In The Aspern Papers, published in 1888, Henry James explores the price of fame, the loss of privacy, and the persistent demands of an obsessed public. Written at a time when he was living in Florence in the home of Constance Fenimore Woolson (a distant relative of the American author James Fenimore Cooper), James bases his story on an account he heard of someone trying to obtain letters written by the British poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. The prospect of having details of one's life closely examined is an overwhelming prospect for any celebrity, and James brings out the inhumanity of his amoral narrator with a contempt that only the victim of the nineteenth-century “paparazzi” must have known. Juliana Bordereau's fear of having her most intimate relationship revealed by a “publishing scoundrel,” as she calls the narrator, provides the impetus for the seclusion of her life. The character of Tina, Juliana's niece, is tasked with safeguarding her aunt's privacy. Miss Tina's struggle in deciding whether to honor that request or to betray it for the possibility of marriage to a man who does not love her gives a poignant subtext to this tale of manipulation and obsession.
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
A minor masterpiece, The Aspern Papers is perhaps not so familiar to nonaficionados of James as “The Beast in the Jungle” or The Turn of the Screw. Combining intrigue, seduction, and James’s great gift for psychological subtlety, this tale deserves to be ranked among James’s greatest short fictions.
A nameless editor who has devoted his life to publishing all the bits and scraps he can gather of the fictional American poet Jeffrey Aspern learns that Aspern’s former lover, Juliana Bordereau, has kept Aspern’s love letters to her. Realizing that procuring the letters will be no easy task, the editor schemes to obtain them by first renting rooms in the Venetian palazzo occupied by Juliana and her spinster niece Tita, then attempting to charm both the women. As the tale unfolds, it becomes clear that the conniving editor, whom Juliana will call a “publishing scoundrel,” is himself being manipulated. He believes that by wooing Tita he will gain access to the letters, and indeed one night does steal into Juliana’s quarters, only to be caught in the act by Juliana herself.
He leaves Venice in shame, returning to discover that Juliana has died and the papers are in Tita’s hands. She has been ordered to burn them rather than let anyone else see them, but she offers that Juliana’s edict would not apply to a family member. Repulsed by the prospect of marrying the plain and somewhat dull Tita, the editor flees, only...
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Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
This is a tale of a man obsessed. The narrator, an American editor, is completely controlled by his desire to know all that can be known about Jeffrey Aspern, a deceased American poet. Determined to publish the definitive biography and collected work of his idol, the editor assumes a false identity in order to move into the dilapidated apartments of Juliana Bordereau, an elderly lady reputed to be Jeffrey Aspern’s lover before 1825. Juhana lives in near isolation with only her niece and a maid for companions. Refusing the company of other Americans in Venice, including Mrs. Prest, the editor’s confidante, Juliana is considered eccentric and stingy. Using these characteristics to his advantage, the editor offers to pay extravagant rent for her extra rooms, claiming that he is a writer who needs the inspiration of the garden attached to Juliana’s property Juliana acquiesces, much to the surprise of her niece, Miss Tita Bordereau, and the editor begins his summer-long campaign to capture any of Aspern’s papers that might be in Juliana’s possession.
The editor embarks on this adventure expressly to deceive. Not only does he conceal his true name and vocation, but also he decides that if nothing else succeeds, he will feign romantic interest in the niece and steal the papers if necessary. His adoration for Aspern is so intense that he despises the women who may have been involved with him as inferior creatures. Indeed, one of his reasons for seeking out Juliana is to prove that Aspern, reputed to have treated her badly, behaved like a gentleman throughout their relationship. Yet he is also fascinated with Juliana and desires to touch the hand that once touched Aspern’s; through her, the editor feels closer to Aspern than he ever has before.
So obsessed with his project is he that the editor only gradually comes to realize that he is being manipulated by Juliana. She extorts increasingly large amounts of rent from him as the summer progresses, encourages him to cultivate the garden at great expense, and finally suggests that he should entertain Miss Tita. This vaguely middle-aged niece has always lived in the shadow of her...
