Henry James: The Special Type

“The Special Type” appeared in Collier’s Weekly on June 16, 1900. It’s a typical Jamesian tale in five parts. An anonymous American portrait painter working in London tells the story of Frank Brivet’s search for the special type of woman who will do him a most original favor. As it happens, Brivet, the narrator’s “disgustingly” rich school chum, is unhappily married. “His marriage had originally seemed to me to require much more explanation than anyone could give,” reports our narrator. (Easy to imagine John Singer Sargent in this position.) “Still, I can enter into some of his aversions, and I agreed with him that his wife was odious.”

As luck would have it, Mrs. Brivet, who lives apart from her husband, has fallen for the unsavory Remson Sturch. She would even be “fool enough to marry him,” and Brivet would be “avenged in a manner positively ideal,” if only she had cause to institute proceedings. Even though Brivet has been carrying on with Rose Cavenham, who posed for our painter-narrator, he had “been so d—-d particular” and they couldn’t put a finger on him. So he needed to make it appear as though he were indeed carrying on. He doesn’t want Rose’s reputation besmirched. In fact, as he graphically puts it, “I don’t feel the right way to repay her is by spattering her over.”

“Yet if she stands…straight in the splash,” the narrator argues.

“She doesn’t!” Frank interrupts. “She stands a thousand miles out of it; she stands on a pinnacle; she stands as she stands in your charming portrait—lovely, lonely, untouched. And so she must remain.”

He devises a scheme to find the special type of woman who won’t mind playing along, posing as his consort, and who will be “remunerated” afterward. This special type must have a bit of a spotty reputation, so that no real additional damage could be done and also that Rose would not be jealous. The narrator understands this special woman “should have to lack, you see, no requirement whatever for plausibility.” She should be “squareable.” And, not incidentally, she must be at least as handsome as Rose.

Of course the reader knows she will be Alice Dundene, whom we have already met posing in the painter’s workroom. In fact, we met her at the moment when Rose happens to burst through the studio’s unguarded door. Here is an example of Henry James’s subtle understatement that I love so well: Alice “was not dressed for company, though indeed a dress was never strictly necessary to her best effect.” Later, Rose questions him about Alice, asking if she’s not exactly a lady, but neither exactly a professional, what is she? Through the course of things, we learn that she’s had a “checquered career” and is “sharp as a steam-whistle.” Brivet tells his old friend, “Well, you may take from me that I find her no more of a fool than, as I seem to see, many other fellows have found her.” We rest assured that Alice enters the liaison with eyes wide open, knowing the intended effect is Brivet’s divorce and remarriage to Rose.

Rose retires from the scene, withdrawing to America, and our narrator wishes to wash his hands of the matter, but chatter from “the usual sources” brings word “that no relation in London at that moment, between a remarkable man and a beautiful woman, had more of the general air of good manners.” Frank and Alice are seen together at all the popular entertainments and restaurants; there are diamonds and journeys; “elaborate arrivals and departures at stations for everyone to see”; and “his brougham standing always—half the day and half the night—at their doors.” Forthwith, Rose returns to London with news that Mrs. Brivet has filed for divorce and that despite appearances to the contrary, “a studied, outrageous affichage,” Frank has never seen Alice alone. In triumph, Rose commissions Frank’s portrait. (It goes without saying that Frank will pay.) The bon vivant radiates well-being when he comes to the studio. Exactly as Rose wishes, the painter succeeds in capturing “the dear man in his intimate essence for those who knew him.” The work is a treasure.

Now Alice reappears, dressed “very simply in black materials, feathers and lace, that gave the impression of being light and fine.” To keep his promise of remuneration, Frank has told her to ask for anything she wants. Naturally, she desires a full-length portrait of him. She declares that, as long as Frank can’t marry her—”he doesn’t so much as know me,” she says—whatever he wants is what she wants, too, even if that means his union with Rose Cavenham. The finished portrait that Rose has commissioned is unveiled. (The painter fibs in confirming that Frank had “the beautiful thought of sitting” not for Rose but Alice.) Alice sees its perfection, which overjoys our narrator.

Rose charges “base treachery” in this, but Frank will not go against his friend, and when the appeal for a second portrait is turned down because “my best was my best,” he assents to the deal “with the awkwardness of a man in dispute between women.” Rose furiously suggests Alice could have the decency to take something else, but the painter forestalls her, explaining that, in just remuneration, Alice wants the portrait as a way of living with him, having him all to herself—and to make up for the fact that never in all their meetings has she seen Frank alone.


Bon Mots

London: “The big fish that rises so to the hook baited with gold.”

affichage: Display (the relationship between Frank and Alice is made to appear as something it wasn’t); affichage à cristaux liquides: liquid crystal display

Jamesian sentence: “I couldn’t quarrel with his recognizing so quickly what I had myself instantly recognized, yet if it did in truth appear almost at a glance that she would, through the particular facts of situation, history, aspect, tone, temper, beautifully “do,” I felt from the first so affected by the business that I desired to wash my hands of it.”

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