Session 5

[Alice in bed]

Lecture 5
Alice James:
The Diary of Alice James (1889-92 / 1894)

Anthology texts to read:

  • Alice James (1848-1892): Diary (1934 / 1964)
  • Susan Sontag: from Alice in Bed (1993)
  • Jean Strouse: from Alice James: A Biography (1980))
  • Ruth Bernard Yeazell: from The Death and Letters of Alice James (1981))

[January 23, 1891]:

South Kensington.

Before the year waxes older, I must recount our novel festivities at Christmas. Little Nurse has an exemplary habit of telling me all her experiences, great and small, and since I have been here, she has afforded me infinite amusement by psychological revelations of the Stewards' Room. She is allowed to report all mental eccentricities of the Lady's Maid, the Chef, the Steward, the Waiter, etc., but the line is supposed to be rigidly drawn at all gossip about the "ladies," though I must confess that curiosity often gets the better of my high tone, and I listen, with great receptivity, to the shortcomings of Mrs. Jones, Brown and Robinson; for alas! I am sorry to say, that the ladies' maid mind, like mine, finds the recital of humanity's shortcomings more succulent than that of its perfections; virtue permitting of little license of treatment more than accounts for our preoccupation with the deviations therefrom.

In this way a wide social range was vicariously opened out to us - beginning by a servants' ball in the hotel on Christmas night, tapering down through a party at "Cousin Val's," a bootmaker, who has been to Marlborough House to measure the illustrious foot of Royalty, and ending on Saturday night with a comprehensive gathering at the Sweep's at Hampstead, where the exalted Assistant from Marshall and Snelgrove's watched from the other side of the room the inspirations of a Carter and a ploughboy.

The Nursling, knowing that she did not shine as a dancer, and being in no way inclined to obscurity, disguised herself for the ball very successfully as an old hag, and sang and acted one of those dreary Compounds of "Charing." "Betsey Waring," "Damp-attics" and "roomatics" known as a Comic song. We have long had it impressed upon us that she "knew" music and Drawing, but her histrionic genius had lain fallow, so we were much surprised and delighted at its unexpected blossom­ing. One day, when I told her how anxious I was about the first night of The American, she asked: "Should you have felt very badly if I had failed on Christmas night?" adding: "I never should have held up my head in this hotel again if I had."

The Ladies and gentlemen being invited to honour the occasion: K. put on her mouse-coloured velvet gown, and went down just before Nurse's song. She was received at the door, by one of the "gentlemen" in the office, who escorted her to a chair. When Jennie, our housemaid, came up with enthusiasm, to greet her and introduced another housemaid, Jessie (our second housemaid) sat beside her, while our three waiters interchanged conversational amenities with her from time to time all as if they were friends and hosts, till one's heart was melted to hear about it. These aesthetic decencies so wrap about the iniquities, and so explain and justify their long continuance, that one has flaccid moments of shivering at the raw edges that will be laid bare as democracy sweeps its pope's-head through the festooning cobwebs, and crumbles the richly hued mould into dust. Jennie said to Nurse, with delight, the next morning: "fancy Miss Loring shaking hands with me before the whole room." Let us pray that our unconscious benefactions outweigh our unconscious cruelties!

This by the way allies K. with the Countess of Portsmouth, who says she always shakes hands with the village school mistress, because she thinks "it's the best plan." Think of the swindle of being so placed! rigid with the framework of the Personage, and ne'er a shady corner from the cradle to the grave for the limbering and rejoiceful somersault. But I must get on with my festivities.

Cousin Val's party seemed commonplace with the trail of Royalty and a professional comedian upon it, - Ivan Berlin, more woolly than terrible; but real life was found in perfection at the Sweep's, who lives in a little cottage in one of the hollows of Hampstead Heath.

