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Resources for American Literary Study 27.1 (2001) 17-64

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The Letters of Alice James to Anne Ashburner, 1873-78: The Joy of Engagement (Part 1)

Rayburn S. Moore
The University of Georgia


Alice James, the only sister of William and Henry James, was born 7 August 1848 in New York City, was educated at home and abroad by governesses (and less formally by her father), attended school in Newport, and grew up in New York, Europe, Newport, Boston, and Cambridge. 2 In Cambridge, after meeting elsewhere during the summer of 1869, Alice and Anne Ashburner (1846-1909), a neighbor two years her senior, became intimate friends and remained close for the rest of Alice's life. Anne, usually called Annie, Nanny (frequently spelled Nannie), or Nancy, moved semi-permanently with her family to England in 1872, but the two friends corresponded throughout the decade, though the present collection contains nothing written after November 1878. The familiarity of the friendship is attested to on Alice James's part not only by the correspondence, but also by the warm references to Anne Ashburner (Richards after her marriage in 1879) in her diary, by their efforts to see each other after Alice moved to England in 1884 (despite her situation as an invalid), and especially by the fact that Anne Ashburner was one of only four mourners requested by Alice James to attend her funeral services in March 1892.

The James and Ashburner families lived within a few blocks of each other in Cambridge in the late 1860s and early 1870s. Samuel Ashburner (1816-?), a civil engineer and railroad official, was reared in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. He married Annie Meade Barstow (1820-95), of a distinguished Salem family, in Boston on 21 August 1845. Nanny was born the following year in Boston and later moved with her family to Cambridge where, since 1860, Samuel Ashburner's two maiden sisters--Anne (1807-94) and Grace (1814-93)--had lived on Kirkland Street with their wards, Arthur, Sara, and Theodora Sedgwick, the children of their dead sister, Sarah Ashburner Sedgwick. Kirkland Street was near Shady Hill, the home of Charles Eliot Norton (1827-1908), editor of the North American Review (1864-68), subsequently professor of art history at [End Page 17] Harvard (1875-98), and the widower of Susan Ridley Sedgwick, Sarah Sedgwick's oldest child. Despite the nearness of residence (the James house was on Quincy Street), Alice James and Nanny Ashburner had met at Pomfret, Connecticut, in the summer of 1869. Finding that they had many interests in common--mutual friends, books, music, art, and other social and cultural matters--they became fast friends (notwithstanding Alice's poor health and frequent bouts of nervous prostration). When the Ashburners went to England in 1872 to visit relatives (Sam's older brother George lived in Tilgate, Surrey), the two friends began a correspondence that in its present state covers five years in the 1870s.

The main archive of the extant correspondence of Alice James and Anne Ashburner Richards is housed at the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh and consists of twenty-nine letters that were written during the period 1873-78. 3 In these letters to an old chum, twenty-two of which have hitherto been published, Alice James expresses herself forthrightly on many topics--love, marriage, relations between the sexes, men, women, family, politics, England, America, friends, acquaintances, customs, manners--but on none more frequently and candidly than on one aspect or another of gender.

Even though Alice was not yet twenty-five at the beginning of this period and only thirty at its end, she considered herself something of a spinster (at times ironically and at other times defensively). She viewed matters pertaining to the sexes, marriage, engagements, and romance pretty much from this point of view, though it must be admitted that her opinions on these subjects are sometimes erratic yet usually decidedly her own, as one observes when examining her views on women and men in general and...


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Archived 2001
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