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Contents > Author > Henry James > The Real Thing 4 1843- 1916
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Henry James
The Real Thing 4
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I thought Mrs. Monarch's face slightly convulsed when, on her coming
back with her husband, she found Oronte installed. It was strange to
have to recognise in a scrap of a lazzarone a competitor to her
magnificent Major. It was she who scented danger first, for the
Major was anecdotically unconscious. But Oronte gave us tea, with a
hundred eager confusions (he had never seen such a queer process),
and I think she thought better of me for having at last an
"establishment." They saw a couple of drawings that I had made of
the establishment, and Mrs. Monarch hinted that it never would have
struck her that he had sat for them. "Now the drawings you make from
US, they look exactly like us," she reminded me, smiling in triumph;
and I recognised that this was indeed just their defect. When I drew
the Monarchs I couldn't, somehow, get away from them-- get into the
character I wanted to represent; and I had not the least desire my
model should be discoverable in my picture. Miss Churm never was,
and Mrs. Monarch thought I hid her, very properly, because she was
vulgar; whereas if she was lost it was only as the dead who go to
heaven are lost-- in the gain of an angel the more.

By this time I had got a certain start with "Rutland Ramsay," the
first novel in the great projected series; that is I had produced a
dozen drawings, several with the help of the Major and his wife, and
I had sent them in for approval. My understanding with the
publishers, as I have already hinted, had been that I was to be left
to do my work, in this particular case, as I liked, with the whole
book committed to me; but my connection with the rest of the series
was only contingent. There were moments when, frankly, it WAS a
comfort to have the real thing under one's hand; for there were
characters in "Rutland Ramsay" that were very much like it. There
were people presumably as straight as the Major and women of as good
a fashion as Mrs. Monarch. There was a great deal of country-house
life-- treated, it is true, in a fine, fanciful, ironical, generalised
way-- and there was a considerable implication of knickerbockers and
kilts. There were certain things I had to settle at the outset; such
things for instance as the exact appearance of the hero, the
particular bloom of the heroine. The author of course gave me a
lead, but there was a margin for interpretation. I took the Monarchs
into my confidence, I told them frankly what I was about, I mentioned
my embarrassments and alternatives. "Oh, take HIM!" Mrs. Monarch
murmured sweetly, looking at her husband; and "What could you want
better than my wife?" the Major inquired, with the comfortable
candour that now prevailed between us.

I was not obliged to answer these remarks-- I was only obliged to
place my sitters. I was not easy in mind, and I postponed, a little
timidly perhaps, the solution of the question. The book was a large
canvas, the other figures were numerous, and I worked off at first
some of the episodes in which the hero and the heroine were not
concerned. When once I had set THEM up I should have to stick to
them-- I couldn't make my young man seven feet high in one place and
five feet nine in another. I inclined on the whole to the latter
measurement, though the Major more than once reminded me that HE
looked about as young as anyone. It was indeed quite possible to
arrange him, for the figure, so that it would have been difficult to
detect his age. After the spontaneous Oronte had been with me a
month, and after I had given him to understand several different
times that his native exuberance would presently constitute an
insurmountable barrier to our further intercourse, I waked to a sense
of his heroic capacity. He was only five feet seven, but the
remaining inches were latent. I tried him almost secretly at first,
for I was really rather afraid of the judgment my other models would
pass on such a choice. If they regarded Miss Churm as little better
than a snare, what would they think of the representation by a person
so little the real thing as an Italian street-vendor of a protagonist
formed by a public school?

If I went a little in fear of them it was not because they bullied
me, because they had got an oppressive foothold, but because in their
really pathetic decorum and mysteriously permanent newness they
counted on me so intensely. I was therefore very glad when Jack
Hawley came home: he was always of such good counsel. He painted
badly himself, but there was no one like him for putting his finger
on the place. He had been absent from England for a year; he had
been somewhere-- I don't remember where-- to get a fresh eye. I was in
a good deal of dread of any such organ, but we were old friends; he
had been away for months and a sense of emptiness was creeping into
my life. I hadn't dodged a missile for a year.

