Alice in Bed

Written by Judith Hooper
Review by Kate Braithwaite

“My fate had been prearranged by biology.” This is the conclusion reached by Alice James in Judith Cooper’s novel, Alice in Bed, the story of the invalid sister of novelist Henry James.

Hooper’s novel is set in 1889 but moves backwards and forwards through the span of Alice’s short life (she was born in 1848 and died aged 43). In the present of the story, Alice is bed-bound by a mysterious illness, and so she revisits her late teens and earlier adult life that she has spent in Boston, New York and Europe. What emerges is a story not, as might be expected, of the familial doings of a famous writer, but that of his bright and humorous sister, struggling with illness and infirmity as well as a growing realization that the world is a very different place – depending on whether you are a man or a woman.

There is no doubt the James family was a rich mix of genius tinged with a less-than-happy history of mental illness and instability. Alice’s brother William spends some time in a mental institution, and Alice’s illness, unexplained during her lifetime, is given interesting scrutiny in Hooper’s afterword. It should be happy hunting ground for a novelist. But while the quality of writing is commendable and Alice’s character engages, the story lacks forward momentum.

Not having any foreknowledge about Alice James may be a bar to enjoyment here. The real Alice James did begin a diary in 1889. It was published long after her death and appears to have been well received. As it is not clear from Alice in Bed where the lines between Alice’s actual diary and this fictional portrayal are drawn, it is difficult to assess what Alice in Bed gives readers that the actual The Diary of Alice James would not already have supplied.