Sunday, April 11, 2021

The Real Thing

Henry James (1843–1916)
From Henry James: Complete Stories 1892–1898

“Mrs. Monarch went through her paces before me, and did it quite well.” Illustration by the Belgian-born British artist Rudolf Blind (1850–1916) for “The Real Thing,” Black & White, April 16, 1892.
In his memoir A Small Boy and Others, Henry James recalled how, as a child, he would pore over the “steel-plate volumes” in the family library, particularly one tome devoted to Shakespeare, “in which the plates were so artfully coloured and varnished, and complexion and dress thereby so endeared to memory, that it was for long afterwards a shock to me at the theatre not to see just those bright images, with their peculiar toggeries, come on.” Similarly, his memory of Oliver Twist was “more Cruikshank’s than Dickens’s,” referring to the twenty-four illustrations created by George Cruikshank for the novel, “all marked with that peculiarity of Cruikshank that the offered flowers or goodnesses, the scenes and figures intended to comfort and cheer, present themselves under his hand as but more subtly sinister, or more suggestively queer, than the frank badnesses and horrors. The nice people and the happy moments, in the plates, frightened me almost as much as the low and the awkward.”

When James began publishing his own stories and novels in magazines and books, he became preoccupied with how the accompanying pictures might overwhelm the text itself. “He greatly admired the work of the illustrators,” notes his biographer Leon Edel, “but he was not altogether happy at having his own prose illustrated.” He wrote in frustration to an editor of The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, “Ah, your illustrations—your illustrations; how, as a writer, one hates ’em; and how their being as good as they are makes one hate ’em more! What one writes suffers essentially, as literature, from going with them, and the two things ought to stand alone.” He struck a similar note when he sent his novel The Other House to be serialized in The Illustrated London News: “I like so little to be illustrated (I resent it so, amiably speaking, on behalf of good prose and real writing).”

His ambivalence about magazine illustrations was complicated by his friendships with several of the most prominent artists. He wrote an entire book, Picture and Text (1893), containing appreciations of the art of “black and white,” with essays focusing on its leading practitioners, several of whom would gather each summer in the English village of Broadway, where James would join them for a few days. Among the artists profiled by James is George du Maurier, who had illustrated James’s novel Washington Square when it appeared in 1880 and who gave James the idea for “The Real Thing,” perhaps the most anthologized of any of his short stories.

In February 1891, shortly after he had begun drafting the tale, he recorded in his notebook that it was based on an incident related to him by du Maurier involving a “lady and gentleman” sent to him by landscape painter William Powell Firth: “an oldish, faded, ruined pair—he an officer in the army—who unable to turn a penny in any other way, were trying to find employment as models.” Du Maurier had been for a quarter century one of the lead illustrators for the British humor magazine Punch, and the couple apparently hoped that they might earn money by posing as models for the upper-crust characters depicted in his society illustrations. James was struck by the “pathos” of their situation; two “good-looking gentlefolk” who were “now utterly unable to do anything, had no cleverness, no art nor craft to make use of as a gagne-pain [livelihood].” What James wrote next is fascinating for how he worked through the direction of the story once he became stuck on what to do with the idea:
I thought I saw a subject for very brief treatment in this donnée—and I think I do still; but to do anything worth while with it I must (as always, great Heavens!) be very clear as to what is in it and what I wish to get out of it. I tried a beginning yesterday, but I instantly became conscious that I must straighten out the little idea. It must be an idea—it can’t be a ‘story’ in the vulgar sense of the word. It must be a picture; it must illustrate something. . . . One must put a little action—not a stupid, mechanical, arbitrary action, but something that is of the real essence of the subject. I thought of representing the husband as jealous of the wife—that is, jealous of the artist employing her, from the moment that, in point of fact, she begins to sit. But this is vulgar and obvious—worth nothing. What I wish to represent is the baffled, ineffectual, incompetent character of their attempt, and how it illustrates once again the everlasting English amateurishness—the way superficial, untrained, unprofessional effort goes to the wall when confronted with trained, competitive, intelligent, qualified art—in whatever line it may be a question of. It is out of that element that my action and movement must come. . . .
Years later, when Henry James was collecting his stories and novels in the uniform New York Edition, he added in a preface that du Maurier’s married couple thought that “their not having to make believe would in fact serve them” and would also make the illustrator’s job easier because he wouldn’t have to depend on the “comparatively sordid professionals” who could only pretend to be what the husband and wife were: “the real thing.”

James’s story about an illustrator and his hopeful models would itself be illustrated, both when it was syndicated by S. S. McClure to numerous American newspapers in early April 1892 and when it appeared, later that month, in the British magazine Black & White. Yet the story is not merely a tale on the art of illustration. Earlier in his career, like many American writers of the late nineteenth century, James had been greatly influenced by the French literary realists. Yet by the 1890s, the late literary scholar George Monteiro has pointed out, James “was much closer to claiming the supremacy of the fiction-writer’s imagination in the creation of literary reality. Actual reality (experience) might be the necessary basis—the starting place—for the writer’s exercise of his art but his imagination realized the people and action of his tale.” In literature, too, the “real thing” isn't enough. Or, as James himself put it in his preface to a different story, “We can surely account for nothing in the novelist’s work that hasn’t passed through the crucible of his imagination, hasn’t in that perpetually simmering cauldron his intellectual pot-au-feu, been reduced to savoury fusion. . . . Thus it has become a different and, thanks to a rare alchemy, a better thing.”

Notes: A “sunk” piece of painting is one on which the colors have spread or sunk into the paper, losing their effect. Among the French expressions used by James are bêtement (stupidly), profils perdus (literally, lost profiles; portraits in which the head is turned more than halfway away from the painter), and sentiment de la pose (James’s own coinage denoting a feel for posing). A lazzarone is a vagabond or beggar. "Ce sont des gens qu'il faut mettre à la porte" translates as “These are people you have to throw out of the house.” When Jack Hawley repeats “those who know” in Italian (coloro che sanno), he is making a reference to Dante's epithet for Aristotle in the Inferno: ’l maestro di color che sanno, the master of those who know.

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When the porter’s wife (she used to answer the house-bell), announced “A gentleman-with a lady, sir,” I had, as I often had in those days, for the wish was father to the thought, an immediate vision of sitters. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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