Henrietta Stackpole in ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ – The New Woman, 1880s Style


Mary Louise Parker as Henrietta Stackpole

Mary Louise Parker as Henrietta Stackpole

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.

12 responses to this post.

  1. I like this idea, Tony – just focussing on one character within the novel.
    And Henrietta is one of my favourites, you are right, she is a foil to Isobel (who, as a younger reader, I often felt like giving a good shake to) and without her the novel would fail for the modern reader in the way that some Edith Whartons now do.


  2. Hi Lisa,
    Yes, Henrietta is in many ways a more interesting character than Isabel. The reader can be quite sure that Henrietta’s marriage to Mr. Bantling will be a success and not a total disaster like Isabel’s marriage.
    I’m not too familiar with Edith Wharton’s failures, only her successes like ‘The House of Mirth’ and ‘The Age of Innocence’. Even my idol George Eliot had a couple novels I consider failures like ‘Janet’s Repentance’.


  3. I like the way you’ve focused on one character within what must be quite a rich and detailed novel. I haven’t read Portrait, but your post has piqued my interest in it.


    • Hi Jacqui,
      I listened to ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ on audio, all 22 hours and 50 minutes of it. The novel has a lot of dialogue and it worked very well to listen to it. The version I listened to has Nadia May doing the audio, and I thought it was very good.


  4. Interesting post, Tony! Yes, James pokes fun at feminists. In The Bostonians he really goes crazy with that. But I, too, like Henrietta Stackpole (what a name!). If only Isabel had paid more attention to her friends.


    • Hi Kat,
      If only… If only Isabel Archer had listened to Henrietta and Ralph and Lord Warburton. Of course then there would not have been enough turbulence for a novel with everybody agreeing.


  5. I’d love to read this.

    Thanks for mentioning it has a lot of dialogues. It’s a long book and James’s language can be a bit difficult for a non-native. Now I know I don’t have to read it in French.

    Henrietta seems like an interesting character, a bit like Rhoda and Miss Barfoot in The Odd Women by Gissing.


    • Hi Emma,
      I went the audio route on this one. That works quite well on books that have a lot of dialogue. I opted for the Nadia May audio version, and that one worked quite well.
      I probably did read ‘The Odd Woman’ by Gissing ( I know I’ve read ‘New Grub Street’ which I really liked), but don’t remember enough details to comment. If you mean Rhoda on the Mary Tyler Moore Show, yes, that would be Miss Stackpole.


      • I mean Rhoda from The Odd Women. She’s a feminist, a New Woman too.


        • Hi Emma,
          I saw your ‘Rhoda and Miss Barfoot in the Odd Woman’ and thought you may have meant Miss Barfoot in the Odd Woman and Rhoda. Rhoda is so familiar to TV fans in the United States that her name can stand alone, and people still come up with Rhoda from the Mary Tyler Moore Show.


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