In Judith Hooper’s magnificent novel, zingers such as this fly back and forth between the endlessly articulate and letter-writing Jameses, all of whom are geniuses at gossiping.
And the James family did, in fact, know everyone intellectually important on both sides of the Atlantic, but by the time we meet her in 1889, Alice has been sidelined and is lying in bed in Leamington, England, after taking London by storm.
We don’t know what’s wrong with Alice. No one does, though her brothers have inventive theories, and the best of medical science offers no help. So, with Alice in bed, we travel to London and Paris, where the James children spent part of their unusual childhood. We sit with her around the James family’s dinner table, as she – the youngest and the only girl – listens to the intellectual elite of Boston, missing nothing.
The book is accompanied by Hooper’s Afterword,“What was Wrong with Alice?,” an analysis of the varied psychological ills of the James family and Alice’s own medical history.
Title: Alice in Bed
Author: Judith Hooper
Genre: Literature | Historical Fiction | Women’s Fiction
Publisher: Counterpoint Press
Published: October 13, 2015
Format: Hardcover, 392 pages
FTC Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the publisher via TLC Book Tours in exchange for a fair and honest review. Opinions expressed are mine.
Since my scaffolding began to fall, I have been living like a mouse behind a skirting board, knowing nothing of the world beyond a few dark tunnels and whatever crumbs happen to drop nearby. But something has shifted recently. It is hard to describe. My thoughts drift through my brain like clouds. I watch them come and go; I seem to be the vast, empty sky in which they happen. (Alice in Bed, p. 325)
The James family of Boston in the Gilded Age of our history always seemed eccentric and unapproachable in all I have read about them.
Alice, the only girl out of five children, was likely the most intelligent and intellectual of the lot. Hooper describes her sitting around a dinner table with the intellectual elite of Boston not missing a word. Like a sponge, Alice soaked up everything around her to the point as a young child might, especially one so bright.
Most of Alice’s story is historically shared in excerpts from letters between Alice, William, and Henry. Often the letters pass between the brothers showing their extreme love and concern for their sister after her malady strikes. As noted above in the synopsis, no one knows what’s wrong with Alice. Not even the doctors, for whom she develops a strong disdain.
As Alice narrates the rest of the book from her bed while we get an inside look at the life of a woman bedridden in the late 19th century. Not to0 different from her peers, as a woman she was denied the education her brothers received, and was forced to use her intellect to make the best of her circumstances.
The James family traveled often between America, England, and Paris. Through Alice’s mind and her recollections of these times, the reader is taken time and again on a journey filled with many well-known figures from the late 19th century. After Alice became ill, she no longer travelled but these memories took her back and forth as she lived out her life.
Judith Hooper, in my opinion, tackled writing a unique book about a seemingly eccentric family struggling with mental health issues in more than one of their children at a time when there was no clear understanding of the problems inflicted on some by their mental incapacities. At the end of the book, Hooper provides an overview called “What was Wrong with Alice James?” In it, we read of the various symptoms Alice suffered and Hooper’s personal observations about them and the rest of the family’s ills. This was an added benefit to reading the book.
An extensive bibliography accompanies the book providing many other reading materials on Alice and the James family.
Always curious about Henry James, I never imagined reading a book about his sister. In so doing, I gained rich insights to his writing and life.
Anyone with an interest in the James family, the Gilded Age, and now Alice James should pick up a copy of Alice in Bed. Although somewhat long and filled with some slow-moving passages, the context within which it is written–the deprivation of women during this time period–brings a great deal of interest to the student of the feminist movement and how it eventually came about.
Judith Hooper was an editor at Omnimagazine and is the author of Of Moths and Men and co-author of The Three-Pound Universe and Would the Buddha Wear a Walkman?: A Catalogue of Revolutionary Tools for Higher Consciousness. She lives in Amherst, Massachusetts.
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