Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Racked with pain, but not all the time

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

About Kate

Blogger, lecturer, podcaster, writer, critic, reviewer, researcher, and publisher (, in and on British literary history. Preferred occupation while listening to podcasts: cooking or knitting. Preferred soundtrack while reading: the sound of silence.

6 comments on “Racked with pain, but not all the time

  1. Christine Harding
    October 23, 2012

    It sounds fascinating. I’d like to read a biography and find out more about her.

  2. Kate
    October 23, 2012

    Actually, I think I would have too, had I had the choice….

  3. Debbie Robson
    October 23, 2012

    Thank you for the review. I may have a look at it (which is saying something with the size of my TBR pile).

  4. Hilary
    October 23, 2012

    Gosh, this does sound like a fascinating read! Another interesting sounding title from Sandstone Press, too – their list invariably looks good.

  5. sshaver
    October 23, 2012


    Good point about the picture, but there’s actually a worse picture in the October 15 New Yorker “Turning The Page” review of The Woman Reader.

  6. Jackie
    October 23, 2012

    Maybe the cover is to show that this is a stark and unflinching portrait of the woman? Your review was very amusing(as yours so often are), but the book sounds like it might take some firmness for the reader to deal with such a difficult life, especially the illnesses which couldn’t be treated properly at the time.

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This entry was posted on October 23, 2012 by in Entries by Kate, Fiction: historical, Fiction: women's, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , .



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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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