JUST BEFORE HE DIED in 1882, Henry James Senior, said, "Oh, I have such good boys -- such good boys!" -- forgetting all about his clever daughter Alice. Being overshadowed by her brothers was the story of Alice James' life. She was the youngest (and only female) of the five, lively, competitive James children. What became of three of them describes the differences between the sexes in upper-class 19-century Boston: young Henry went to Harvard and became a famous novelist; William went to Harvard and became a distinguised psychologist; Alice was kept at home and had hysteria.

In Alice James, Jean Strouse, a book critic at Newsweek, writes the first full biography of the failed and morbidly fascinating daughter whose dilemma was that she was both an extraordinary James and a girl. Like an uncommon number of bright aggressive women of her day, she chose illness as her escape.

Alice James was caught in a relentless double bind. Her "strenuously loving" father encouraged her to think -- but never considered sending her to school; Alice believed marriage was "the only successful occupation" for a woman -- but she did not have a single suitor; she might have become a female radical -- except that Papa scorned reformers; with her sharply critical turn of mind she could have been a writer -- but that meant competing with her brothers. Faced only with impossible choices, her response was, in effect, a scream. She became a hysteric invalid.

By the time she was 12 and old enough to sense that there was nothing in her future except sewing bees and tea parties, she was described as "nervous." At 14, she consciously put herself in neutral gear. At 19, she had her first breakdown, and from then on her life was mostly a fever chart of "attacks" and incomplete recoveries. Her attacks are not described and her symptoms only vaguely spelled out in James family papers. Pain in the legs, head and stomach and difficulty walking is as close as anybody comes. Doctors, in that pre-Freudian day, gave her illness a dizzying array of labels -- "hysteria," "neurasthenia," "melancholia," "surpressed gout," "palpitations," "nervous paralysis," "gouty dathesis," "spinal neurosis" and an "excess of nervous sensibility" -- but they did not find a physical cause for any of them. If no one else knew what ailed Alice, perhaps Alice did herself. In any case, she dropped some powerful hints as to the source of her suffering when she wrote years later about the rage she felt toward her father when she first broke down: "As I used to sit immovable reading in the library with waves of violent inclination suddenly invading my muscles taking some one of their myriad forms such as throwing myself out of the window, or knocking off the head of the benignant pater as he sat with his silver locks, writing at his table, it used to seem to me that the only difference between me and the insane was that I had not only all the horrors and suffering of insanity but the duties of doctor, nurse, and strait-jacket imposed upon me, too."

Suppressing the "emotional volcano" she felt within her was a fulltime job and left Alice time for little else. She did manage to keep house for her father after her mother's death. ("My father and Alice are almost happy!" exclaimed Henry to a friend.) When her father died, she moved to London and enjoyed a brief social success before taking to her bed for good (becoming "an appendage to five cushions and three shawls" was how she put it). (She also developed an intense, permanent liaison with another spinster -- a "Boston marriage" it was called back then. Katharine Peabody Loring was her companion, nurse (and, who knows, maybe lover) for the last years of her life. That is, when Katharine Peabody Loring could take time out from caring for her sister, also a nervous invalid. Every good Yankee family seemed to have one.

If illness was the lifetime work of Alice James, death was her ultimate achievement. When, at 43, she was found at last to be suffering from a "real" illness -- cancer of the breast -- she welcomed it with a relief that bordered on exhilaration. Her brother Henry wrote to Willian, "her intense horror of life and contempt for it is practically falling away."

Before she died a year later, she looked back on the year of 1890-91 and noted with perverse pride that Henry had published two books and written a play and William had published Psychology. "Not a bad show for one family! especially if I get myself dead, the hardest job of all."

Strouse considers the great success of Alice James' life the diary she wrote secretly in her last three years. In it, she dared at last unleash her critical faculties on a variety of subjects from politics to the British upper classes. She was as tart and pricly in her diary as she must have been in person. Even her biographer admits that she was not exactly adorable much of the time.

A life of such negative achievement lacks ordinary action and dramatic punch. To her credit, Jean Strouse allows it to remain that way -- letting letters and diaries speak for themselves, resisting, most of the time, the impulse to overanalyze the cause of Alice's miseries. She writes with intelligence and restraint, skillfully reassembling the James family puzzle, fitting Alice into place between her doting father, prosaic mother, brilliant older brothers and the two disappointing younger boys, Robertson and Wilky.

Of them all, it was Henry who understood and cherished Alice. They shared a special friendship all their lives. He empathized with her suffering; she took a devoted interest in his work. When she first moved to London, he wrote admiringly to William back in Cambridge of Alice's "vigour of mind, decision of character. . . . Her conversation is brilliant and trenchant . . . she is the best company in the place." It was Henry who most nearly understood the central conflict of her life. After her death, when he had read her diary, he wrote, "the extraordinary intensity of her will and personality really would have made the . . . life of a 'well' person . . . almost impossible to her . . . her disastrous, her tragic health was . . . the only solution for her of the practical problem of life."

The Death and Letters of Alice James, edited by Ruth Bernard Yeazell, is another addition to the boomlet in books about the once-forgotten Alice James. This well-edited and intelligently annotated collection of her letters (some of which have never before been published) make a valuable adjunct to the Strouse biography.

Reading her letters in their entirely brings Alice and the other Jameses to life. In an early letter, Alice describes a boisterous, teasing family scene with young Harry making a "jokelette" at the expense of his literal-minded mother. In another, Alice writes about a friend's engagement and adds wistfully, "My turn I am afraid will never come." She reveals her fear of losing self-control when she writes about her nights of "terror" and the "horrible sensations" that accompany "the act of falling aslleep." At the end of her life she sums up her career of illness when she writes, "I am working away as hard as I can to get dead as soon as possible."

Both books, the fine biography and the collected letters, shed light on the curious Victorian phenomenon of nervous prostration and give a vivid picture of a self-imprisoned 19-centruy woman.