The Real Thing

tutorial, critical comment, plot, and study resources

The Real Thing was written in 1891 and first appeared syndicated in a number of American newspapers the following year: the Illustrated Buffalo Express, the Detroit Sunday News, the Indianapols News, the Louisville Courier-Journal, and the Philadelphia Enquirer. It also appeared in the English Black and White magazine at the same time. Its first appearance in book form was in The Real Thing and Other Tales published by Macmillan in 1893. It is worth noting that on its first appearance the tale itself carried illustrations, as was quite common with stories and serialised fiction at that time.

The Real Thing

Victorian illustration

The Real Thing – critical commentary

This is a very popular, well-known, and much reprinted tale – possibly because it is so short, so touching, and because it seems to offer an easy glimpse into the theories of art that James wrote about so obscurely in the famous ‘Prefaces’ to the New York edition of his collected works.

Major and Mrs Monarch are truly pathetic figures. They are an upper-class ‘gentleman’ and ‘lady’ who have fallen on hard times after losing their money. They cling to their snobbish notions of class and status – yet they are virtually empty figures. The narrator conceives of them as the products of a purposeless, trite, and conventional lifestyle. They also naively believe that their sense of good manners and visual appeal are marketable commodities – but they are mistaken.

Their humiliating attempts to become useful to the narrator are given an excruciatingly ironic twist when they end up serving tea and acting as housekeepers – in place of the two lower-class figures of Miss Churm and Oronte, who successfully occupy the places as models the Monarchs were seeking.

At an artistic level, this is the ‘success’ of the tale. Major and Mrs Monarch think they are ‘the real thing’ as representatives of class types – and that they will be useful to the narrator in his work as an illustrator. But they lack plasticity; they can only ever be what they are – stuffed dummies with no character at all. Miss Churm and Oronte on the other hand are capable of becoming ‘suggestive’ for the narrator’s purposes, and are visually creative.

In other words, the story illustrates that a superficial appearance of being ‘the real thing’ is not sufficient to guarantee artistic success. The narrator’s drawings using the Monarchs as models are deemed a failure by his friend Jack Hawley and the publisher’s artistic director. But when he reverts to using Miss Churm and Oronte as models, he succeeds and gains the commission for the whole series of illustrated novels.

The Real Thing – study resources

The Real Thing The Complete Works of Henry James – Kindle edition – Amazon UK

The Real Thing The Complete Works of Henry James – Kindle edition – Amazon US

The Real Thing Complete Stories 1892—1898 – Library of America – Amazon UK

The Real Thing Complete Stories 1892—1898 – Library of America – Amazon US

The Real Thing The Real Thing – Classic Reprint edition

The Real Thing The Real Thing – Kindle edition

The Real Thing Complete Works of Henry James – Kindle edition

The Real Thing The Real Thing – eBook formats at Gutenberg

Red button The Cambridge Companion to Henry James – Amazon UK

Henry James Henry James at Wikipedia – biographical notes, links

Henry James Henry James at Mantex – tutorials, biography, study resources

The Real Thing – plot summary

Chapter I.   Major and Mrs Monarch arrive at the studio of the un-named narrator, a painter of portraits and a magazine illustrator. They are offering themselves as artists models, having fallen on hard times after losing their money. They perceive that there will be a demand for their ideal embodiment of a gentleman and a lady.

Chapter II.   The narrator surmises that they are the product of ‘twenty years of country-house visiting’ – pleasant but empty characters. They have heard that the narrator will be illustrating the first volume of a deluxe edition of an important writer’s work, and they assume that he will need models to illustrate fashionable society types. The narrator is hesitant, but they are desperate and persistent. Whilst there, they disapprovingly meet the narrator’s cockney employee, Miss Churm who is lower-class but a very successful model.

Chapter III.   The narrator uses Miss Churm, who can adapt herself to whatever is required, whilst Major Monarch desperately tries to make himself useful around the studio. But when Mrs Monarch tries to be a model she is too stiff, and is always the same, whereas Miss Churm can become any number of different types. But when the narrator asks Miss Churm to make them all tea, she resents the implied demotion in her status. Suddenly an Italian street vendor turns up, looking for work. The narrator takes him on first as a model and then as housekeeper.

Chapter IV.   The drawings the narrator produces using the Monarchs as models all look exactly the same, whereas Miss Churm and the Italian Oronte lend themselves to his invention. He begins to work on the first novel for the deluxe edition – Rutland Ramsay. His friend fellow painter Jack Hawley dismisses the illustrations featuring the Monarchs as rubbish, and the publisher doesn’t like them either. So whilst the narrator poses Oronte as a model, the Monarchs make tea, in a reversal of roles. The narrator hints to the Monarchs that they are no longer required, but they return, only to offer their services to him as servants. The narrator accepts this arrangement, but then pays them off. He obtains the commission for the remaining books in the series, and feels he has had an interesting experience.

The Real Thing

Henry James – portrait by John Singer Sargeant

Principal characters
Major Monarch a tall English former soldier and a ‘gentleman’ (50)
Mrs Monarch his smart wife of 40, with no children
I the un-named narrator, a painter and illustrator
Miss Churm a cockney artist’s model
Oronte an Italian street pedlar and model
Jack Hawley an artist, the narrator’s friend
Claude Rivet a painter, the narrator’s friend

Henry James's Study

Henry James’s study

Further reading


Red button Theodora Bosanquet, Henry James at Work, University of Michigan Press, 2007.

