Sometime early in 1876, a person connected with the James family met a 27-year-old woman called Alice Howe Gibbens at the Radical Club in Boston and immediately concluded that William James should marry her. In one version of the story, Henry James Sr returned from a meeting and announced to those at home that he had seen William's future bride. Another version attributes the discovery to the philosopher Thomas Davidson, who invited his friend to meet 'the woman you ought to marry'. It may not be clear who saw her first, but everyone seems to have agreed that Alice Howe Gibbens was destined for William James. Having followed up the proffered advice, William himself dashed off a letter declaring that he had just met 'the future Mrs W.J.' Alice in turn told her mother that she had found the man she wanted for a husband. And insofar as one can judge of these matters from the outside, the union that eventually resulted bore out the collective verdict. She was, William later wrote, 'my only absolutely satisfying companion'. Looking back on their engagement some years after his death, Alice recalled the 'miracle' of that day 44 years before when she and William were engaged: 'The apple blossoms were out and all the spring seemed blessing us. I ought to go on my way gratefully, for I have had my turn.' She died less than five months later.
LRB 25 June 2009 | PDF Download