The streets of Boston and Cambridge are running through my head again, and it is as effortless as dreaming. From 13 Ashburton place, on Beacon hill—where our family moved when I was fifteen—my feet lead me down steep cobblestone streets, polished by last night’s rain, the gold dome of the state house hovering behind and above me like a plump, gaudy moon. I pass hitching posts and dray carts, hear the clop-clop of hooves on cobblestone, the knife man chanting Knives sharpened.
I can slow it down and make out individual blades of grass, a chink in a stone wall, a button missing from the dress of an elderly lady on a park bench, the flies settling on the face of the horse pulling the milkman’s wagon. Perhaps in the absence of an outer life, the inner life shines brighter. My brother William ought to study this in his psychology.
With a throng of people I huddle at the intersection of Charles Street and Beacon to wait for the horse-cars. When they arrive, bells tinkling, I mount the steps behind a lady wearing a ghastly confection of marabou feathers and satin rosettes on her head and breathe in the familiar odor of dirty straw and old clothes, mingled with breezes from the river. If it is winter I look out upon a river glazed with ice, bluish in late afternoon; if it is summer I count the white sails of sailboats. In Cambridge I dismount at dusty Harvard Square, shaded by its great elm, with four roads radiating out to Boston, Watertown, Arlington, and Charlestown, like choices laid out in a fairy tale.
My nurse left a half hour ago to do the marketing and has not yet returned, which most likely means she has met someone and will come back with news from the neighborhood. I hope so, as her reports are my sole contact with the wider world for weeks at a time. Possibly she has not met anyone but has simply been caught up in a long queue in the bakery; there is no way of knowing.
While I wait, I slip back into the past again. I walk several blocks to Mrs. Agassiz’s school, at the corner of Quincy Street and Broadway, across the street from Harvard Yard. I sit at a scuffed wooden desk in a third-floor classroom, inhaling the odor of wet wool, chalk dust, and beeswax. I watch the way the girls shift in their seats while Mr. Agassiz, the great natural historian and the husband of Mrs. Agassiz, lectures us on glaciers, on which he is the world’s greatest expert. Despite the fact we are only girls, we are being taught by esteemed Harvard professors of mathematics, science, and Greek. (In Boston, even the maidens are supposed to be well-educated, although it is also true that an intel-lectual girl is assumed to be something of a pill and a poor addition to a social gathering.) Mr. Agassiz’s younger daughter, Pauline, who is Swiss, is our French teacher, and all the girls are in love with her. As she stands at the blackboard or sits at her desk to read the dictée aloud, we study her clothes, mannerisms, features, hair, noting every new shawl, hair-clip, ribbon, or locket. She has black hair, black laughing eyes, a rosebud mouth, and a perfect dimple in one cheek. Her perfections make us all wish we were Swiss.
Owing to my childhood immersion in French, I am one of the best French students. I would have been happy enough at school if I could have sat at my desk all day worshiping Mademoiselle Pauline as she spoke of Chateaubriand and Victor Hugo, alexandrines, the three unities, and explications de texte. I would not have minded the other classes, either, though I could never warm up to geology or mathematics. My bête noire was the other girls, who had known one another since infancy and talked in a dense Bostonian code I could not crack.
Having been educated at home, largely in Europe, with only brothers for playmates, I’d apparently missed out on absorbing the cru- cial girlish pastimes. I mean autograph books, commonplace books, secret diaries, coded letters, cat’s cradles, Jacob’s ladders, cootie-catchers, blood oaths of eternal sisterhood. I might as well have been an Esquimaux for all I knew of these female mysteries. Someone would ask if I could do ‘Double Flying Dutchman’ and I did not even know it was a maneuver in jacks.
My personality was well concealed under a mask of Well- Brought-up Young Girl. Inside the mask I was terrified. The rowdiness of the girls on the omnibus and on the street frightened me. I lived in terror of these self-confident Boston girls finding out that our family did not summer at the Shore because my one-legged father could not keep his balance on sand; that my parents had once lived in a Fourierite commune in France; that Father had suffered a “Vastation” before I was born, turning him into a mystic; that our family tree included a gallery of tipsy, strange, and dissolute relatives whose lives were frequently cut short by madness or drink.
