When I was but a young person, I attended a summer day camp which had horseback riding as an activity, and I also took horseback riding lessons independently. What sticks in my memory are two horses in particular, Prince and Show Prince, two horses whose similarity in name bore not at all upon their individual equine temperaments and manners. The pure thoroughbred, Prince, whose people had retired him to the stable for cheaper boarding on the condition that young people could (after being taught to be gentle to his mouth) ride him for lessons, had the manners of the most flawed and cranky aristocrat. He tried to buck. He had a habit of twisting around and trying to bite his rider, and with the best will in the world to be gentle to his mouth, it was hard to do, because he fought his young rider constantly, fishtailing and dancing around, not in high spirits as would a racer, but in pure spite and bad temper. By contrast, the mixed breed largely Appaloosa, with the misnomer Show Prince (a misnomer because though he could win trophies as an Appaloosa, he was not a thoroughbred competitor), was a perfect and lovable mount, one whose manners were kind, whose gait was so gentle that I once found myself galloping and being held on safely almost by his will when all I was asked to do was trot. He was affectionate and dear, responsive and never ill-intentioned, and had a truly gentle mouth because it would never occur to anyone to jab at the reins. Thus though Show Prince was perhaps less valuable in dollars, he was a dream of a horse, the ideal horse with children, who yet had some pride of place in breeding circles as a show horse. I was years away from having heard of a writer named Henry James, for whom the question of human “breeding” was so very important that it was one of his most constant subjects, which he turned back and forth and back again and examined in great detail. Yet, years later, when I read his short story “The Real Thing,” one of the first things that popped into my mind were my old acquaintances, Prince and Show Prince, in one of those unbidden sorts of thoughts that will occur when the mind is not censoring itself.
People are not horses; horses are not people. That much is clear. When we discuss the question of “breeding” in people, there has historically and repellently been a tendency to assume that wealthier people are necessarily “better bred” than poor people, though there has also been the opposing mythology (for “breeding” is a mythology in the sense of an informing societal belief) of “nature’s gentlemen,” that is, of those of poorer status who have an innate sense of what to say and do in difficult situations. The writer Henry James was one much given to exploring the questions relating to breeding and good manners, and in “The Real Thing,” an artist, an aspiring portrait painter who makes the main part of his living in doing magazine and book illustrations, meets up with both sorts of people. He has some regular models, such as Miss Churm, an irrepressible Cockney, and Oronte, an impoverished Italian man who acts as his butler as well, and they both have a sense of how to pose for various portraits of aristocrats and rich people in novels with whom they have nothing in common. By contrast, there are also a Major Monarch and his wife, who come by when recommended to the artist by Mr. Rivet, another artist. They are genuinely “well-bred” people, who have fallen on hard times financially. They have looked for work, for what they might be able to turn their hands to, among various venues, and have at last hit upon the stratagem of asking to pose as the artist’s models for aristocrats and well-bred people, reasoning that since they are “the real thing,” it ought to be easy.
This is a mistake, as the artist finds out. He tries his best, but is unable to make anything successfully of Major and Mrs. Monarch. Whatever they do, they simply are not “right” for the role of artist’s models. For what they lack, it turns out, is the ability to practice “imitation,” which Miss Churm and Oronte have in abundance. Miss Churm has so much that she is able to pose as an Italian, whereas the Italian Oronte, in the right costume, makes a perfect artistic model of an English gentleman! At a point near the end of the story, the artist has to tell Major Monarch that he can’t afford to lose the artistic contract in order simply to give them employment. The text reads: “I drew a long breath, for I said to myself that I shouldn’t see him again. I hadn’t 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” [italics mine].
The artist does see his erstwhile “well-bred” models, though. His friend Jack Hawley, who has returned after an absence, has told him that they are ruining his work, and so he is “disconcerted” when they turn up again, to watch him sketch at a love scene between his other two models. The artist feels that “this is at least the ideal thing.” Not “the real thing,” but “the ideal thing.” Suddenly, Mrs. Monarch offers to straighten the hair of Miss Churm, whose curls seems a little untidy to her for the scene. The artist is at first afraid that Mrs. Monarch means some 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 on 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’ve 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 paint-box.”
The next ten minutes are telling. While the artist continues to work, the Monarchs (so tellingly symbolically named for their erstwhile social status) do his dishes and clean up his kitchen in order to be useful to him. As he says, “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, then 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.” For the time being, this dutiful bowing to the forces of “fate” ruins his ability to work, and he dismisses the sitters temporarily. He continues to allow the Monarchs to work for him for another week, then he gives them “a sum of money to go away.” He gets the remaining contract for designing the rest of the book series’ art works, but as he says, “my friend Hawley repeats that Major and Mrs. Monarch did me a permanent harm, got me into false ways. If it be true I’m content to have paid the price–for the memory.”
What’s most obvious is that the “false ways” the Monarchs get him into are ironically the opposite of the “true ways” of art, which are in turn only the arts of “imitation,” as opposed to the attempt to secure “the genuine.” Miss Churm knows how to “look over a head” in an imagined “crowded room,” though she says honestly that she would rather be “looking over a stove”; it’s no doubt a bit chilly in the artist’s rooms in her borrowed costumery. But the point is that the artist can make it look good through “the alchemy of art,” which does not need the actual facts with which to construct a painting or illustration. And it’s hard to believe, honestly, that the artist really doesn’t mind if he has been done a “permanent [artistic] harm,” or that he feels repaid in having “the memory” on which to look back. Still, when the Monarchs first walk in, before he knows they want to be paid as models, he assumes they are there to pay him, that is, to sit for a portrait of themselves as wealthy people do. This is perhaps the crowning irony, that they would have been appropriate for his most genuine aspiration to fulfill itself in terms of. Or is the crowning irony that Mrs. Monarch shows a kind of quality of gentleness that he is in fact incapable of painting, that is individual, not class-oriented, and not susceptible to artistic representation?
So, though Henry James often plays favorites and writes far more sympathetically of the so-called upper classes and less so of the so-called lower classes, even to the point of being often and sometimes justifiably labelled an elitist, in the world of art, at least in the world of this story, he recognizes no aristocrats except those who “can make the thing work.” Thus essentially, my old friend Show Prince told me a much-valued secret a long time ago, when we were trotting and cantering and galloping around together: Prince may have gone to some sort of valuable stud farm and have sired other genuine aristocrats as crabby and intemperate as himself, and have made the thing work that way, in a sense “doing the dishes” like the Monarchs, but for making the thing work as a mannerly steed with the true sweetness and aplomb of the real artistic gentleman, give me Show Prince (and Oronte and Miss Churm) every time.