“I thought you thought everything signified. You were so full,” she cried, “of signification!”
Yes, exactly, just what that character from “The Patagonia” (1888) said! Each Henry James story fits into a bigger story about the creativity of Henry James. In a sense they all do but in another there are plenty of dead ends, misfires, and curves.
“The Patagonia” is the name of a ship in this story, not a region, which features a shipboard romance that ends in tragedy. The tragedy itself is thin stuff and James knows it.
It will doubtless appear to the critical reader that my expenditure of interest had been out of proportion to the vulgar appearances of which my story gives an account, but to this I can only reply that the event was to justify me.
That is very close to what I had been thinking, aside from the “vulgar appearances.” The story is told obliquely, through the James-like narrator and what he picks up from people aboard the ship as they cross from America to England. The picture of life on the passenger ship – the lack of privacy, the gossip, and the general lowering of social standards in the name of dining – is pretty amusing. The representative character is the odious Mrs. Peck, a vulgar gossip – perhaps James was admitting there was too much of her – no, I say, hardly enough!
Mrs. Peck stared at me a moment, moving some valued morsel in her mouth; then she exclaimed familiarly “Pshaw!”
I love “valued morsel.” The ending is quite good, too, with another peripheral character supplying the interest the center of the story lacks. “It was a dire moment.” That is daring for a final sentence.
Perhaps I should have included “The Real Thing” (1892) among the stories about writers, but it is about a painter, one who is also an illustrator for novels and magazine fiction, perhaps even for Henry James stories. He normally uses a Cockney woman and an Italian servant as his models for almost everything, but a married couple, a gentleman and his wife whose lives as sponges on the upper class – dinners and excursions to country houses and so on – are fading with their good looks.
They hesitated – they looked at each other. “We’ve been photographed immensely,” said Mrs. Monarch.
“She means the fellows have asked us,” added the Major.
“I see – because you’re so good-looking.”
“I don’t know what they thought, but they were always after us.”
As models, though, they are too much themselves, always themselves no matter what the artist tries to do with them.
“Now the drawings you made from us, they look exactly like us,” she reminded me, smiling in triumph; and I recognized that this was indeed just their defect.
The art lies in what the artist does. James is taking a swipe at any worry about who a character might be “based on.” Yet for the artist, curiously, even though the couple “did me a permanent harm, got me into a second-rate trick,” he is happy to have met them, thus the story, by the artist, I mean, not Henry James. His story, his characters, I suppose all of that he just made up.