Henry James, “Poor Richard” (1867)

poor richard henry james

Where’s Poor Richard?

A study of condescension, manipulation, Machiavellian scheming in a love quadrangle. The rich Gertrude plays with poor Richard and almost-as poor Severn, the latter a wounded veteran of the civil war still ongoing. One of the questions neither posed nor answered is why Richard isn’t at the war. He joins it only at the end, out of a need for redemption. No telling what he was doing meanwhile other than drinking whisky and tending his farm. No “Lamp of Psyche” here, no wondering or questioning why, though he’s 24 years old, Richard did not go to war. He loves Gertrude. She claims not to, but she wants to fix him. “I propose, with your consent, to appoint myself your counsellor.” He is insecure enough to accept: “He wished that he might incontinently lay bare all his shortcomings to her delicious reproof.” She hooks him up with Severn. It doesn’t go well when both men realize they’re competing for Gertrude, while Gertrude is playing the game, playing with “her long blockaded ports.”

And so it goes for poor Richard: “He was good enough to be better; he was good enough not to sit by the hour soaking his limited understanding in whiskey. And at the very least, if he was not worthy to possess Gertrude, he was yet worthy to strive to obtain her, and to live for evermore upon the glory of there having been such a question between himself and the great Miss Whittaker. He would raise himself then to that level from which he could address her as an equal, from which he would have the right to insist on something.”

A stroll in the country with Severn and a fourth wheel doesn’t go well. Richard is upset. Before long the fourth wheel is the Machiavellian Major James Lutterel, scheming to bag himself Gertrude, pretending to be Poor Richard’s friend. Richard falls ill, Severn and his broken heart go back to war where he gets killed, Gertrude briefly considers marrying Luttrell, then not. She marries no one. The story picks up intricacies and interest as it wears along its 60 pages, one of James’s longest, but in the end the circling around Gertrude is shallow, and Gertrude herself is uninteresting. It’s too much plodding for too little payoff.

The Atlantic, June, July-August 1867

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