The party consisted of about 20, 10 having fortunately failed, who were placed, in order to fit in, on stools close together round the walls of the little sitting-room, against which they couldn't lean, however, because they were dripping with wet, there being no fire, for fear of too much heat at this frigid season. Upon her stool, Nurse sat from five in the evening until six the next morning, save at the moments when she burst into song, the essence of the occasion being uninterrupted vocalization and an all night sitting. Nurse at one moment raised the tone, by making to the Marshall and Snelgrove contingent, a literary allusion to the clammy hands of Uriah Heep, - "The others wouldn't have known to what we referred, Miss." They seemed to be differentiated by special songs, one recalcitrant young woman being besought at frequent intervals through the watches of the night to sing "Joanna in her Shroud," which turned out to be "Joe in the Copper," and the Sweep coming to Nurse, to tell her that a young woman was about to sing one of her songs, and what could he do about it, as if there were a vocal copyright. Over the evolutions of the carter and a gallon of beer we must sadly draw a veil, but the plough­boy, pitted with small-pox, with features fashioned in one of the least kindly moods of Providence, seemed the rarest flower of benignancy. So preoccupied was he with the welfare of the guests, and making the occasion "go off," that Nurse thought he must be related to the hosts - the last note of a song had hardly died, before he would exclaim: "If no one else is going to sing, I know another"; and perched on his stool, his eyes tight shut, clenched hands, and heels tucked under him, he would drone out, by the yard, ditties to the refrain of "My Comryde died for me," and the like. Think of the joy in life of this lowly lad, his soul rapturous with song, all instinct and fluid with the grace of hospitality, as compared, for instance, with Lord Wharncliffe, whose ancestral exigencies are such that he turns his back upon his guests however fair they be, and takes his own sister, without a grimace, in to dinner, four days in succession. A lady staying with this unfortunate bond­man, pathetically remarked that "having no title, I had to go in to dinner every day with the same gentleman, and that gentleman, Mr. Smalley, too."

- The Diary of Alice James, ed. Leon Edel, 1964 (Boston: Northwestern University Press, 1999): 168-71.


The Significance of the Frontier in American History

Three ways of mythologising the American frontier:

We sat looking off across the country, watching the sun go down. The curly grass about us was on fire now. The bark of the oaks turned red as copper. There was a shimmer of gold on the brown river. Out in the stream the sandbars glittered like glass, and the light trembled in the willow thickets as if little flames were leaping among them. The breeze sank to stillness. In the ravine a ringdove mourned plaintively, and somewhere off in the bushes an owl hooted. The girls sat listless, leaning against each other. The long fingers of the sun touched their foreheads.

Presently we saw a curious thing: There were no clouds, the sun was going down in a limpid, gold-washed sky. Just as the lower edge of the red disk rested on the high fields against the horizon, a great black figure suddenly appeared on the face of the sun. We sprang to our feet, straining our eyes toward it. In a moment we realized what it was. On some upland farm, a plough had been left standing in the field. The sun was sinking just behind it. Magnified across the distance by the horizontal light, it stood out against the sun, was exactly contained within the circle of the disk; the handles, the tongue, the share - black against the molten red. There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun.

Even while we whispered about it, our vision disappeared; the ball dropped and dropped until the red tip went beneath the earth. The fields below us were dark, the sky was growing pale, and that forgotten plough had sunk back to its own littleness somewhere on the prairie.

- Willa Cather, My Antonia, Bk 2, Chapter XIV.

Frederick Turner's The Frontier in American History (1920) included his landmark essay "The Significance of the Frontier in American History"(A paper read at the meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago, July 12, 1893. It first appeared in the Proceedings of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, December 14, 1893):

