The final entry in James' prolific 1890s period, “The Real Right Thing,” was penned mere months after The Turn of the Screw, and represents one of James’ very shortest tales. Its brevity, however, has not prevented it from becoming one of his most studied and debated ghost stories. Like “The Friend of the Friends,” it lacks the supernatural terror of Lovecraft or Blackwood, but is positively teeming with psychological tension. Written some seventeen years before his own death, the story ponders the value of an artist’s biography and what role his personal life plays in his literary legacy.
Keenly protective of his private life, James seems to have been terrified of the intrusion of biographers who were by this time already picking at the influence of his life on his art.
“The Real Right Thing” follows the widow of a famous author – a man whose public self was a highly manicured image, a man whose true self is as much a mystery to his spouse as to the reading public – in her attempts to have a biography written about him. She employs his best friend in the effort, and despite his reservations (he senses that the “Life” is more intended to mollify her reputation), the two begin work on what their mutual friend would have consider a shocking invasion of privacy.
As with “Sir Edmund Orme” and “The Friend of the Friends,” the ghost in this story is no terrifying phantom, but a gentle presence who puts the steady pressure of emotional tension on the subjects of his haunt. Orme’s haunting was a mission – a mission to prevent the injuries of his past from being recycled in another generation. Likewise Doyne’s spirit is not a revenant of protection, revenge, or terror, but one profoundly obsessed with his legacy, and with putting the past firmly in its grave. Unlike most literary spirits, Orme and Doyne are not symbols of the irrepressible continuation of the past, but a force devoted to their suppression.
In the aftermath of his death, the widow of Ashton Doyne, a famous and distinguished American writer, asks his close friend, young George Withermore, to write his posthumous biography. It has been three months, and Withermore, who finds Mrs Doyne cold and disagreeable, is surprised at the request. Indeed, Mrs Doyne is not doing it for her husband – who did not desire to have a biography, and valued his privacy – but for herself: she has been a controversial figure in Doyne’s life, and since “she had not taken [him] seriously enough [as a writer] in life … the biography should be a solid reply to every imputation on herself.” Arriving at his dead friend’s home, Withermore is escorted into his old study by Mrs. Doyne.
While combing through his records, Withermore finds himself interrupted from time to time by the widow, who pops in to check his progress. Although she is kind, she is also clearly intrusive – even hovering like a watchful guard. Doyne did not trust his wife with his legacy, but he did value Withermore’s friendship, so the young man plows through his writings like a man on a mission. Even when Mrs Doyne is not there, he feels her presence lurking behind the door, but one night, while he is alone in the study, he feels another presence – behind him. He wonders if this could be Doyne’s spirit, lending its approval to his task. When he shares this with Mrs Doyne, she confirms that she, too, feels her husband’s soul looming throughout the house. Withermore laughs that – if this is the case – they had better do their best to keep him happy, but Mrs Doyne does not laugh: her eyes are filled with a “vague distress,” and she quietly leaves the room with the reassurance that she had just interrupted to see if he needed any help.
As the biography progresses, visiting the Doyne home becomes the best part of Withermore’s day, and he especially enjoys the idea of spending time with his friend’s invisible presence. He feels at peace with the sense that he is fulfilling Doyne’s wishes and doing right by him. In particular, he is touched that Doyne has entrusted him with his (unspecified, but possibly hinted at as having a sexual nature) darkest, most private secrets (which he has uncovered in Doyne’s journals and letters). Withermore believes that these secrets, once exposed, will only deepen the public’s love of him, not tarnish it. In the meantime, the ghostly manifestations have only intensified: he feels a spectral breath on his hair, as if his friend were leaning over the desk before him, watching his work. Sometimes he can vividly picture his friend standing in front of him, and feels that they are partners in this enterprise. Lost papers mysteriously reappear, cabinets and drawers open by themselves, and documents are rearranged as if pointing to the way that Doyne would prefer the biography to be shaped.
By this point, Withermore has begun allowing Doyne’s ghost to engineer the biography through its invisible hand, and is waiting to learn his next steps. But no message comes, and as time passes, he becomes anxious and depressed by the obvious absence of Doyne’s spirit. He is overcome by physical nervousness and brings his concerns to Mrs Doyne, after they both feel something blow past them on the staircase. She confirms that she has sensed that Doyne’s ghost has disappeared after having gone back and forth between the study (domain of Doyne’s public persona) and her room (domain of Doyne’s private life). They both seem to sense that Doyne’s ghost is displeased with the violation of his privacy, and sit there in silence, quietly holding hands. Suddenly, Withermore is overcome by a creepy anxiety, and Mrs Doyne blurts that she only wants to do “the real right thing.” They begin actively questioning the ethics of the biography, feeling that Doyne wants them – and specifically Mrs Doyne – to “give up,” and Withermore explains the switch in his feelings about Doyne’s condoning of the project:
“'What I did think, at first—that what he wishes to make us feel is his sympathy? Because, in my original simplicity, I was mistaken. I was—I don't know what to call it—so excited and charmed that I didn't understand. But I understand at last. He only wanted to communicate. He strains forward out of his darkness; he reaches toward us out of his mystery; he makes us dim signs out of his horror.' … he’s there as a warning… he’s there as a curse!’”
Withermore intends to examine the biography to see what might be bothering him. Three days later, they speak again. Withermore confesses that he is afraid, now, and announces that she will only give up on the project if she sees the ghost, because then it will be “a clear sign.” Mrs Doyne is still adamant, though: she asks if Withermore knows what it will mean for her to “give up”: that he won’t accept her apology for having been so harsh on him in life. Withermore is moved by this and offers to return to the study to work, although Mrs Doyne is worried about him heading there because “there’s nothing ready – no lamp and no fire.” But Withermore says he will “find things” to bring the cheer of light. However, he almost immediately returns, with shaky steps, and a shocked expression.