He came back with a fresh eye, but with the same old black velvet
blouse, and the first evening he spent in my studio we smoked
cigarettes till the small hours. He had done no work himself, he had
only got the eye; so the field was clear for the production of my
little things. He wanted to see what I had done for the Cheapside,
but he was disappointed in the exhibition. That at least seemed the
meaning of two or three comprehensive groans which, as he lounged on
my big divan, on a folded leg, looking at my latest drawings, issued
from his lips with the smoke of the cigarette.

"What's the matter with you?" I asked.

"What's the matter with YOU?"

"Nothing save that I'm mystified."

"You are indeed. You're quite off the hinge. What's the meaning of
this new fad?" And he tossed me, with visible irreverence, a drawing
in which I happened to have depicted both my majestic models. I
asked if he didn't think it good, and he replied that it struck him
as execrable, given the sort of thing I had always represented myself
to him as wishing to arrive at; but I let that pass, I was so anxious
to see exactly what he meant. The two figures in the picture looked
colossal, but I supposed this was NOT what he meant, inasmuch as, for
aught he knew to the contrary, I might have been trying for that. I
maintained that I was working exactly in the same way as when he last
had done me the honour to commend me. "Well, there's a big hole
somewhere," he answered; "wait a bit and I'll discover it." I
depended upon him to do so: where else was the fresh eye? But he
produced at last nothing more luminous than "I don't know-- I don't
like your types." This was lame, for a critic who had never
consented to discuss with me anything but the question of execution,
the direction of strokes and the mystery of values.

"In the drawings you've been looking at I think my types are very

"Oh, they won't do!"

"I've had a couple of new models."

"I see you have. THEY won't do."

"Are you very sure of that?"

"Absolutely-- they're stupid."

"You mean I am-- for I ought to get round that."

"You CAN'T-- with such people. Who are they?"

I told him, as far as was necessary, and he declared, heartlessly:
"Ce sont des gens qu'il faut mettre a la porte."

"You've never seen them; they're awfully good," I compassionately

"Not seen them? Why, all this recent work of yours drops to pieces
with them. It's all I want to see of them."

"No one else has said anything against it-- the Cheapside people are

"Everyone else is an ass, and the Cheapside people the biggest asses
of all. Come, don't pretend, at this time of day, to have pretty
illusions about the public, especially about publishers and editors.
It's not for SUCH animals you work-- it's for those who know, coloro
che sanno; so keep straight for ME if you can't keep straight for
yourself. There's a certain sort of thing you tried for from the
first-- and a very good thing it is. But this twaddle isn't IN it."
When I talked with Hawley later about "Rutland Ramsay" and its
possible successors he declared that I must get back into my boat
again or I would go to the bottom. His voice in short was the voice
of warning.

I noted the warning, but I didn't turn my friends out of doors. They
bored me a good deal; but the very fact that they bored me admonished
me not to sacrifice them-- if there was anything to be done with them-
- simply to irritation. As I look back at this phase they seem to me
to have pervaded my life not a little. I have a vision of them as
most of the time in my studio, seated, against the wall, on an old
velvet bench to be out of the way, and looking like a pair of patient
courtiers in a royal ante-chamber. I am convinced that during the
coldest weeks of the winter they held their ground because it saved
them fire. Their newness was losing its gloss, and it was impossible
not to feel that they were objects of charity. Whenever Miss Churm
arrived they went away, and after I was fairly launched in "Rutland
Ramsay" Miss Churm arrived pretty often. They managed to express to
me tacitly that they supposed I wanted her for the low life of the
book, and I let them suppose it, since they had attempted to study
the work-- it was lying about the studio-- without discovering that it
dealt only with the highest circles. They had dipped into the most
brilliant of our novelists without deciphering many passages. I
still took an hour from them, now and again, in spite of Jack
Hawley's warning: it would be time enough to dismiss them, if
dismissal should be necessary, when the rigour of the season was
over. Hawley had made their acquaintance-- he had met them at my
fireside-- and thought them a ridiculous pair. Learning that he was a
painter they tried to approach him, to show him too that they were
the real thing; but he looked at them, across the big room, as if
they were miles away: they were a compendium of everything that he
most objected to in the social system of his country. Such people as
that, all convention and patent-leather, with ejaculations that
stopped conversation, had no business in a studio. A studio was a
place to learn to see, and how could you see through a pair of
feather beds?