From the conditions of frontier life came intellectual traits of profound importance. The works of travelers along each frontier from colonial days onward describe certain common traits, and these traits have, while softening down, still persisted as survivals in the place of their origin, even when a higher social organization succeeded. The result is that to the frontier the American intellect owes its striking characteristics. That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom--these are traits of the frontier, or traits called out elsewhere because of the existence of the frontier. Since the days when the fleet of Columbus sailed into the waters of the New World, America has been another name for opportunity, and the people of the United States have taken their tone from the incessant expansion which has not only been open but has even been forced upon them. He would be a rash prophet who should assert that the expansive character of American life has now entirely ceased. Movement has been its dominant fact, and, unless this training has no effect upon a people, the American energy will continually demand a wider field for its exercise. But never again will such gifts of free land offer themselves. For a moment, at the frontier, the bonds of custom are broken and unrestraint is triumphant. There is no tabula rasa. The stubborn American environment is there with its imperious summons to accept its conditions; the inherited ways of doing things are also there; and yet, in spite of environment, and in spite of custom, each frontier did indeed furnish a new field of opportunity, a gate of escape from the bondage of the past; and freshness, and confidence, and scorn of older society, impatience of its restraints and its ideas, and indifference to its lessons, have accompanied the frontier. What the Mediterranean Sea was to the Greeks, breaking the bond of custom, offering new experiences, calling out new institutions and activities, that, and more, the ever retreating frontier has been to the United States directly, and to the nations of Europe more remotely. And now, four centuries from the discovery of America, at the end of a hundred years of life under the Constitution, the frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925):

Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes - a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby's house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby's wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter - to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning -

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Perhaps the most important things to note are:

  1. The elegiac tone.
  2. The importance of the European / American dichtomy: Old World / New World; Paleface / Redskin ("Back in the ’30s, Philip Rahv memorably divided American fiction writers into redskins and palefaces — Mark Twain epitomized the wild men, Henry James the civilized — a chasm that today may be outmoded or politically indelicate ..." Bill Marx).

Compare this, then, with the following passage from Alice James's diary for January 1891:

The Parson is an unfailing emetic!

From Truth:

Thou shalt Love thy Neighbour as Thyself.
S. Mark xii. 31.

N.B. - Shopkeepers are affectionately recommended to you as being "a set of people" useful for supplying small articles on credit to suit your convenience. They also exhibit "showbills" in their windows; they help to pay the Rates and Taxes; their competition keeps down prices; they subscribe to the Church; and they always vote for the union of Church and State. But –
Ye cannot serve God and Mammon.
S. Matthew vi. 24."

"In constructing the earlier basis of a model, sculptors generally commence by moulding the form without drapery of any sort, and it was the Queen's incessant fear that her subjects should con­template the Royal forms when undergoing this preliminary, imaginative 'building-up' that led her to insist upon a special studio being reserved exclusively for work connected with the Royal Family." (From Truth.)

Isn't she the supreme grocer?

When I was last here, in London, a friend who used very often to come to see me said one day: "I have just been to the 'Wild West,' and I do enjoy your country so, it's so free and fresh." As the female of the Cow Boy, my attractions were explained.

- The Diary of Alice James (1999): 168.

How better to sum up the "international theme"? The stuffiness of a nation of shopkeepers contrasted with the Cow girl charms even of bedridden Alice?

[Desperately Seeking Alice]

Workshop 5
Alice in Bed

“An artist is someone who finishes something.”

– Susan Sontag, Alice in Bed: A Play in Eight scenes (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1993): 20.

After a brief discussion of the prescribed texts, followed by any seminars which have been scheduled for this week, we'll move onto your responses to the writing exercise below:

Exercise 5:
Family Gatherings

Families can be extremely complicated, especially now divorce is so common. At a wedding, there might be several sets of parents and grandparents. Ex-spouses size up one another’s new partners. You might feel most interested in the people you know least well – the black sheep of the family, or the legendary uncle from America. How do such characters match up to their image within the family?

  • Visualise a family gathering. Remember everybody who’s there. You’ll know them in varying degrees of intimacy; Some you’ll know very well, others you’ll never have seen before. You could put them all around a table, in church pews or in an imaginary group photo. Imagine them in as much detail as you can, focusing on their behaviour together.
  • After taking notes on the group as a whole, choose one of these characters and describe them in detail, concentrating on their behaviour within this setting and what it reveals about them: their past, their future.

NB: This exercise was adapted from The Creative Writing Handbook: Techniques for New Writers, edited by John Singleton and Mary Luckhurst (London: Macmillan, 1996): 85-86.

Next week:

Exercise 6: Travelling Hopefully and Seminars on Mawson's Antarctic Diaries are due; as well as the Creative Response (due in at the Department on Friday 22nd August).

[Mawson on the Moon]

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