Lynne Alexander’s debut novel The Sister is a fictionalised telling of the life of Alice James, the younger sister of two famous brothers: the writer, Henry James, and the philosopher, William James. An invalid with a condition that no doctor can seem to diagnose, Alice spends most of her life confined to bed, where she escapes into the realm of her own dangerously vivid imagination. She is continually torn between the two most important figures granted entry into her isolated life: Henry, who cares but often underplays her suffering, and Katherine, an eager feminist and dear companion to Alice. Each of these figures disapproves of the other’s influence on Alice.
Alexander’s concern with the role of women in the 19th century is highlighted by the title of the novel, The Sister, which also illustrates Alice’s historical namelessness. This is perhaps also a nod to Virginia Woolf’s imagining of Shakespeare’s Sister, the equally talented younger sister of Shakespeare who, due to societal expectations of the role of women within the family and the contemporaneous limits on female education, could never aspire to achieve to the extent of her brother. This is very much the case for Alice James. Although born into an incredibly wealthy family, Alice experiences first-hand the bias towards her brothers from her own Father, whose only concern as he lays upon his deathbed is the health of his sons, Henry and William, despite Alice being the only one of his children who is caring for him in his final days. Alice’s own attempts at writing are repeatedly squashed, either by Henry, who belittles her attempts or by her doctors, who take her strikingly vicious descriptions as a red flag that she is mentally ill. This assertion is exacerbated when Alice, cruelly forbidden from writing whilst residing in the care home into which she had voluntarily entered, is driven to writing a story she has concocted on the walls of her room.
Rebelliously acerbic, Alice is the narrator of her own story and recounts her life and those within it with a wicked sense of humour. In parallel, she doesn’t fall shy of offering a voracious insight into her own short-comings. Alice appears at times to be like a penned-up animal, similar to the wolves who often haunt her, and it is all too easy as a reader to become immersed in the workings of her mind, whether that be in the form of frustration with herself or anger at those around her. Intimidatingly intelligent and occasionally manipulative, Alice is unapologetic about her decision to check out of living in the real world but clings to both Katherine and Henry, knowing that they cannot refuse her. As well as representing early feminism and radical politics in the 19th century, The Sister also teases out the hushed up nature of homosexuality. One of the highlights of the novel is the friendship between Alice and Katherine, their close intimacy and casual domesticity encouraging much gossip from those around them as to the true nature of their relationship.
The novel does, at times, feel overly long, stuffed full of day-to-day details that could perhaps be cut down. In addition, some readers may find it difficult to warm to Alice’s prickly character. However, the novel succeeds in portraying how horrific it must have been to be a woman in her time and situation, and Alexander lends her beautifully written prose to enable the sister to finally find her voice, confidently asserting that Alice James is no longer someone who can be easily forgotten.