nothing beyond that is worth observing, nor would I have the strength if there were. Perhaps I would be stronger if I could feel some sunlight in the room. Even with my eyes closed, I know that the afternoon is unsavorily dark.

A sound, one that has been perpetually pushing at my ears for a while now, causes my brow to furrow as I attempt to determine its source. I decide that it is rain, muffled by the curtains. There are so many layers between my awareness and the rain – thoughts, eyelids, curtains, windowpane – that I am slightly intrigued that I should notice at all. And how could I hear it over Katharine’s reading? Has she stopped – no, paused for a page turn, but she picks it up again in the middle of a sentence whose beginning I did not hear.

There has come a change in me. A congenital faith flows through me like a limpid stream, making the arid places green. It brings me back to the Newport cliffs, somehow, although I can see no similarity between the incidents. The revelations that come to you when you are approaching the end of your life are quite unlike any other. The difference in revelations and the difference in age are connected, I think. All that comes to us is surely only of interest and value in proportion as we find ourselves therein, form given to what was vague, what slumbered stirred to life.

I lay in a meadow until the unwrinkled serenity entered into my bones and made me one with the browsing kine, the still greenery, the drifting clouds, and the swooping birds. Whether the great Mystery resolves itself into eternal Death or glorious Life, I contemplate either with equal serenity.

“A letter has just arrived from Henry. He is caught up in work and will come to visit later in the week. Shall I respond for you, Alice? Alice?”

I hear her voice clearly, but I cannot answer as the subdued patter of rain and the gentle in-and-out of my breath pull me toward sleep.


I wrote this for a Bennington class on historical fiction. This narrative is based mostly on The Diary of Alice James, as well as other readings about the Jameses. Some parts of it are taken from the Diary, and those are listed below (make a note of this before you tell me you liked a particular line, because if it turns out it’s not one that I came up with it’s a disappointment to me). My intention, looking back, was to capture Alice James well enough that readers would be unable to distinguish my writing from hers in this piece. I think I succeeded. I can only tell the difference because when you work someone else’s writing into yours, it just feels different.

1. “I should cry hard … luxuries” The Diary of Alice James, p. 74. 2. “He comes at my slightest sign … my stomach is his stomach” Ibid p. 104. 3. “I wish that your mashed potatoes…!” qtd. in The James Family, p. 71. 4. “As the knowledge … what life meant for me” Ibid, p. 273. 5. “The ‘home’ feeling … four walls” The Diary of Alice James, p. 106. 6. “There is something … crude pain” Ibid, p. 129. 7. “There has come a change … arid places green” Ibid, p. 131. 8. “All that comes … stirred to life” Ibid, p. 27. 9. “I lay … swooping birds” Ibid, p. 130. 10. “Whether the great … equal serenity” Ibid, p. 131.

Selected Bibliography

The Diary of Alice James. Ed. Leon Edel. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1964

Matthiessen, F. O. The James Family. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1947

Strouse, Jean. Alice James: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980


2 thoughts on “Unadulterated Thoughts of Alice James

  1. This is impressive — you’ve really captured her voice! Her lines blend in with yours so well. I loved reading it! (Well, I do hope Alice manages to emerge from the doldrums…..)

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