Despite our peculiarities and semi-foreignness, however, my parents were warmly embraced by the Boston Brahmins. Father seduced Boston society with his charm and mesmerizing talk and was invited to join the Saturday Club, mingling with the scions of Boston’s oldest families. We were quickly taken up by people like the Nortons, the Childses, the Holmeses, the Fieldses, the Lowells, the Appletons. Father especially doted on and flirted with the beautiful, learned, and witty Annie Fields, wife of the editor of the Atlantic Monthly, who ran the closest thing Boston had to a literary salon in those days.
If it hadn’t been for my interesting brothers (William and Harry effortlessly became part of Boston’s jeunesse dorée, as did Wilky and Bob later), I should probably have remained a nonentity in Boston. I would study my face in the looking glass for protracted periods, analyzing its defects, hoping that time would improve the picture. I don’t mean to say that I was ugly; I was (I thought) a bland pudding of a girl, lacking definition. A complexion without roses, hair a lackluster brown, eyes nothing special, a mouth already hinting at a disposition to turn down at the corners and look discouraged. All that would have been workable if bolstered by charm, vivacity, and a pleasing personality, but these qualities seemed to elude me as well.
One rainy morning, while tugging off my galoshes in the school cloakroom, I overheard a conversation around the corner. A giggling girl was quoting from William Dean Howells’s review of Father’s latest book, The Secret of Swedenborg, in the Atlantic Monthly. In a stagey voice, she quoted a line from the review—Henry James has kept the secret!—sending her two companions into paroxysms of mirth. I did not understand why this was so hilarious—and then, suddenly, shamefully, I did. You could read the whole book, Mr. Howells meant, and fail to learn the secret of Swedenborg, because Father’s prose was impenetrable. Although he was a good friend of our family’s, the popular novelist was unable to suppress this deadly truth.
Until that moment I had not realized this about Father’s books. I had never thought to read them myself, but I assumed they were very eloquent and wise, as Mother assured us they were. Separated from me by a row of wooden cabinets, the girls went on laughing hysterically, snorting through their noses. When they caught sight of me, one of them had the decency to blush while the other two gathered up their books and dashed into the classroom, arms linked, whispering to each other. My face burned. What I would have given for the gift of invisibility!
“The trouble with your looks, Alice, is that you have too much forehead.” A casual comment, some months later, by Charlotte Dana. She meant no harm; she intended to be helpful, and advised curls in front. After that I became obsessed with the vast expanse of my fore- head, which I saw gleaming from every reflective surface. My whole life would be marred by it, I foresaw; wherever I went, whatever I did, this great shiny dome would accompany me. Some years later, my brothers’ great friend Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who was never happier than when he could humiliate me, said, “Alice, one is simply blinded by your forehead. What a lot of knowledge you must keep in there.” (Pretending it was a compliment. And to think we let this man make our laws!)
When I confided my misgivings about my forehead to my beloved years later, she said, “What are you talking about?”
“Well, look at me.”
She studied me from every angle, then said, “Your forehead looks quite unremarkable to me.” I saw that she was right. Either the rest of my face had caught up with my forehead, or it had never been as pre- dominant as I thought. So ended that fixation.
Nurse’s entrance cuts short this wool-gathering. I have become fascinated with her character, for she is, after all, the only other cast- away on my desert island. Yesterday I asked her if I was different from English ladies, and she said, “Yes. Not so ’aughty, Miss.” This morning she wears a secret smile, which must mean she brings interesting news from the street.
“These are from the Bradleys’ yellow hen, Miss,” she tells me, extracting four fat brown eggs from her marketing basket. “The brown hen is poorly and hardly lays now. They are thinking of eating it.”
This leads to speculation about how many meals this indigent family might stretch out of one sickly hen. What I have been learning about the poor in England is a brutal revelation. One of Katherine’s social worker friends told us there were thousands of families in London living in one room, subsisting on “sop,” which is not a metaphor, as I first supposed, but consists of crusts of bread they get from the parish and soak in water. And these are the families of working men, carpenters and cabinet-makers, all crying out for work!
