What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James & Jack the Ripper by Paula Marantz Cohen

This historical mystery is a readable, enjoyable read full of period detail and insight. At times I felt like I was in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris; London was so full of famous people that every where you turned who bumped into a genius: Oscar Wilde, John Singer Sargent, Philip Henry Gosse, the English naturalist, George du Maurier, known for his cartoons in Punch and grandfather Dame Daphne du Maurier as well as the boys who inspired Peter Pan, Edward Burne-Jones, William Chester Minor, the “lunatic” who was a major compiler of the Oxford English Dictionary, Henry Sidgwick, an English utilitarian philosopher and economist, Vernon Lee, also known as Violet Paget, Walter Sickert, and, of course, the James family, William, Henry, and Alice. I was kept busy going between the novel and Wikipedia; I soon learned that if a character was mentioned that character was historical, not fictional, and had played a major role in life in the late 19th century.

Some of the criticism I have read about this book has a problem with the title. These reviewers seem not to believe that Alice’s name belongs in the title. Alice James was an invalid, bedridden, and died when she was 43 years old. (As undoubtedly brilliant as her brothers, she had the misfortune of being born a woman.) Therefore, in the book, she helps discover the identity of Jack the Ripper from her bed, removed from the derring-dos, much like C. Auguste Dupin or Nero Wolfe. In this book, William and Henry may be the action figures and contribute to the logical conclusion, but Alice deserves her due. Henry’s name is in the subtitle; where’s William? I guess you can’t please everyone.

Paula Marantz Cohen wrote, in a blog for the Huffington Post (09/01/10), that she had been inspired by Jane Austen and the Austen mania that reigned in the 1990s to write this book. (Interesting because James was not particularly enthusiastic about Jane Austen, although a number of literary people have decided that Jane Austen is the artistic mother of Henry James.) 

At any rate, she goes on to say that she “decided to make Henry James central to my next novel, it was not by imitating his plots but by co-opting his character as I had come to understood it … Not only, as the title makes clear, does Henry James figure in this tale as a character, but so does his brother William, the eminent philosopher and father of modern American psychology, as well as their brilliant invalid sister, Alice.”

Cohen recreates the late Victorian world with her knowledge of its culture and of the dynamics of the James family while writing a sometimes-funny, sometimes-macabre story of murder and mayhem. I, too, suffered through a graduate course on Henry James; this book made him seem more human and tempted me to reread some of his books that had seemed incomprehensible to me back then. All in all, an entertaining novel. As an added bonus, Cohen even manages to refute Patricia Cornwell’s theory about Walter Sickert, rather handily, I thought.

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Filed under History, Mystery

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