The main inconvenience I suffered at their hands was that, at first,
I was shy of letting them discover how my artful little servant had
begun to sit to me for "Rutland Ramsay." They knew that I had been
odd enough (they were prepared by this time to allow oddity to
artists,) to pick a foreign vagabond out of the streets, when I might
have had a person with whiskers and credentials; but it was some time
before they learned how high I rated his accomplishments. They found
him in an attitude more than once, but they never doubted I was doing
him as an organ-grinder. There were several things they never
guessed, and one of them was that for a striking scene in the novel,
in which a footman briefly figured, it occurred to me to make use of
Major Monarch as the menial. I kept putting this off, I didn't like
to ask him to don the livery-- besides the difficulty of finding a
livery to fit him. At last, one day late in the winter, when I was
at work on the despised Oronte (he caught one's idea in an instant),
and was in the glow of feeling that I was going very straight, they
came in, the Major and his wife, with their society laugh about
nothing (there was less and less to laugh at), like country-callers--
they always reminded me of that-- who have walked across the park
after church and are presently persuaded to stay to luncheon.
Luncheon was over, but they could stay to tea-- I knew they wanted it.
The fit was on me, however, and I couldn't let my ardour cool and my
work wait, with the fading daylight, while my model prepared it. So
I asked Mrs. Monarch if she would mind laying it out-- a request
which, for an instant, brought all the blood to her face. Her eyes
were on her husband's for a second, and some mute telegraphy passed
between them. Their folly was over the next instant; his cheerful
shrewdness put an end to it. So far from pitying their wounded
pride, I must add, I was moved to give it as complete a lesson as I
could. They bustled about together and got out the cups and saucers
and made the kettle boil. I know they felt as if they were waiting
on my servant, and when the tea was prepared I said: "He'll have a
cup, please-- he's tired." Mrs. Monarch brought him one where he
stood, and he took it from her as if he had been a gentleman at a
party, squeezing a crush-hat with an elbow.

Then it came over me that she had made a great effort for me-- made it
with a kind of nobleness-- and that I owed her a compensation. Each
time I saw her after this I wondered what the compensation could be.
I couldn't go on doing the wrong thing to oblige them. Oh, it WAS
the wrong thing, the stamp of the work for which they sat-- Hawley was
not the only person to say it now. I sent in a large number of the
drawings I had made for "Rutland Ramsay," and I received a warning
that was more to the point than Hawley's. The artistic adviser of
the house for which I was working was of opinion that many of my
illustrations were not what had been looked for. Most of these
illustrations were the subjects in which the Monarchs had figured.
Without going into the question of what HAD been looked for, I saw at
this rate I shouldn't get the other books to do. I hurled myself in
despair upon Miss Churm, I put her through all her paces. I not only
adopted Oronte publicly as my hero, but one morning when the Major
looked in to see if I didn't require him to finish a figure for the
Cheapside, for which he had begun to sit the week before, I told him
that I had changed my mind-- I would do the drawing from my man. At
this my visitor turned pale and stood looking at me. "Is HE your
idea of an English gentleman?" he asked.

I was disappointed, I was nervous, I wanted to get on with my work;
so I replied with irritation: "Oh, my dear Major-- I can't be ruined
for YOU!"

He stood another moment; then, without a word, he quitted the studio.
I drew a long breath when he was gone, for I said to myself that I
shouldn't see him again. I had not told him definitely that I was in
danger of having my work rejected, but I was vexed at his not having
felt the catastrophe in the air, read with me the moral of our
fruitless collaboration, the lesson that, in the deceptive atmosphere
of art, even the highest respectability may fail of being plastic.

