The Tone of the Time

“The Tone of the Time” is different from, “At the tone, the time will be…”

This is Henry James’s tale of a painter who is approached by an unknown woman with a commission for him because of his high reputation. (He considers it a “rum” visit, meaning odd.) The patroness, calling herself Mrs. Bridgenorth, wants a picture of a très-bel homme¸ a very handsome man, “distinguished…not more than forty, clean-shaven, thoroughly well-dressed, and a perfect gentleman.” Our narrator knows he is only good for live portraits, not imagined figures like Herr T.B. Homme. He dashes over to the studio of Mary J. Tredick—”not Mary Jane, but Mary Juliana”—with the commission and news that she can ask whatever price she likes. The picture was to capture the tone of the time. Tredick promises to make the picture beautiful and base, to portray “the finest gentleman you’ll ever have seen, and the worst friend.” The odd thing is that she has no desire to meet Mrs. Bridgenorth beforehand—but our intermediary promises the patroness that the meeting would occur when the picture was finished. As he suspects, Tredick “do[es] it off at a heat.”

Mrs. Bridgenorth is a formerly pretty woman of at least fifty who still “presents herself,” is beautifully dressed, and goes about London in a brougham. “If I suspect her of being the creation of her own talents, she has clearly, on the other hand, seen a lot of life,” the narrator observes. She has a place for the picture: it will hang on the white woodwork above the mantel in her boudoir, and it would do more for her than for the room. Like so many of James’s characters, Mrs. Bridgenorth “was waiting for something to happen—for somebody to come.”

The narrator goes by Tredick’s to check on the progress. She can’t let him see it yet, for she “must muddle it through in [her] my own way.” It is guaranteed that she is managing to capture the infamy, the tone of the time. She tells him to come back in three days.

The likeness is of a thirty-five-year-old man who is obviously from the previous generation yet stirs the viewer with his charm. It’s obvious that he only expects glory and triumph, of death without suffering. The narrator is so awestruck that he couldn’t dream of asking who the man was. Then a curious thing happens. Asked if she had used notes, sketches, and studies in producing the picture, Tredick says she destroyed them years ago but she relied on hate to inspire her in the work. She doesn’t want Mrs. Bridgenorth to come to the studio for a viewing, especially not after Our Narrator says the patroness will regard the likeness as Mr. B. Mary insists the picture be taken to his own place and letting Mrs. B. come to see it there.

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Part Two begins with Mrs. B. gasping and grimacing at the picture, having recognized the likeness, which is true “beyond everything.” The narrator wants to know who he was. “Do you think I’d tell you his name?” she responds, then wonders how Mary Tredick had known him. (By now in the tale, both Mary and Mrs. B. have burst into tears.) It is mere coincidence that both women have known Herr Homme: “It partook of the nature of prodigy, but such prodigies did occur.” Mrs. B. tries to extract from the narrator his promise not to tell Mary anything but the fact that she’s delighted with the work; however, in response, he must insist on the condition of knowing whether Mrs. B. would have married Herr Homme, if he had lived. She says he certainly would have, and then insists on paying on the spot for the picture, sensing that it will not be allowed her when her heightened desire for it is known: Mary would be jealous; she would hate Mrs. B.; the rage with which the work was carried out was palpable. Just to guarantee possession, Mrs. B. offers to double the money. The narrator claims he had already had the same idea, and they shake on it. (The story was published in Scribner’s November 1900 issue, and I wonder if it was an exceedingly modern thing for a man and woman to shake hands on a deal at the time. Then again, we’re dealing with an artist and a lady with a past.) She’ll send the check tonight, and he’ll surrender the picture in the morning.

He betakes himself to Mary’s before his dinner engagement and gives away everything by announcing the fee will now be $400 and that’s not too much for a “husband” for a lady so much in need. Huh? Or rather, he says humorously, in a rare Jamesian exclamation, make it “that you’ve, at any rate, given him a wife!”

Later he returns to his own studio and finds the picture gone: Mrs. B. just couldn’t wait. But next morning, from his man, he finds out it was Mary who had come over in her shabby carriage and taken back the picture. He rushes over there and finds she has been up all night. Immediately returning the check, the “nervous and critical” woman professes not to understand what has happened. He realizes that “in my zeal I had given away my case.” Trying to lie, he blunders, saying Mrs. B. has fallen in love with the gentleman.

Mary demands: “Does she know the man represented?”

Our narrator flushes. He winces. He evades. But then it comes around to the question whether Herr Homme might not have been Mrs. B.’s husband, when he wasn’t Mary’s. He died unmarried, she says. And an extraordinary statement follows: “He had known many women, and there was one in particular with whom he became—and too long remained—ruinously intimate. She tried to make him marry her, and he was very near it. Death, however, saved him. But she was the reason—”

Mary wouldn’t know Mrs. B. then because she had stolen him away—or had been instrumental. To the prodigiousness of the coincidence, she agrees. Instinct had saved her from meeting the adversary. “I must ask you kindly to tell her, when you return her gift, that now I have done the picture, I find I must after all keep it for myself.” He offers her $400 for the picture, but she suspects it would soon go over to Mrs. B. He extends his hand to her. No, she tells him, she will keep it, not in bitterness, but in joy. He’ll have it when she dies.

The narrator reveals this is an old man’s tale. Mrs. B. died a couple of years before Mary, and he inherited the picture. Everyone asked the model’s name, but it was never known.

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In judging all these changes in facial expression of the two ladies, all the shades of their emotion, the narrator provides excellent embodiment of James’s axiom that nothing should be lost on the novelist. On the other hand, some things can never be known.

Bon mot: “We know it of the truly amiable person that he will strain a point for another that he wouldn’t strain for himself.”

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