Red button F.W. Dupee, Henry James: Autobiography, Princeton University Press, 1983.

Red button Leon Edel, Henry James: A Life, HarperCollins, 1985.

Red button Philip Horne (ed), Henry James: A Life in Letters, Viking/Allen Lane, 1999.

Red button Henry James, The Letters of Henry James, Adamant Media Corporation, 2001.

Red button Fred Kaplan, Henry James: The Imagination of Genius, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999

Red button F.O. Matthieson (ed), The Notebooks of Henry James, Oxford University Press, 1988.

Critical commentary

Red button Elizabeth Allen, A Woman’s Place in the Novels of Henry James London: Macmillan Press, 1983.

Red button Ian F.A. Bell, Henry James and the Past, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1993.

Red button Millicent Bell, Meaning in Henry James, Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press, 1993.

Red button Harold Bloom (ed), Modern Critical Views: Henry James, Chelsea House Publishers, 1991.

Red button Kirstin Boudreau, Henry James’s Narrative Technique, Macmillan, 2010.

Red button J. Donald Crowley and Richard A. Hocks (eds), The Wings of the Dove, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1978.

Red button Victoria Coulson, Henry James, Women and Realism, Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Red button Daniel Mark Fogel, A Companion to Henry James Studies, Greenwood Press, 1993.

Red button Virginia C. Fowler, Henry James’s American Girl: The Embroidery on the Canvas, Madison (Wis): University of Wisconsin Press, 1984.

Red button Jonathan Freedman, The Cambridge Companion to Henry James, Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Red button Judith Fryer, The Faces of Eve: Women in the Nineteenth Century American Novel, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976

Red button Roger Gard (ed), Henry James: The Critical Heritage, London: Routledge, 1968.

Red button Tessa Hadley, Henry James and the Imagination of Pleasure, Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Red button Barbara Hardy, Henry James: The Later Writing (Writers & Their Work), Northcote House Publishers, 1996.

Red button Richard A. Hocks, Henry James: A study of the short fiction, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1990.

Red button Donatella Izzo, Portraying the Lady: Technologies of Gender in the Short Stories of Henry James, University of Nebraska Press, 2002.

Red button Colin Meissner, Henry James and the Language of Experience, Cambridge University Press, 2009

Red button John Pearson (ed), The Prefaces of Henry James, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993.

Red button Richard Poirer, The Comic Sense of Henry James, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967.

Red button Hugh Stevens, Henry James and Sexuality, Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Red button Merle A. Williams, Henry James and the Philosophical Novel, Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Red button Judith Woolf, Henry James: The Major Novels, Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Red button Ruth Yeazell (ed), Henry James: A Collection of Critical Essays, Longmans, 1994.

Other works by Henry James

Henry James The BostoniansThe Bostonians (1886) is a novel about the early feminist movement. The heroine Verena Tarrant is an ‘inspirational speaker’ who is taken under the wing of Olive Chancellor, a man-hating suffragette and radical feminist. Trying to pull her in the opposite direction is Basil Ransom, a vigorous young man to whom Verena becomes more and more attracted. The dramatic contest to possess her is played out with some witty and often rather sardonic touches, and as usual James keeps the reader guessing about the outcome until the very last page.

The Buy the book at Amazon UK
The Real Thing Buy the book at Amazon US


Henry James What Masie KnewWhat Masie Knew (1897) A young girl is caught between parents who are in the middle of personal conflict, adultery, and divorce. Can she survive without becoming corrupted? It’s touch and go – and not made easier for the reader by the attentions of an older man who decides to ‘look after’ her. This comes from the beginning of James’s ‘Late Phase’, so be prepared for longer and longer sentences. In fact it’s said that whilst composing this novel, James switched from writing longhand to using dictation – and it shows if you look carefully enough – part way through the book.

Henry James What Masie Knew Buy the book at Amazon UK
Henry James What Masie Knew Buy the book at Amazon US

Henry James – web links

Henry James  web links Henry James at Mantex
Biographical notes, study guides, tutorials on the Complete Tales, book reviews. bibliographies, and web links.

Henry James web links The Complete Works
Sixty books in one 13.5 MB Kindle eBook download for £1.92 at The complete novels, stories, travel writing, and prefaces. Also includes his autobiographies, plays, and literary criticism – with illustrations.

Henry James web links The Ladder – a Henry James website
A collection of eTexts of the tales, novels, plays, and prefaces – with links to available free eTexts at Project Gutenberg and elsewhere.

Red button A Hyper-Concordance to the Works
Japanese-based online research tool that locates the use of any word or phrase in context. Find that illusive quotable phrase.

Henry James web links The Henry James Resource Center
A web site with biography, bibliographies, adaptations, archival resources, suggested reading, and recent scholarship.

Henry James web links Online Books Page
A collection of online texts, including novels, stories, travel writing, literary criticism, and letters.

Henry James web links Henry James at Project Gutenberg
A major collection of eTexts, available in a variety of eBook formats.

Henry James web links The Complete Letters
Archive of the complete correspondence (1855-1878) work in progress – published by the University of Nebraska Press.

Henry James web links The Scholar’s Guide to Web Sites
An old-fashioned but major jumpstation – a website of websites and resouces.

Henry James web links Henry James – The Complete Tales
Tutorials on the complete collection of over one hundred tales, novellas, and short stories.

Henry James web links Henry James on the Internet Movie Database
Adaptations of James’s novels and stories for the cinema and television – in various languages. Full details of directors and actors, production features, film reviews, box office, and even quizzes.

© Roy Johnson 2014

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