Book of the Week: Alice James: A Biography by Jean Strouse and Colm Toibin

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It was the 1880’s in America. The Civil War was long over yet women’s suffrage was not yet in place. Women, especially educated women, were frustrated by lack of purpose. It was a difficult time for a woman like Alice James to live.

Alice was born into the James family, a very prominent family of the day. She was the youngest of five children. Two of her brothers were Henry James the famous novelist and William James, well-known philosopher and psychologist. The family loved and respected Alice but she spent all of her adult life in poor mental health. Alice suffered from bouts of “hysteria.” In the language of the day, hysteria could be anything from headaches and muscle aches to depression and suicidal tendencies. She was treated in New York for her illnesses and also traveled to England where she lived for eight years.

Alice kept a diary. She had a keen mind and sharp wit and was able to write poignant entries about life in both the U.S. and England. Her writings were seen only by family members until after her death. She had several major mental breakdowns before she died at age 43 of breast cancer.

This book offers a peek into the life of the great thinkers of the day. The James family interacted with all the major scholars of the time and Alice’s brothers were highly respected. Sadly for Alice, even though women were thought to be honorable and worthwhile, even protected, they weren’t seen as leaders or great thinkers. This biography has received strong reviews and high praises.

NPR Reviews

New York Review Books

Jean Strouse.com

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