The Real Thing and Other Tales
Henry James
Novels
8:09 h
Level 8
"The Real Thing" is a short story by Henry James, first syndicated by S. S. McClure in multiple American newspapers and then published in the British publication Black and White in April 1892 and the following year as the title story in the collection, The Real Thing and Other Stories published by Macmillan. The narrator, an unnamed illustrator and aspiring painter, hires a faded genteel couple, the Monarchs, as models, after they have lost most of their money and must find some line of work. They are the "real thing" in that they perfectly represent the aristocratic type, but they prove inflexible for the painter's work. He comes to rely much more on two lower-class subjects who are nevertheless more capable: Oronte, an Italian, and Miss Churm, a lower-class Englishwoman.

The Real Thing and Other Tales

by
Henry James


The Real Thing

I

When the porter’s wife (sheused to answer the house-bell), announced “Agentleman — with a lady, sir,” I had, as I often had inthose days, for the wish was father to the thought, an immediatevision of sitters. Sitters my visitors in this case provedto be; but not in the sense I should have preferred. However, there was nothing at first to indicate that they mightnot have come for a portrait. The gentleman, a man offifty, very high and very straight, with a moustache slightlygrizzled and a dark grey walking-coat admirably fitted, both ofwhich I noted professionally — I don’t mean as a barberor yet as a tailor — would have struck me as a celebrity ifcelebrities often were striking. It was a truth of which Ihad for some time been conscious that a figure with a good dealof frontage was, as one might say, almost never a publicinstitution. A glance at the lady helped to remind me ofthis paradoxical law: she also looked too distinguished to be a“personality.” Moreover one would scarcely comeacross two variations together.

Neither of the pair spoke immediately — they onlyprolonged the preliminary gaze which suggested that each wishedto give the other a chance. They were visibly shy; theystood there letting me take them in — which, as I afterwardsperceived, was the most practical thing they could havedone. In this way their embarrassment served theircause. I had seen people painfully reluctant to mentionthat they desired anything so gross as to be represented oncanvas; but the scruples of my new friends appeared almostinsurmountable. Yet the gentleman might have said “Ishould like a portrait of my wife,” and the lady might havesaid “I should like a portrait of my husband.” Perhaps they were not husband and wife — this naturally wouldmake the matter more delicate. Perhaps they wished to bedone together — in which case they ought to have brought athird person to break the news.

“We come from Mr. Rivet,” the lady said at last,with a dim smile which had the effect of a moist sponge passedover a “sunk” piece of painting, as well as of avague allusion to vanished beauty. She was as tall andstraight, in her degree, as her companion, and with ten yearsless to carry. She looked as sad as a woman could lookwhose face was not charged with expression; that is her tintedoval mask showed friction as an exposed surface shows it. The hand of time had played over her freely, but only tosimplify. She was slim and stiff, and so well-dressed, indark blue cloth, with lappets and pockets and buttons, that itwas clear she employed the same tailor as her husband. Thecouple had an indefinable air of prosperous thrift — theyevidently got a good deal of luxury for their money. If Iwas to be one of their luxuries it would behove me to consider myterms.

“Ah, Claude Rivet recommended me?” I inquired; andI added that it was very kind of him, though I could reflectthat, as he only painted landscape, this was not a sacrifice.

The lady looked very hard at the gentleman, and the gentlemanlooked round the room. Then staring at the floor a momentand stroking his moustache, he rested his pleasant eyes on mewith the remark:

“He said you were the right one.”

“I try to be, when people want to sit.”

“Yes, we should like to,” said the ladyanxiously.

“Do you mean together?”

My visitors exchanged a glance. “If you could doanything with me, I suppose it would be double,” thegentleman stammered.

“Oh yes, there’s naturally a higher charge for twofigures than for one.”

“We should like to make it pay,” the husbandconfessed.

“That’s very good of you,” I returned,appreciating so unwonted a sympathy — for I supposed he meantpay the artist.

A sense of strangeness seemed to dawn on the lady. “We mean for the illustrations — Mr. Rivet said youmight put one in.”