Poor Richard

tutorial, critical comment, plot, and study resources

Poor Richard first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly magazine over three issues in June—August 1867. Its next appearance in book form was as part of the collection Stories Revived published in London by Macmillan 1885. This is the one of four stories James wrote with the American Civil War as a background. The other stories are The Story of a Year (1865) and A Most Extraordinary Case (1868) and The Romance of Certain Old Clothes (1868).

Poor Richard

The American Civil War – 1861-1865

Poor Richard – critical commentary

The title

The term Poor Richard is taken from a famous American publication, Poor Richard’s Almanack which was written and published each year in Philadelphia by Benjamin Franklin between 1732 and 1758. It was a very popular compilation of weather forecasts, practical household hints, and puzzles, and was padded out with aphorisms and proverbs related to thrift, industry, and frugality. Hence the link to Richard Maule’s progress via work, abstinence, and honesty.


It is difficult to see this story as anything but a warning against the fickleness of women. Gertrude ‘encourages’ Richard; she is in love with Captain Severn; and when Severn is killed in the war she is prepared to marry Major Lutterel, even though she does not love him. She is only twenty-four; she is rich, and she’s good-looking. There is no reason for her to accept an offer from a much older man for whom she feels no affection. Lutterel is thirty-six and he has no money.

Another way to see the story is as a short Bildungsroman – a narrative of growth and education into wisdom. Richard starts out as a drunken wastrel, and then propelled by his love for Gertrude manages to give some clarity and purpose to his life. He does not get the girl, but in the end he tells the truth, he sells the farm, does the honourable social thing by joining in the war, and on return takes up paid employment. That is a success of sorts.

Poor Richard – study resources

Poor Richard The Complete Works of Henry James – Kindle edition – Amazon UK

Poor Richard The Complete Works of Henry James – Kindle edition – Amazon US

Poor Richard Complete Stories 1864—1874 – Library of America – Amazon UK

Poor Richard Complete Stories 1864—1874 – Library of America – Amazon US

Red button The Cambridge Companion to Henry James – Amazon UK

Red button Henry James at Wikipedia – biographical notes, links

Red button Henry James at Mantex – tutorials, biography, study resources

Poor Richard – plot summary

Part I.   Wastrel and poor orphan Richard Maule is in love with rich Gertrude Whittaker. He tries to persuade her to love him, and even proposes marriage. But she offers him only friendship in return, plus a willingness to help him ‘improve’.

Part II.   Richard and Gertrude are old school friends. She has inherited a lot of money from her father. Richard has done virtually nothing except work on the farm he has inherited and allowed to run down. But the prospect of winning Gertrude inspires him to reform his life. Gertrude meanwhile decides it will help Richard if she introduces him to Captain Severn.

Part III.   Severn is a serious, honourable, but poor man who accepts Gertrude’s comforts when he is injured in the Civil War. But he hasn’t enough money to marry, so they remain just good friends.

Gertrude invites Richard and Severn to meet each other – but they are joined unexpectedly by Major Lutterel and the event is ruined. Richard feels ill at ease in this more sophisticated company.

Part IV.   After tea, they all go for a walk, during which Richard and Severn exchange opinions on Gertrude, and realise that they are rivals for her favour. Richard gauchely tries to impress everyone with his knowledge of the local river. There is a complex tension of competition between all three men for Gertrude’s attention.

Part V.   Richard cultivates a regime of hard work and self-denial, hoping to overcome his obsession with Gertrude. One day he rides over to see her, only to discover Captain Severn just leaving and Gertrude very upset. Richard accuses her of being in love with Severn.

She is in fact holding out against both Severn and Richard, and it brings her little joy. But on mature reflection, she begins to see positives in Richard’s simplicity She drives over to his farm where he is apologetic for his behaviour. His courtesy and simple behaviour win her over.

News arrives of a defeat for the Unionists in the Civil War in Virginia. Richard and Major Lutterel leave Gertrude’s house, only to meet Captain Severn on his way to pay her his last respects before re-joining his regiment. Richard lies to Severn about Gertrude being away from home, and Major Lutterel is complicit in the deception, because he wishes to keep away all rivals, having decided that he wishes to marry Gertrude himself.

