The deep sea of divine cessation

Alice James (reclining) and Katharine Loring in Alice’s sitting room, c.1890

Alice James was born in New York City in 1848, sister to novelist Henry James and psychologist William James and the only daughter to theologian Henry James Sr. and Mary Walsh. From a young age her life was plagued by illness, and much of adulthood was spent bedbound. It was in 1889, living in England with her partner, Katharine Loring, that she began to keep the diary for which she is now known, its very first entry beginning, “I think that if I get into the habit of writing a bit about what happens, or rather doesn’t happen, I may lose a little of the sense of loneliness and desolation which abides with me.” Three years later, on 6th March 1892, Alice died from breast cancer. This was her final entry, dictated to Katharine on the 4th.

The Diary Entry

March 4th

I am being ground slowly on the grim grindstone of physical pain, and on two nights I had almost asked for K.’s lethal dose, but one steps hesitantly along such unaccustomed ways and endures from second to second; and I feel sure that it can’t be possible but what the bewildered little hammer that keeps me going will very shortly see the decency of ending his distracted career; however this may be, physical pain however great ends in itself and falls away like dry husks from the mind, whilst moral discords and nervous horrors sear the soul. These last, Katharine has completely under the control of her rhythmic hand, so I go no longer in dread. Oh the wonderful moment when I felt myself floated for the first time into the deep sea of divine cessation, and saw all the dear old mysteries and miracles vanish into vapour! That first experience doesn’t repeat itself, fortunately, for it might become a seduction.

Further Reading

Two years after Alice’s death, Katharine had four copies of the diary printed by University Press, kept one, and gave three to Alice’s surviving brothers. Of those three, Henry destroyed his copy and William’s now lives at Houghton Library at Harvard—as for the other one, I’m unsure. In 1934, Alice’s diary was published more widely, in an edition edited by Anna Burr. Thirty years later, Leon Edel edited a supposedly more accurate version that was based on William James’ copy. That edition is easy to find.

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