The Master's mob


BIOGRAPHY:THE BEST BIOGRAPHIES are about much more than writing the individual or collective life, writes Rebecca Pelan.

As its title promises, Paul Fisher's study of the James family provides an intimate portrait of this privileged, dysfunctional American dynasty, from mid-19th-century New York to first World War London, achieved through an intricate examination of its individual lives.

But it also provides a chronicle of the times in which this particular slice of family history parallels a range of transformations: changes in transatlantic travel; the development of (pre-Freudian) psychology as a medical discipline; the treatment of alcoholism as a medical problem rather than a moral one; the Victorian repression of women and of sexuality; same-sex relationships (known as "Boston marriages"); and the growing awareness of the mixed fortune of genetic inheritance, both physical and psychological. All play a role not only in making this a compelling book, but in providing a fitting framework through which to portray the James family members' loss in the passing of "their" era of refined sensibilities to one debased by conflict and commercialism.

The Irish (more specifically, Ulster-Scots) heritage of the James family lay in Ballieborough, Co Cavan, from where the dirt poor William James emigrated to America, sometime between 1789 and 1794. William amassed a fortune through shrewd business ventures and land speculation in Albany, including a stake in the Erie Canal, which opened in 1825 when his son, Henry (the father of the writer), was fourteen. At the time of his death, William James of Albany, as he became known, was worth $1.2 million, making him one of the richest men in New York state.

Interestingly, the only member of the family who took a serious, though distanced, interest in the land of her forebears, was Alice, William of Albanys grand-daughter, whose diary would later reveal an intense interest in the 19th-century "Irish Question" and in the Charles Parnell/Kitty OShea scandal.

THE MARRIAGE, in 1840, of Henry James snr and Mary Walsh marked the beginning of an experiment in social engineering that would see the entire James family move frequently between America and Europe - long before such mobility was common - in an effort to satisfy Henry snr's quest to leave his mark on the world. The pair produced five children, the best known of which are William, a prominent psychologist and philosopher, and Henry jnr (known within the family as Harry), a novelist considered to be amongst the best writers of psychological realism in English. But the family also included two younger, less favoured sons - Wilkie and Bob - as well as a daughter, Alice. The two "lesser" sons fought in the American Civil War, where they distinguished themselves. In their father's opinion they were lacking in intellectual capacity and considered more suited to physical activity than were their more talented older brothers. Even with her persistent and varied illnesses, Alice remained largely invisible within the family. The level of explicit favouritism in the James family proves challenging to any modern understanding of familial love.

Fisher suggests that, like Henry snr himself, history has favoured the two older brothers, the "Princes William and Harry", immortalising them in isolation from family influences, and that critics, too, have often considered them as self-generated "geniuses" in their respective fields. But even those that do attempt to take account of family influences tend to divide the family into three, hierarchical groups: William and Henry jnr as over-achievers, Wilkie and Bob as under-achievers, and Alice as a "career invalid". By contrast, Fisher believes that all seven of the Jameses - the parents and their five extraordinary children - were so "fused and united and interlocked" that it is impossible to understand any of them without the rest, and that their very dysfunction sheds crucial light on the origins and range of their achievements. Certainly, relationships between the James family members display not only an extraordinary level of entanglement, but a very Victorian manifestation of intimacy, largely played out in letters, most of which were destroyed by various family members with a shared need, bordering on obsession, to protect family privacy: William, for example, maintained a life-long role of pseudo-lover to his sister, Alice, while William and Henry jnr's relationship more often resembled that of a married couple, echoing the style and nature of their parents' alliance.

But, if the James family unit embodies the zeitgeist or spirit of the age, then Alice, individually and literally, has come to embody the repressed, Victorian woman. Travelling as part of the family quest for success, or retreating to one sickbed after another, Alice's "trouble" - almost certainly sometimes psychosomatic in order to gain attention - was eventually diagnosed as "neurasthenia" (later known as neurosis). Alice had access to many of her brothers' privileges: she spoke fluent French and was permitted to read extensively, but even though he was attracted to a range of radical social theories, Henry snr never seems to have even contemplated Alice as a suitable subject for inclusion in his experiment, especially in terms of education. Rather, Alice was contained within what her biographer has called the "enforced uselessness" of Victorian female adolescence. By 1890, Alice had progressed to a diagnosis of "hysteria", the most common 19th-century means of labelling what was regarded as women's emotional and irrational nature. Contemporary feminist theory suggests the endemic "hysteria" of the period occurred as a result of the conflict that existed for women between sex as a purely reproductive act and as an erotic one. For Alice, her symptoms were more private and interior, amounting to a "violent revolt in [her] head". That she had a keen wit, a sharp tongue, an interest in politics (anathema to the rest of the James clan), and left behind a diary that tells us much about life for women in Victorian times seem never to have been even guessed at by her family.

THERE HAVE BEEN other biographies of Henry, snr, Henry, jnr, William and Alice James, as well as of the family as a whole, but, according to Fisher, few have addressed the most intimate issues in the Jameses' lives. These include mental illness, alcoholism, homosexuality, and the roles of men and women. However, with new theoretical lenses concerned with gender and sexuality, as well as a critical reluctance to shy away from the "contradictions of their personal lives and historical era", Fisher's aim is to expose, unsensationally, a substantial inheritance of illness that plagued all members of the James family, and which included mental and physical breakdowns of various kinds. Henry James jnr lived longest of all his siblings, dying at age 73 following a series of strokes and, like Alice, having never married. There is little doubt that both were what would today be called homosexual (initially denied by Henry's biographer, Leon Edel, and only later acknowledged by him as the writer's "psychosexual problems") and lesbian, respectively (Fisher prefers "queer" as a term that can accommodate various types of non-heteronormative behaviour). Whether their liaisons with various companions were sexual, we may never know. But Fisher provides much to suggest an intimate relationship between Henry jnr and a number of young, principally European men, while Alice had an enduring relationship with Katharine Peabody Loring, the woman responsible for the posthumous publication of Alice's diary. More than anything else, perhaps, these changes in the way the same material about the same people can be interpreted through different lenses tells us as much about the nature of biography and history as it does about the scrutinised subject itself.

Rebecca Pelan is a lecturer in the School of English, Drama and Film at University College Dublin

House of Wits: An Intimate Portrait of the James Family, By Paul Fisher, Little Brown, 693pp, £16.99