(The entire section is 882 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
In the 1880’s, a young American literary scholar hears that a woman who long ago was the mistress of the famous American poet Jeffrey Aspern is still alive, living in Venice. It is rumored that this old woman, Juliana Bordereau, has a cache of Aspern’s papers, mostly letters. Frantic to lay his hands on the papers, the young man vows to do whatever it takes to get hold of them. Unfortunately, Juliana, who is said to be close to death, never receives visitors.
Even though there is no proof that the papers even exist, the young scholar decides to try to gain entrance to Juliana’s villa as a lodger. “Hypocrisy, duplicity are my only chance,” he declares. “I’m sorry for it, but there’s no baseness I wouldn’t commit for Jeffrey Aspern’s sake.” He manages to convince Tita, the niece, that he is a writer who needs solitude. Tita then presents him to Juliana who, after listening to his lies, agrees to let him stay, but at an exorbitant price.
Weeks go by without the scholar getting any closer to the papers. At times he suspects that the women are on to him and are only out for the money. Meanwhile, there develops between him and the women a cat-and-mouse game in which the women tantalize him with vague hints as to the existence of the papers while he tries to conceal his motive for being there.
The more he persuades himself that the papers exist, the more determined he is to get to them, and the more difficult the women make it. Although he is not in the least attracted to Tita, he works hard to ingratiate himself with her. Slowly he brings the conversation around to certain rare items Juliana might possess. When he finally admits that, yes, he is a Jeffrey Aspern scholar, Tita runs out of the room. Oddly enough, a...
(The entire section is 722 words.)
Summary and Analysis
Chapter 1 Summary and Analysis
The unnamed narrator, an American editor, has come to Venice to obtain letters of his idol, the American poet Jeffrey Aspern, which are said to be in the possession of one of his former mistresses, Miss Juliana Bordereau. An American expatriate of his acquaintance, Mrs. Prest, comes to his aid after he takes her into his confidence. Miss Bordereau lives in isolation with her niece (possibly, says Mrs. Prest, her grandniece) in a run-down palazzo along a smaller canal. Mrs. Prest says she knows nothing about such papers. She had tried to see Miss Bordereau after hearing that she may be in financial straits, but Miss Bordereau's niece does not allow Mrs. Prest to see her.
The narrator and Mrs. Prest try to determine the best way to get in to see the elderly lady. The narrator’s editor colleague, John Cumnor, had written previously asking for an introduction so that they could talk about the letters. He receives a curt reply from the niece, stating that they know nothing of such letters and that he should stop bothering them. Not wanting to face the same rejection, the narrator must come up with a way to infiltrate their confidence without identifying himself with Cumnor. He is not even sure that the letters exist, but because the niece refers to the poet as “Mr. Aspern,” Mrs. Prest thinks that this indicates an intimacy or familiarity that is unknown to the general public.
Mrs. Prest suggests that the best way to make an acquaintance is to become a friend. She advises the narrator to approach Miss Bordereau about renting rooms from her in her palazzo. He decides he will have to sink to dishonesty and hypocrisy to achieve his goal, but he decides that acquiring the letters is well worth the moral price he will pay.
Mrs. Prest insists on taking the narrator past the Bordereau palazzo in a gondola, though he has passed by the place many times since he arrived in Venice. It is an edifice of about two or three hundred years, having an air “not so much of decay as of quiet discouragement, as if it had rather missed its career.” Mrs. Prest suggests that he go in immediately to inquire about rooms, but the narrator hesitates. If he is going to lie, and to live a lie for an...
(The entire section is 916 words.)
Chapter 2 Summary and Analysis
The narrator has gained admittance to the palazzo of Juliana Bordereau, presenting his fake calling card to the young, “not ugly,” maid. He is irritated by the call from the window, demanding to know who he is, as a relic of the middle ages. He simply says that he is a traveling American and would like a moment with the mistress of the house. The maid takes his card, leaving him in the downstairs room. He notices the faded furnishings, though he is overtaken by the garden. In the midst of his exclamations, a woman of nondescript age (Juliana Bordereau’s niece, Miss Tina) approaches. He asks her if the garden belongs to the house. Miss Tina replies that it does, though the house does not belong to...
(The entire section is 844 words.)