I didn't owe my friends money, but I did see them again. They re-
appeared together, three days later, and under the circumstances
there was something tragic in the fact. It was a proof to me that
they could find nothing else in life to do. They had threshed the
matter out in a dismal conference-- they had digested the bad news
that they were not in for the series. If they were not useful to me
even for the Cheapside their function seemed difficult to determine,
and I could only judge at first that they had come, forgivingly,
decorously, to take a last leave. This made me rejoice in secret
that I had little leisure for a scene; for I had placed both my other
models in position together and I was pegging away at a drawing from
which I hoped to derive glory. It had been suggested by the passage
in which Rutland Ramsay, drawing up a chair to Artemisia's piano-
stool, says extraordinary things to her while she ostensibly fingers
out a difficult piece of music. I had done Miss Churm at the piano
before-- it was an attitude in which she knew how to take on an
absolutely poetic grace. I wished the two figures to "compose"
together, intensely, and my little Italian had entered perfectly into
my conception. The pair were vividly before me, the piano had been
pulled out; it was a charming picture of blended youth and murmured
love, which I had only to catch and keep. My visitors stood and
looked at it, and I was friendly to them over my shoulder.

They made no response, but I was used to silent company and went on
with my work, only a little disconcerted (even though exhilarated by
the sense that THIS was at least the ideal thing), at not having got
rid of them after all. Presently I heard Mrs. Monarch's sweet voice
beside, or rather above me: "I wish her hair was a little better
done." I looked up and she was staring with a strange fixedness at
Miss Churm, whose back was turned to her. "Do you mind my just
touching it?" she went on-- a question which made me spring up for an
instant, as with the instinctive fear that she might do the young
lady a harm. But she quieted me with a glance I shall never forget--
I confess I should like to have been able to paint THAT-- and went for
a moment to my model. She spoke to her softly, laying a hand upon
her shoulder and bending over her; and as the girl, understanding,
gratefully assented, she disposed her rough curls, with a few quick
passes, in such a way as to make Miss Churm's head twice as charming.
It was one of the most heroic personal services I have ever seen
rendered. Then Mrs. Monarch turned away with a low sigh and, looking
about her as if for something to do, stooped to the floor with a
noble humility and picked up a dirty rag that had dropped out of my

The Major meanwhile had also been looking for something to do and,
wandering to the other end of the studio, saw before him my breakfast
things, neglected, unremoved. "I say, can't I be useful HERE?" he
called out to me with an irrepressible quaver. I assented with a
laugh that I fear was awkward and for the next ten minutes, while I
worked, I heard the light clatter of china and the tinkle of spoons
and glass. Mrs. Monarch assisted her husband-- they washed up my
crockery, they put it away. They wandered off into my little
scullery, and I afterwards found that they had cleaned my knives and
that my slender stock of plate had an unprecedented surface. When it
came over me, the latent eloquence of what they were doing, I confess
that my drawing was blurred for a moment-- the picture swam. They had
accepted their failure, but they couldn't accept their fate. They
had bowed their heads in bewilderment to the perverse and cruel law
in virtue of which the real thing could be so much less precious than
the unreal; but they didn't want to starve. If my servants were my
models, my models might be my servants. They would reverse the
parts-- the others would sit for the ladies and gentlemen, and THEY
would do the work. They would still be in the studio-- it was an
intense dumb appeal to me not to turn them out. "Take us on," they
wanted to say-- "we'll do ANYTHING."

When all this hung before me the afflatus vanished-- my pencil dropped
from my hand. My sitting was spoiled and I got rid of my sitters,
who were also evidently rather mystified and awestruck. Then, alone
with the Major and his wife, I had a most uncomfortable moment, He
put their prayer into a single sentence: "I say, you know-- just let
US do for you, can't you?" I couldn't-- it was dreadful to see them
emptying my slops; but I pretended I could, to oblige them, for about
a week. Then I gave them a sum of money to go away; and I never saw
them again. I obtained the remaining books, but my friend Hawley
repeats that Major and Mrs. Monarch did me a permanent harm, got me
into a second-rate trick. If it be true I am content to have paid
the price-- for the memory.

* * * * * THE END * * * * *

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