Topical Guide 110
Realism in the Service of Romance (that is, Fiction)
Art: Necessity of Transformation in
There was no bookstore in Babbington at that time, but Lydia Barber, who ran a used furniture store on Main Street, liked to arrange the furniture in her shop as it might be arranged in a house, so she kept a good supply of props to lend verisimilitude to the arrangements, including antimacassars and doilies, knickknacks and books, and these were also for sale. …
My mother drove me to Mrs. Barber’s shop.
Little Follies, “The fox and the Clam”
From 1907 to 1909, Charles Scribner’s Sons republished nearly all of James’s novels in the so-called New York Edition. For that edition, James made a selection from his entire oeuvre, made revisions to the texts, and wrote prefaces to the novels. He also commissioned a highly respected photographer, Alvin Langdon Coburn, to take photographs to be used as frontispieces to the several volumes in the edition. …
[T]oo great a degree of verisimilitude, too thoroughgoing an application of the techniques of realism, may do a disservice to a romance. It may beguile the readers so completely that they forget that the romance is a romance, and that is not quite what the romancer wants, I think.
I think that the romancer wants the relationship with the reader or other audience to remain cooperative; he does not want to dupe the reader or viewer entirely; he wants to solicit and earn the willing suspension of disbelief, but not to hoodwink the reader into unquestioning acceptance.
James for his part seems to have worried that the effect of Alvin Langdon Coburn’s photographic illustrations might be to create too great a degree of verisimilitude. In fact, he seems to have begun worrying about that possibility almost from the moment he commissioned the photographs.
He imposed stringent limits on them to ensure that they did not lean too far in inspiring a belief that the novel that followed the frontispiece presented things as they happened. According to remarks that Coburn made years later, after the New York Edition had been published with the photographs, “James did not want the kind of realistic description that [photographer J. J.] Pennell offered. Instead of actual places and objects James required types and archetypes. The illustrator had to recognize in nature and society what already existed in the author’s mind and make an ideal representation of it.”
And after the commitment had been made and the photographs were set to appear as frontispiece illustrations, James wrote about his concerns, at length, in the preface to the first volume. Among many other things, he had this to say: “Nothing . . . could more have amused the author than the opportunity of a hunt for a series of reproducible subjects . . . small pictures of our ‘set’ stage with the actors left out; and what was above all interesting was that they were first to be constituted.”
So James and Coburn set out wandering the streets of London and Paris and Venice in search of suitable subjects for these frontispieces. …
[The photograph that James chose for] “The Curiosity Shop” especially interests me, and it seems to have been the one that most interested James, too, for he singled it out as an example of a successful search. In the preface, he wrote: “On the question, for instance, of the proper preliminary compliment to the first volume of ‘The Golden Bowl’ we easily felt that nothing would so serve as a view of the small shop in which the Bowl is first encountered. The problem thus was thrilling, for though the small shop was but a shop of the mind, of the author’s projected world, . . . our need . . . prescribed a concrete, independent, vivid instance, the instance that should oblige us by the marvel of an accidental rightness. . . . It would have to be in the first place what London and chance and an extreme improbability should have made it, and then it would have to let us truthfully read into it the Prince’s and Charlotte’s and the Princess’s visits. It of course on these terms long evaded us, but . . . as London ends by giving one absolutely everything one asks, so it awaited us somewhere. It awaited us in fact—but I check myself; nothing, I find now, would induce me to say where.”
Eric Kraft, “Realism in the Service of Romance,” in Issue Number 11 of The Babbington Review: available as a pdf (loads slowly but is handsomely formatted) or in a mobile version (loads quickly but is not so handsomely formatted)
I have asked myself what Mrs. Barber’s shop would have looked like, and I have wanted to show you what I think it might have looked like, so in the manner of James and Coburn I set out wandering the Web in search of suitable photographs of such a shop—“a concrete, independent, vivid instance, the marvel of an accidental rightness.” I offer three approximations below. Unlike James, I am willing to let you know where I found them. Like James, I did not want completely realistic images; I wanted, as Kraft put it, “to solicit and earn [your] willing suspension of disbelief, but not to hoodwink [you] into unquestioning acceptance.” To move the photographs away from too great a degree of verisimilitude, I have transformed them: I’ve cropped them, faded their colors, decreased their contrast, vignetted them, and texturized them.
No art without transformation.
My apologies to the photographers.
Here’s where I found the approximations of Mrs. Barber’s second-hand shop:
Artful Simulation of Mrs. Barber’s Shop Number 1: Gzzz: “Second-hand stall in Ueno Park, Tokyo,” Wikimedia Commons
Artful Simulation of Mrs. Barber’s Shop Number 2: Peter Heeling; Skitterphoto: “Antique Shop,” Wikimedia Commons
Artful Simulation of Mrs. Barber’s Shop Number 3: Sonia Sevilla: “Abbasid Caravanseray of Nishapur (Ribati-i-Abbasi of Nishapur) - Morning,” Wikimedia Commons
[more to come on Friday, October 15, 2021]
Have you missed an episode or two or several?
You’ll find an overview of the entire work in An Introduction to The Personal History, Adventures, Experiences & Observations of Peter Leroy. It’s a pdf document.