Richard wishes to reveal his guilt to Gertrude about the deception, but fails to do so because she receives him in a very neutral manner. He goes home with Major Lutterel, gets drunk, and by next day he is very ill with typhoid fever.

Part VI.   Colonel Lutterel arrives at Gertrude’s house with the news of Richard’s illness. They drive over to see him, and Gertrude arranges nursing support for him. Whilst Richard is ill, Colonel Lutterel increases the intensity of his attentions to Gertrude, who although she is not in love with him is prepared to countenance a possible alliance.

The Major arrives at Gertrude’s house with the news that Richard is getting better and Captain Severn has been killed. He asks her to marry him, and although she tells him she does not love him, she is prepared to accept the offer.

Part VII.   Gertrude makes her preparations for the marriage in secret, with a heavy heart. Major Lutterel visits Richard, where he denies having any news of Captain Severn, and reveals that he is engaged to Gertrude. Richard takes a stoical view, and hopes that his disappointment will help him recover. When he meets Gertrude she is pale and unhappy: he implores her to give up the plan to marry Major Lutterel. Suddenly Major Lutterel arrives, and Richard reveals the truth about Captain Severn’s last failed visit to see Gertrude. Gertrude breaks off her engagement with Lutterel and forgives Richard.

Richard sells the farm, pays off his debts, and joins the war. When he returns at the end of the war he finds employment in his old neighbourhood. Gertrude also sells up, and goes to live in Florence.

Principal characters
Richard Maule a poor orphan of twenty-four
Gertrude Whittaker a rich young woman of twenty-four
Fanny Maule Richard’s sister, a friend of Gertrude
Captain Edmund Severn a Unionist soldier of twenty-eight
Major Lutterel a recruiting officer of thirty-six with no money
Mrs Martin Captain Severn’s sister

Further reading


Red button Theodora Bosanquet, Henry James at Work, University of Michigan Press, 2007.

Red button F.W. Dupee, Henry James: Autobiography, Princeton University Press, 1983.

Red button Leon Edel, Henry James: A Life, HarperCollins, 1985.

Red button Philip Horne (ed), Henry James: A Life in Letters, Viking/Allen Lane, 1999.

Red button Henry James, The Letters of Henry James, Adamant Media Corporation, 2001.

Red button Fred Kaplan, Henry James: The Imagination of Genius, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999

Red button F.O. Matthieson (ed), The Notebooks of Henry James, Oxford University Press, 1988.

Critical commentary

Red button Elizabeth Allen, A Woman’s Place in the Novels of Henry James London: Macmillan Press, 1983.

Red button Ian F.A. Bell, Henry James and the Past, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1993.

Red button Millicent Bell, Meaning in Henry James, Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press, 1993.

Red button Harold Bloom (ed), Modern Critical Views: Henry James, Chelsea House Publishers, 1991.

Red button Kirstin Boudreau, Henry James’s Narrative Technique, Macmillan, 2010.

Red button J. Donald Crowley and Richard A. Hocks (eds), The Wings of the Dove, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1978.

Red button Victoria Coulson, Henry James, Women and Realism, Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Red button Daniel Mark Fogel, A Companion to Henry James Studies, Greenwood Press, 1993.

Red button Virginia C. Fowler, Henry James’s American Girl: The Embroidery on the Canvas, Madison (Wis): University of Wisconsin Press, 1984.

Red button Jonathan Freedman, The Cambridge Companion to Henry James, Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Red button Judith Fryer, The Faces of Eve: Women in the Nineteenth Century American Novel, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976

Red button Roger Gard (ed), Henry James: The Critical Heritage, London: Routledge, 1968.

Red button Tessa Hadley, Henry James and the Imagination of Pleasure, Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Red button Barbara Hardy, Henry James: The Later Writing (Writers & Their Work), Northcote House Publishers, 1996.

Red button Richard A. Hocks, Henry James: A study of the short fiction, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1990.

Red button Donatella Izzo, Portraying the Lady: Technologies of Gender in the Short Stories of Henry James, University of Nebraska Press, 2002.

