Henrietta Stackpole: Character Analysis - The Portrait of a Lady

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      When James re-read the novel, he was troubled to find Henrietta too pervading. James wondered why he had allowed her “so officiously, so strongly, so almost inexplicably to pervade.” He declared that she was only a “Wheel” character. Referring to Henrietta Stackpole and Maria Gostrey of Ths Ambassadors he says in the preface : “Each of these persons is but wheels to the coach; neither belongs to the body of the vehicle, or is for a moment accomodated with a seat inside. There the subject alone is ensconced, in the form of its hero and heroine; and of the privileged high officials, say, who ride with the king and queen. Maria Gostrey and Miss Stackpole then are cases, each of the light character not of the true agent...” At the same time Henrietta represented James’s notion of the lively. She added amusement to the novel. It is Henrietta who adds a comic touch to the international theme.

      Henrietta is described in the novel as “quite delicately even though rather provincially fair”. “She was a neat plump person of medium stature, with a round face, a small mouth, a delicate complexion, a bunch of light brown ringlets at the back of her head and a peculiarly open, surprised looking eye. The most striking point in her appearance was the remarkable fixedness of this organ, which rested without impudence or defiance, but as if in conscientious exercise of a natural right upon every subject it happened to encounter. It rested in this manner upon Ralph himself, a little arrested by Miss Stackpole’s gracious and comfortable aspect, which hinted that it would not be so easy as he had assumed to disapprove of her. She rustled, she shimmered, in fresh dove-coloured draperies, and Ralph saw at a glance that she was as crisp and new and comprehensive as a first issue before the folding. From top to toe she had probably no misprint. She spoke in a clear, high voice—a voice not rich but loud, yet after she had taken her place with her companions in Mr. Touchett’s carriage. She struck him as not all in the large type, the type of horrid ‘headings’ that he had expected. She answered the enquiries made of her by Isabel, however, and in which the young man ventured, to join, with copious lucidity; and later in the library at Gradencourt, when she had made the acquaintance of Mr. Touchett (his wife not having thought it necessary to appear) did more to give “the measure of her confidence in her power”.

      Henrietta too is an innocent confronting the vast civilization of Europe: She is a fine example of the expatriated woman who earns her living herself. She is a journalist and comes to Europe to know its “inner life”. Ralph is sceptical of her and thinks of her disparagingly as a female interviewer—a reporter in petticoats”. But Isabel replies back quickly : “It’s very easy to laugh at her but it is not easy to be as brave as she is”.

      Henrietta lacks a sense of privacy. She is always on the lookout for journalistic details and thus charges into those areas of delicacy which more tactful people think proper to avoid. Isabel advises her not to send the story of the Touchett family to The Interviewer and she does not do it. Isabel feels that she is ‘vulgar’ in her too casual approach to privacy. Henrietta enters without knocking at the door. Ralph feels that she “smells so strongly of the future” that it almost knocks one down.

      Henrietta is a loyal friend of Isabel. Like Madame Merle - Henrietta too is Isabel’s confidante. According to David Galloway, though both Madame Merle and Henrietta Stackpole are Isabel’s confidantes, the gulf separating them is very wide — “both are Isabel’s - confidantes but whereas Serena Merle is the epitome of the cultured expatriate, Henrietta is the independent, pragmatic American isolationist. While Madame Merle has spent her adult life in learning to act out all the most graceful forms, Henrietta has little use for ceremony; her bluff inquisitiveness (of the ‘sailing into-your-intimacy - American-hotel-piazza type) is occasionally annoying, frequently even embarrassing to the other characters, but we never have cause to question her honesty, and it is to Henrietta that Isabel first confesses the profound unhappiness of her marriage. Henrietta’s life is also a comic parallel to the ‘passionate pilgrimage’ of Isabel herself who comments after learning of Henrietta’s decision to settle in England, “you will at last over here-see something of the inner life”. Nevertheless, Henrietta remains a lightweight in the scale of the novel, she never for instance, becomes for any appreciable time the centre of consciousness, as Madame Merle does in chapter twenty-two and her characterization involves none of the dynamic quality we witness in Madame Merle’s ultimate corruption and exposure”.

      Henrietta is a stock Jamesian character and literally too there is a comicality about her looks and appearance but her fidelity is her noblest quality. When she crosses the stormy ocean in midwinter because she had guessed that Isabel was sad it is here that we find her a true and lasting friend who puts friendship above gains.

      When Henrietta decides to marry Mr. Bantling and settle down in England we can say that Henrietta has changed a lot. In the beginning, she was simply critical of everything English but now when we find that she has changed and a woman should change to adjust and accommodate herself with her husband, it adds a new serious nobility to her character.

      In this novel where seeing is an important thing to understand the novel we find that Henrietta does not have this capacity. She can’t see beyond the literal surfaces. She knows that Isabel is “drifting to some great mistake” but she does not have the strength and subtlety to alter Isabel’s course. In the novel she serves as a foil to a number of characters.

      The international theme, a remarkably well-integrated aspect of this novel owes its comic aspect to Henrietta Stackpole.

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