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If you enjoy reading about Victorian healthcare and alarming cures, this is a novel for you. If you are a Henry Jamesian completist, and have been looking for a good, solid fictionalisation of the life of his sister Alice, this too is a book for you. If you want early American and British feminism combined with radical politics, read on. And if you want some clever rereadings of when and how Henry James wrote some of his most famous novels, order this novel now.
Lynne Alexander’s The Sister is a fictionalised memoir of Alice James, an invalid, apparently an author manquée, and the younger sister of the more famous James brothers, William the pompous and Henry the smug. Her life in this novel is told from 1878 to 1891, in which she is a demanding, affectionate, angry and witty woman who had enough money to live independently, but her very precarious health prevented her from enjoying it. Her complex and nameless condition put her through violent and addictive treatments for her crippling conditions that seemed to do no good at all.
She has an up and down life, in terms of her health. In some episodes she’s on her feet walking briskly along the coast, in others she’s being wheeled immobile in a bath chair through Leamington Spa. Her long-term companion is the relable and devoted American feminist Katharine Loring, and her various real-life maids and nurses are agglomerated here into a chirpy London maid called Wardy. Her father is a monster of self-absorption, her elder brother William (the philosopher) is similarly self-absorbed and very self-important about his elder brother status, her mother and Aunt Kate seem only to exist as handmaidens to the paterfamilias and his bonkers ideas. Henry the novelist, the younger of her two favourite brothers, is more attentive, but just as ignorant of and ill-suited to understand Alice’s feelings, needs and opinions, as are all the rest of her family. The crux of the novel, according to the blurb, is when Katharine and Alice discover that Henry has been using their lives in his fiction, but, actually, this is misleading. Henry does pillage Alice’s life, but he does this to everyone. Her interest in each of his new novels as they are published is about working out whom he has copied from the life this time.
The Sister is a novel without climax or plot. It’s beautifully written, and very easy to read. [Proof: I was in hospital overnight for tests when I read this novel, but, despite my revulsion at yet more painful treatments for the poor woman, I still wanted to read about her.] It’s a progression, a slice of life without any obvious end or beginning, but it’s a slice from the most interesting part of Alice’s life, and from Henry’s career, when he was experimenting with prose and the theatre, and establishing himself as a literary name, despite William’s snorts of derision about his convoluted style.
As a memoir this book is most definitely fictionalised; the author gives a list of events that she has altered from the real Alice’s history, and acknowledges a heavy debt to the standard works on her life. So, if you want the absolute truth, you should go for the biography and letters, but if you want a clever and well-worked-out reimagining of the restricted life of a remarkable woman, go for this novel.
But the cover! It’s the most ugly and offputting daub of a portrait I’ve ever seen, German Expressionists notwithstanding. It smears the woman’s features into an out of focus blur: does it represent pain? Why would anyone buy a book with that on the cover? Why did the publishers not find or commission a well-rendered and clear image of a woman in bed hurling a jug across the room, or winning an argument with a startled-looking man, as scenes like those would be far more true to the spirit of Alice James in this novel.
Lynne Alexander, The Sister (Dingwall: Sandstone Press, 2012) ISBN 978-1-905207-80-0, £8.99.
Kate podcasts weekly about books she really, really likes on http://www.reallylikethisbook.com.