But there is other news today, and Nurse can hardly wait to impart it, I can tell. In the bakery where she buys our rolls, she conversed with a new neighbor who has just moved in upstairs in our lodging-house. “A young parson just starting out, Miss, very nice. He said he would like to call on you.” The tip of her nose is red from the cold.
Oh dear. Unable to get about on my legs, i have become a sitting duck for parsons. And Nurse herself, a devout Anglican, is a glutton for church.
“Did you tell him I’m a sort of pagan from Boston?”
“Oh no, Miss.” Blushing. She has.
“Very well, Nurse. So long as he doesn’t get his hopes up.”
Nurse (whose name is Emily Bradfield) was hired by Katherine three months ago, shortly after we moved from London to Leamington, K having foreseen that she would eventually be called back to Americaby family troubles (i.e., her sister Louisa). Her departure came to pass a short while later, in fact, not long after I received a particularly pitying letter from brother William (to be known hereinafter as the Quagmire Epistle). I told Katherine that if she had not been there, I might have gone out, just like a candle.
“Oh Alice, you wouldn’t!” she said.
“Yes, I would. Being my eldest brother, William can make me feel that I exist or not. It was very fortunate you were here.” I was only half joking.
When Katherine sailed home, I thought I would die of heartbreak. I can’t go back to America—ever. Between us lies a large ocean, and it was seasickness that laid me low two and a half years ago, five hundred nautical miles east of Newfoundland. By the time we steamed into the docks of Liverpool, I could not walk or stand. When I do, even now, the world reels around me, and my legs collapse. Although I have seen many doctors—who have blessed me with the most varied and ingenious diagnoses—spinal neurosis, nervous hyperaesthesia, suppressed gout—the reason for my illness remains obscure, although everyone agrees I should not dream of taking on an ocean.
Our voyage had been perfectly lovely the first few days, or would have been if not for Louisa’s possessiveness. Whenever K and I were playing shuffleboard on deck, count on Louisa to pop up with her hand pressed to her forehead like a dying nymph, and K would have to go tend to her whilst I remained in a swaying saloon, hemmed in by a crowd of missionary women on their way to convert the Far East. When we’d walk on deck in the evening, wrapped in woolen shawls in the frosty air, Louisa would chatter away about cousins and second cousins I did not know. Bostonians and their cousins! She suffers from consumption— though she seems an Amazon to me—and it is axiomatic to her that a sister comes before a friend.
At times during our crossing I thought of pouring out my sorrows in a letter to K, so distant did she seem when Louisa wedged herself between us. But that is ancient history now. (Incidentally, Katherine was the last person standing on our ship. She attributed her hardiness to my brother William’s seasickness cure, which consists of a blistering patch behind the ear and has something to do with the semicircular canals of the inner ear. Don’t ask me any more, but he has written papers on it for medical journals.)
18 Garden St., Cambridge, Mass.
August 9, 1887
To Alice James
Your card, and H’s letters, have made us acquainted with your sad tumble-down, and I am sorrier than I can express. You poor child! You are visited in a way that few are called to bear, and I have no words of consolation that would not seem barren. Stifling slowly in a quagmire of disgust and pain and impotence! Silence, as Carlyle would say, must cover the pity I feel.
I can only encourage you by noting that the laws which govern these vague nervous complaints means that they usually disappear after middle life.
11 Hamilton Terrace
Leamington, Warwickshire, England
August 31, 1887
To William James
Kath. and I roared with laughter over your portrait of me “stifling in a quagmire of disgust, pain & impotence,” for I consider myself one of the most potent creations of my time, & though I may not have a group of Harvard students sitting at my feet drinking in psychic truth, I shall not tremble, I assure you, at the last trump. I seem to present a very varied surface to the beholder. Henry thinks that my hardships are such that I shall have a crown of glory even in this inglorious world without waiting for the next, where it will be a sure thing & my land- lady says, “You seem very comfortable, you are always ’appy within yourself, Miss.”
Judith Hooper was an editor at Omni magazine and is the author of Of Moths and Men and co-author of The Three-Pound Universe and Would the Buddha Wear a Walkman?: A Catalogue of Revolutionary Tools for Higher Consciousness. She lives in Amherst, Massachusetts.