Do Female Lives Matter?

Uncovering forgotten history through fiction

Alice James in 1891, as photographed by Katherine Peabody Loring
Alice James in 1891, as photographed by Katherine Peabody Loring


When I undertook to write a novel about Alice James, I didn’t realize I would be part of a trend: novels about real women forgotten by history.

Although she wrote a diary that enjoyed some fame after her death, Alice James (1848-1892) was saddled with several handicaps: two Xchromosomes, a nutty family, poor health, and life in the 19th-century when, as they say, Anonymous was a woman. She wrote one document that was published in her lifetime, a sardonic letter to the editor of the Nation, on July 4, 1890, demurely signed Invalid. (In the Victorian age many women felt it was unseemly to seek recognition and important, at all costs, to “keep one’s name out of the papers.”)

While Alice James has been hailed as a feminist icon in academic circles since the publication of an excellent 1980 biography by Jean Strouse, her anonymity seems to persist in the public sphere. When people ask what I am writing about, the name Alice James usually draws a blank. So I identify her as the younger sister of Henry James, the great Gilded Age novelist, and William James, the philosopher and psychologist.

“Ah! That Alice James!” you may say, vaguely recalling—if you are past 40—The Portrait of a Lady from high school. (That’s the one where Isabel Archer turns down a sexy peer of the realm for a loveless marriage to an insufferable pedant.) But nowadays even Henry James draws a blank, I’m afraid.

But Alice James was so much more than someone’s sister. She was in many ways a modern, 20th-century mind trapped in a 19th-century body, one deformed by corsets and crushing Victorian medical theories. The view she had from her invalid couch was in some ways more prescient than those of her two famous brothers. She had no doubts about the evils of empire, racism, prejudice, the class system, institutional poverty, and the second-class status of women. She was not being theoretical; she felt these things in her bones, and had plenty to say in her diary, which was one reason Henry and William suppressed it. Another was that it was just too personal and unflinching—improper, in other words. The diary was not published until 40 years after her death.

We don’t know exactly what ailed Alice. She’d fallen ill crossing the Atlantic in 1885 and arrived in England unable to walk and suffering from a host of problems. She never did recover. But Alice has a significant, poignant, heroic, and—yes—even sexy story to tell. I have presumed to tell it in a novel, Alice in Bed (published this month), with Alice’s help, of course—by which I mean her diary, letters, and the newspaper clippings she saved.

When we read a history, especially one dealing with life before the 20th-century, we should remember that it is usually the history of only half the human race, and even then only the royal or wealthy fraction of humanity. The other half is silent and nameless, like the small figures in the background of a Bruegel painting—anonymously raising children, tilling the soil, sewing the clothes, spinning, weaving, cooking meals, singing songs, telling stories, dying from the Black Death or the swords of conquering armies. Only female royalty escaped the common fate, along with a handful of women who did something so extraordinary the world could not forget them: the likes of Joan of Arc, Marie Curie, Harriet Tubman, Sacajawea, or Florence Nightingale. Of the great mass of women we know next to nothing, except what some novelists—like George Eliot, Jane Austen, or Elizabeth Gaskell—have told us about the specific time in which they lived. But this does not mean that it is impossible to rescue the rest of our forgotten female history from the undifferentiated background and bring it to life.

Sometimes biography and history can take us only so far, and that is where a well-researched novel comes in. Suddenly there is an abundance of historical fiction starring real women from the past. Consider Beryl Markham, the dashing English aviator from Kenya, who wrote the hauntingly beautiful memoir West with the Night in 1942. Her writing about her own life (brief CV: mauled by lion as a child, went spear-hunting with Murani tribesmen at age seven, trained racehorses, worked as bush pilot in Africa, flew solo across the Atlantic in 1936, went to Hollywood, had some hard-drinking, big-game-hunting lovers and three husbands) inspired Ernest Hemingway to confess, “She has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer.” Markham comes back to life now as the heroine of a new novel, Circling the Sun by Paula McLain.

Another spunky woman, Mazie Phillips-Gordon, the 1930s proprietess of the Lower East Side Venice movie theater, is the eponymous heroine of Jami Attenberg’s novel Saint Mazie. Elizabeth Berg’s The Dream Lover transports us to 19th-century Paris, where a girl named Aurore Dupin is growing into the writer George Sand (who, incidentally—conspiracy theorists, take note!—is idolized by Alice James and her lesbian lover in my novel). And the larger-than-life Beryl Markham appears again in Megan Mayhew Bergman’s short story collection Almost Famous Women.

Authors of historical fiction don’t just invent material from whole cloth. Hilary Mantel’s tremendous, Booker-winning novels about the life of Thomas Cromwell feel truer than any history, and that is partly because she did her research so well. Historical novelists often spend years poring over their materials, studying period clothing and everyday minutae. For my novel, I studied diaries and letters, railway timetables, steamships, and details of Victorian plumbing. I know a thing or two about daguerreotypes and stage mesmerists, how often mail was delivered and what the postman wore (in England in the 1880s: five times a day, a red tunic with gold braid), and what Paris looked like under gaslight at the time of the World Expo of 1889.

Compared to the lives of men, with their battles, adventures, and explorations, the lives of bygone women may seem tame in their domesticity. But aren’t the trials and triumphs of human existence mirrored as well in Pride and Prejudice as in Dickens? Do we complain that the Napoleonic Wars figure only as the presence of a few redcoats at a ball, if another, quieter aspect of life is equally illuminating?

Let’s give Alice James the diarist the last word here:

How I recall the low grey Newport sky … as I used to wander about over the cliffs, my young soul struggling out of its swaddling clothes as the knowledge crystallized within me of what Life meant … A spark then kindled which every experience great and small has fed into a steady flame [and] illuminated my little journey and … altho’ the waters rose, has never flickered out.

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Judith Hooper is a journalist and the author of several books of nonfiction and fiction, most recently Alice in Bed.


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