The quintessential American in ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ is not our main young woman Isabel Archer, but instead it is her enterprising friend Henrietta Stackpole. Henrietta, as opposed to any of the novel’s other characters, actually has a job as a reporter for the New York Interviewer She is pushy, highly opinionated, good humored, and a great friend to Isabel Archer. Henrietta is the New Woman in 1880. She is also a breath of fresh air in a novel which may have grown stodgy without her.
Henrietta arrives in England and pushes the interests of Isabel’s former American suitor Caspar Goodwood on her. By this time Isabel has already received and turned down a proposal from Lord Warburton, and Goodwood is out of the question. Goodwood still presses on with his suit, and Isabel turns him down also.
During this time Henrietta gets to know Isabel’s cousin Ralph Touchett, and their comic arguments and teasing banter provide some light humor for the novel.
Henrietta: It’s charm that I don’t appreciate, anyway. Make yourself useful in some way, and then we’ll talk about it.
Ralph: Well, now, tell me what I shall do.
Henrietta: Go right home to begin with.
Ralph: Yes, I see. And then?
Henrietta: Take right hold of something.
Ralph: well, now what sort of thing?
Henrietta: Anything you please, so long as you take hold. Some idea, some big work.
Ralph: Is it very difficult to take hold?
Henrietta: Not if you put your heart into it.
Ralph: Ah, my heart. If it depends upon my heart—
Henrietta: Haven’t you got a heart?
Ralph: I had one a few days ago, but I’ve lost it since.
Henrietta: You’re not serious. That’s what is the matter with you.
Despite their differences, Henrietta and Ralph share an abiding perceptive interest and concern in Isabel’s future.
Henrietta sets off to tour France and Italy with a new friend she has made, Mr. Bantling. We hear that ‘they had breakfasted together, dined together, gone to the theatre together, supped together, really in a manner quite lived together,’ No mention is made of their sleeping arrangements. Later in the novel they are to be married.
In the mean time, Isabel proceeds on her own tour of Italy and winds up in the cynical clutches of Gilbert Osmond. When Henrietta finally meets Gilbert Osmond, it is natural that they mutually hate each other. Anyone who is a good friend of Isabel can see that this scheming man is crushing her spirit. Henrietta and Ralph both do everything they can to help Isabel escape.
Sometimes it almost seems that Henry James is laughing at his own character Henrietta Stackpole, making fun of her pretensions and opinions, but ultimately Henrietta’s heart is in the right place, and she is the modern glue that holds this novel together.