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  • "A New Claim for the Family Renown":Alice James and the Picturesque
  • Elizabeth Duquette

While he was not surprised by "the power, the temper, the humour and beauty and expressiveness" of his sister's diary, Henry James admits to being somewhat astonished at the portrait it presented of Alice James herself. "I have been immensely impressed," he writes in a letter to his older brother William, "with the thing as a revelation of a moral and personal picture. It is heroic in its individuality, its independence." Even as he vehemently opposed its unedited publication, describing himself as "intensely nervous and almost sick with terror" about the possible publicity arising from its introduction to a general readership, Henry nonetheless held that the diary "constitute[d] . . . a new claim for the family renown."1

Until recently, and despite her brother's fond assessment, critics have struggled to find an appropriate means of reading Alice James's text for the simple fact that, as Leon Edel observed in his 1964 preface to the Diary, Alice's claim for attention must be "modest" when judged next to the works of her illustrious brothers.2 As scholars have toiled to reconstruct the life and work of a woman who has been long understood as a mere "appendage" (xxx) to her brothers, the perception of Alice's status as "modest, marginal, and minor" has been reevaluated.3 Yet relying heavily on the psychoanalytic methodology undergirding some feminist approaches, critics too often judge Alice's journal as indicative of loss and failure. Unfulfilled, repressed, and ignored, Alice James becomes, in many readings, a martyr to patriarchal hegemony.4 While recognizing the potential value of arguments so inflected, however, I believe that focusing primarily on what Alice James was not allowed to accomplish not only perpetuates her status as an "appendage," it seriously obscures what she actually does achieve in the text.5

How, then, are we to understand the parameters of Alice James's "claim" to "renown," familial or otherwise? The problems foregrounded by Henry's remark are, in fact, paradigmatic of the critical issues surrounding the diary as an object of literary study in general. If the diary is a private document, an intimate account of an individual's feelings, actions, and thoughts, how can it function as a vehicle for fame? The [End Page 717] complexities inherent in such a question are further complicated by the emphasis scholars have placed on the role of the marketplace in assessing the work of nineteenth-century American women writers. "[T]he demands of booksellers, reviewers, and buyers for whom the book is intended," Susan K. Harris has argued, impact the circumstances of a given book's production, and consequently provide important contextual information for the contemporary critic attempting to construct an appropriate evaluative paradigm to appreciate the text.6 And yet, this emphasis on conditions of production tends to reify the opposition between public and private that diaries, especially women's diaries, often eschew. As scholars have demonstrated, many diarists, even those who do not explicitly voice a hope of publishing their works, often address an imagined reader in their prose and revise their writing with an eye to coherence of both style and content.7 By focusing too exclusively, in other words, on one definition of public, predicated on commercial consumption, an impasse has been created which relegates the diary to an equally narrow definition of private.8

This is a concern, in fact, that Alice James thematizes in her diary, where her most violent remarks are reserved for journals that are mere "receptacle[s] for feeble ejaculations" (37). While she maintains she is "glad" to have read the "third volume of George Eliot's Letters and Journals," nothing about her evaluation indicates she found the work either engaging or profitable:

[W]hat a monument of ponderous dreariness is the book! . . . Not one burst of joy, not one ray of humour, not one living breath in one of her letters or journals. . . . Whether it is that her dank, moaning features haunt and pursue one thro' the book, or not, but she makes upon me the impression, morally and physically, of mildew, of some morbid growth—a fungus...


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