Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady Journalist

bespectacled Victorian woman reporter's face, looking askance

Henrietta Stackpole, a foreign correspondent with “fewer illusions…”

For any hardcore English majors among my “portrayal of the journalist in film, fiction and popular culture” students, I should mention another great American novel with a newspaperwoman lurking in its pages: Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady, which is conveniently discussed at great length in this week’s New Yorker magazine.

Alas, the journalist, “Henrietta Stackpole,” is not the lady of the title, and she doesn’t get much mention in Anthony Lane’s almost 5,000 word article, itself in response to a new book, Michael Gorra’s “Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece” (Liveright).

But Lane’s article may give students some ideas about writing about literature, as well as probably convincing them that Portrait of a Lady would be a lot to bite off as a two-week assignment in the middle of a broader course, even if it might be worth it just to meet Henrietta and ponder the life of a woman correspondent abroad 130 years ago.

They may be intrigued by Lane’s references to the journalist, at first comparing her to Isabel Archer, the title character:

“… her friend Henrietta Stackpole, an American reporter, who nourishes fewer illusions about European allure.”

… and, in a discussion of James’ Victorian sensibilities:

“When Henrietta heads off to see the Paris sights with a jovial bachelor named Bantling, and we hear that ‘they had breakfasted together, dined together, gone to the theatre together, supped together, really in a manner quite lived together,’ it is precisely in not knowing what they did together by night—whether they proceeded to feast in foodless ways upon each other—that one finds, as so often with James, a pleasurable ache of dissatisfaction.”

But if I catch any students turning a phrase like “feast in foodless ways upon each other,” now I’ll know where they stole it.

Lane also quotes Henrietta a trifle enigmatically:

“… consider Henrietta, the journalist in search of a topic, who admits to Isabel that ‘I should have delighted to do your uncle.'”

That tease (words do take on new shades of meaning over the years) may convince students that a 19th century novel might be a bit too risque for classroom discussion. But Henrietta is merely debating issues of privacy and publicity with Isabel, talking about painting word-pictures of people for her article, “Americans and Tudors.” Thanks to the searchable plain-text Project Gutenberg edition of the novel, here’s a  more complete quote:

“And I should have delighted to do your uncle, who seems to me a much nobler type — the American faithful still. He’s a grand old man; I don’t see how he can object to my paying him honour.”

Alas, Henrietta was entirely written out of the one radio adaptation of Portrait of a Lady that I’ve found (by NBC University Theater), but here it is, from 1949, if you want to hear an hour of Jamesian prose, minus Henrietta…

I also haven’t seen the 1968 TV series or the 1994 film adaptations to see how much attention they paid to Henrietta. Mary-Louise Parker — pre-“Weeds” and “West Wing” — played her in the 1994 Portrait of a Lady, opposite Nicole Kidman as Isabel, but those reportorial spectacles were enough to inspire me to put her picture on this page, along with a YouTube clip of the movie trailer.

Meanwhile, my more general page about journalists in novels is over at my mostly-about-radio blog, under the subtitle “Books: The Truth with a Dragon Tattoo,” referring to the two novels most students read last year. Maybe I should move that whole page over here, since I already have my YouTube collection of films about journalists pages here.

mild-mannered reporter who found computers & the Web in grad school in the 1980s (Wesleyan) and '90s (UNC); taught journalism, media studies, Web production; retired to write, make music, photograph sunsets & walks in the woods.

Posted in film, Journalism, jpop, literature, Magazines, movies, oldtime radio, popular culture, writing

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