Red button Colin Meissner, Henry James and the Language of Experience, Cambridge University Press, 2009

Red button John Pearson (ed), The Prefaces of Henry James, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993.

Red button Richard Poirer, The Comic Sense of Henry James, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967.

Red button Hugh Stevens, Henry James and Sexuality, Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Red button Merle A. Williams, Henry James and the Philosophical Novel, Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Red button Judith Woolf, Henry James: The Major Novels, Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Red button Ruth Yeazell (ed), Henry James: A Collection of Critical Essays, Longmans, 1994.

Other works by Henry James

Henry James Washington SquareWashington Square (1880) is a superb early short novel, It’s the tale of a young girl whose future happiness is being controlled by her strict authoritarian (but rather witty) father. She is rather reserved, but has a handsome young suitor. However, her father disapproves of him, seeing him as an opportunist and a fortune hunter. There is a battle of wills – all conducted within the confines of their elegant New York town house. Who wins out in the end? You will probably be surprised by the outcome. This is a masterpiece of social commentary, offering a sensitive picture of a young woman’s life.
Henry James Washington Square Buy the book from Amazon UK
Henry James Washington Square Buy the book from Amazon US


Henry James The Aspern PapersThe Aspern Papers (1888) is a psychological drama set in Venice which centres on the tussle for control of a great writer’s correspondence. An elderly lady, ex-lover of the writer, seeks a husband for her daughter. But the potential purchaser of the papers is a dedicated bachelor. Money is also at stake – but of course not discussed overtly. There is a refined battle of wills between them. Who will win in the end? As usual, James keeps the reader guessing. The novella is a masterpiece of subtle narration, with an ironic twist in its outcome. This collection of stories also includes three of his accomplished long short stories – The Private Life, The Middle Years, and The Death of the Lion.
Henry James The Aspern Papers Buy the book from Amazon UK
Henry James The Aspern Papers Buy the book from Amazon US


Henry James The Spoils of PoyntonThe Spoils of Poynton (1896) is a short novel which centres on the contents of a country house, and the question of who is the most desirable person to inherit it via marriage. The owner Mrs Gereth is being forced to leave her home to make way for her son and his greedy and uncultured fiancee. Mrs Gereth develops a subtle plan to take as many of the house’s priceless furnishings with her as possible. But things do not go quite according to plan. There are some very witty social ironies, and a contest of wills which matches nouveau-riche greed against high principles. There’s also a spectacular finale in which nobody wins out.
Henry James The Spoils of Poynton Buy the book from Amazon UK
Henry James The Spoils of Poynton Buy the book from Amazon US

Henry James – web links

Henry James  web links Henry James at Mantex
Biographical notes, study guides, tutorials on the Complete Tales, book reviews. bibliographies, and web links.

Henry James web links The Complete Works
Sixty books in one 13.5 MB Kindle eBook download for £1.92 at Amazon.co.uk. The complete novels, stories, travel writing, and prefaces. Also includes his autobiographies, plays, and literary criticism – with illustrations.

Henry James web links The Ladder – a Henry James website
A collection of eTexts of the tales, novels, plays, and prefaces – with links to available free eTexts at Project Gutenberg and elsewhere.

Red button A Hyper-Concordance to the Works
Japanese-based online research tool that locates the use of any word or phrase in context. Find that illusive quotable phrase.

Henry James web links The Henry James Resource Center
A web site with biography, bibliographies, adaptations, archival resources, suggested reading, and recent scholarship.

Henry James web links Online Books Page
A collection of online texts, including novels, stories, travel writing, literary criticism, and letters.

Henry James web links Henry James at Project Gutenberg
A major collection of eTexts, available in a variety of eBook formats.

Henry James web links The Complete Letters
Archive of the complete correspondence (1855-1878) work in progress – published by the University of Nebraska Press.

Henry James web links The Scholar’s Guide to Web Sites
An old-fashioned but major jumpstation – a website of websites and resouces.

Henry James web links Henry James – The Complete Tales
Tutorials on the complete collection of over one hundred tales, novellas, and short stories.

© Roy Johnson 2013

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