“I give up,” he says: he has seen Doyne’s ghost on the threshold of the darkened study, “guarding it.” His ghost had been “Immense. But dim. Dark. Dreadful.” Mrs Doyne still holds firm, and chides Withermore for not going inside, but Withermore retorts “He forbids!” Mrs Doyne decides to do it herself, and leaves Withermore alone to open the study door herself. After a long while, she returns with “a huger, bleaker stare.”
Withermore asserts that she must have seen him, but all she says in response, with tightly closed eyes – as if steadying herself – is “I give up…”
In spite of its shortness, “The Real Right Thing” is perhaps one of James’ most complex ghost stories – at least as intriguing and emotionally charged as the similarly powerful “The Friend of the Friends” and “The Ghostly Rental.” In fact, similarities can also be drawn with “Sir Edmund Orme” and “Owen Wingrave,” not to mention the obvious parallels with Turn and “The Jolly Corner.” Indeed, “The Real Right Thing” suffers very little due to its brevity, and might be said to prosper in part from it: unlike many of James’ stories which are winding vacations through lazy worlds, “Thing” is a refreshing peek into the story of a brief moment – and afterthought even – in the otherwise rich life of a luminous man’s story. Where James is usually exhaustive, “Thing” is vague and shadowy, not unlike Doyne’s private life.
There is a sense of secrecy, foreboding, and gloom in the final chapter, one that seems oddly disproportionate, but which points to a hidden – and probably uncomfortable – reality hiding just outside of the reader’s vantage point. Many commentators have speculated about Doyne’s secrets. One dark theory is that he was a clubbable socialite beloved by his friends and adored by the public, but that it was all a calculated façade and that in private – as he papers would have eventually shown – he hated them all, including his wife and friend. Another, less sensational interpretation is that Doyne had no great secrets, but that it was the principle of an artist’s right to privacy, and James’ own personal opinions (viz. that an artist’s reputation should be solely based on their work, not on their life – that a man’s personal background was irrelevant and his art alone was required to speak for him after death).
One of the more prevalent interpretations – and one currently in vogue – is that Withermore was more than a friend, and that Mrs Doyne perversely selected her husband’s homosexual lover to write his biography (one that is intended to improve her legacy moreso than Doyne’s) with mixed emotions and shady motives. While the theory is a sensational one, it has fostered a great deal of conversation: James is suspected to have had emotional if not physical affairs with men, and was friends with many open homosexuals, but he was notoriously guarded about his love life. Consequently he dreaded the concept of biographers picking over his private life at the expense of his writing, which he felt spoke for itself without any need to read James’ life into it.
James had no Mrs Doyne, but he was asked to write the biography of William Wetmore Story, a deceased sculptor by his wife – a woman who felt that only James (a modest friend if not acquaintance) could write his “Life.” Privately James felt that Story was a tiresome popinjay and that his work was overrated, and the subsequent biography was written only because of financial need. The result was more a memoir of James’ experiences with the man’s friends than a biography, and his discomfort with the genre is clear.
Like his friend’s wife, Mrs Doyne is a complex character – deeply flawed and nefariously motivated. Critics charge her with being dissatisfied with the role she played in Doyne’s life, and with hiring Withermore more to protect her own image than to secure Doyne’s legacy. The two imagine that Doyne’s spirit has blessed their enterprise, sensing his spirit guiding their efforts.
With this wishful thinking in mind, the story begins on an optimistic note, and if it is a ghost story, it seems to be more like “Edmund Orme” – who steers his haunts aright – than “Owen Wingrave,” who is drawn to destruction by the supernatural. And yet, there is something vaguely menacing about the tale, even from the beginning. There is the sense that Doyne is still in the room – that he has only gone out for a walk and will shortly be back – that he is sitting across from his biographer, uncomfortably leaning into his face – that he is watching over every step they take, standing in the shadows contemplatively. What at first seems blessed with a watchful muse suddenly has a very adulterous tone to it, as if Withermore and Mrs Doyne are nervous that Doyne will walk in at any moment and catch their betrayal.
For queer theorists there is the added tension that both persons may have been Doyne’s lovers, and their collaboration on his “Life” – which they both instinctively sense he would have disapproved of – is symbolic incest. The tension deepens as the story builds – even in so short a text – and when the exhausted pair are finally haunted into submission, the emotional toll is heavy yet inexplicable. There is a thick pall of secrecy – of unsaid truths which the reader never learns of, but rather senses.
Guilt broods in the shadows and weighs on the biographer and widow regardless of their denial, and when they finally acknowledge that what they are doing is cursed rather than blessed – an act of infidelity to their beloved, rather than one of devotion – the emotional power of their defeat is shocking: “I give up” is all that Mrs Doyne can muster, and the project is finally aborted. A man’s “Life” is his own, James declares sternly, and to those who would pick through a man’s life as if it would do any justice to him, he promises no guardian angels: rather a watchful ghost whose warnings grow increasingly intense. Indeed, by the final pages, when Doyne materializes to his wife (more like a forbidding Jacob Marley than a comforting spouse), the mood of the story has shifted drastically from “Orme” to “Romance of Certain Clothes,” and we are left to wonder what would have happened if they hadn’t heeded this final, most material specter: how far would the biography have gotten before Mrs Doyne was found with slap marks on her face?