Chapter 3 Summary and Analysis
Juliana Bordereau, on the narrator’s entrance to her room, tells him that their home is far from the center of action in Venice, but it is suitable. He insists that it could not be more charming. She asks him to sit down. He explains that he understands that he is being presumptuous about asking for permission to lease rooms, but he has fallen in love with the place, especially with the garden. The idea of a garden in the middle of the sea intrigues him, though she points out that he cannot see the water from the house. He points out that he approached the house by gondola. Juliana remarks that she does not keep a boat and has not gone out in one for years. He quickly offers the use of his, though...
(The entire section is 913 words.)
Chapter 4 Summary and Analysis
The narrator delivers the gold the following day, but he is not shown into the presence of Juliana Bordereau herself. Miss Tina is the one who takes the bag of gold pieces, but effectively blocks him from further entrance into the Bordereau’s living area. Mrs. Prest teases him for his lack of progress until she leaves Venice for the summer.
The narrator moves in with his servant, but does not see any trace of either of the Bordereau ladies for six weeks. He hopes his servant will commence a romance with the maid, but his interests lie elsewhere. He despairs of receiving even a receipt for the three thousand francs that constitute his rent. He begins to believe that she does so simply to...
(The entire section is 928 words.)
Chapter 5 Summary and Analysis
The narrator has now been in the Bordereau palazzo for three months, during which time he has not seen either Juliana or Miss Tina. During the heat of the summer he spends the evenings outdoors, since the insects from the canals infest his room if he leaves the windows open, and it is too hot to keep them closed. He spends much time on the Piazza of Saint Mark, where he visits with acquaintances and eats ices as he enjoys the beauties of Venice. He contemplates taking an ice home to Miss Tina, but decides it would be too presumptuous.
One such evening in the middle of July finds him returning home and going into the garden, where he has spent much time in repairing the neglect, sending up...
(The entire section is 960 words.)
Chapter 6 Summary and Analysis
One afternoon the narrator comes down to find Miss Tina in the sala, waiting for him to announce that her aunt has requested to see him immediately, if he has time. He asks Miss Tina why all of a sudden she has requested this audience. Miss Tina states that her aunt is probably bored and wants some variety. The narrator asks her if she told her aunt about his desire to see the Aspern papers. She says that, since her aunt becomes upset when people talk about them, she has said nothing.
Juliana is in the same spot where he last saw her, still wearing the green eyeshade. She says she wanted to thank him for the beautiful flowers. The narrator notes that, since he has not sent any for a while,...
(The entire section is 951 words.)
Chapter 7 Summary and Analysis
The narrator decides to pay the ladies a visit, but is informed that Juliana is in the sala. He finds her there, looking brighter than she did in the seclusion of her rooms. On approaching her, he is asked if he has come to tell her that he plans to rent the rooms for six more months. He is put off by her obvious greed and has difficulty imagining that this is the woman who so enthralled his idol so that he wrote his famous poems about her. He partly blames herself by having pointed out to her the possibility of making money through the lease of part of her palazzo. He tells her that he cannot afford it, as much as he would like to. She is surprised that a writer should not have an inexhaustible supply...
(The entire section is 1010 words.)
Chapter 8 Summary and Analysis
A few hours later, Miss Tina appears at the narrator’s door, announcing that her aunt is dying. She pleads for him to go find a doctor, as the maid has gone in search of one but has not returned. Not wanting to leave, he sends his servant instead. Miss Tina informs him that she hopes he will not believe that she is feigning illness and wanting to know what he had done to her to bring on this state. He resents the insinuation, since it was a result by her own actions.
The two go into the bedroom and the narrator learns that her eyes are covered with a bit of lace. He asks Miss Tina if she has covered them to preserve them, but she states that they are no longer the eyes made famous by...
(The entire section is 939 words.)
Chapter 9 Summary and Analysis
The narrator leaves Venice the next morning, following the report that Juliana Bordereau has not died as he feared. He travels around northern Italy, sending letters to Miss Tina, asking her to write him to let him know how things are going. He hears nothing from her. After twelve days he decides to return to Venice. On arriving at the door of the palazzo, he is met by his servant who informs him that Juliana has died and was buried two days previously. He learns that Miss Tina has had to manage most of the affairs by herself, with the help of some old acquaintances that still live in Venice.
The narrator visits a mere thirty minutes with Miss Tina. He looks at her and thinks that she is...
(The entire section is 914 words.)