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...
(The entire section is 450 words.)
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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...
(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...
(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 extended period of time, he must come up with a plan. Because he is one of Jeffrey Aspern’s editors, it is probable that Miss Bordereau will recognize his name. He has already devised a false name and had calling...
(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 her. He asks to whom he should speak, for he must have a garden. Miss Tina misunderstands him and begs him not to take the house away from them. He explains that he will be in Venice for the summer and is desperate for lodging. All he needs are two or three rooms, but he would like to have access to the garden, either to work it himself or to hire a gardener for it. Miss Tina is unsure, as they do not know him and she lives alone in the house with her aunt. The narrator pretends to think they are English. When Miss Tina corrects him, he asks if they are American. Miss Tina replies, “I don’t know. We used to be.” She explains that they have lived abroad for so long that they do not seem to be anything now.
Once again the narrator begs to be let some rooms, and especially to have the use of the gardens, since he “must” have flowers, he says. Miss Tina explains that they have never had any lodgers, that they are very poor, and live very frugally. The rooms are bare, she explains, but the narrator says that he can bring some simple furnishings for the summer. He also explains that he can bring a servant to cook for him, assuming that the palazzo has a second kitchen. He continues to gush about his need for flowers. Miss Tina promises to talk to her aunt about his proposition, and asks that he return the next day for their answer.
The narrator later rejoins Mrs. Prest, who seems to have changed her mind about his acquiring rooms with the Bordereaus. She says that the aunt will refuse, but the narrator believes that he has triumphed. He thinks about the future: the aunt is very old, so old that she might soon die. At that time, he will be able to go through her belongings and find the letters....
(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 he realizes immediately that this might make him seem too eager.
Juliana offers the narrator the use of as many rooms as he would like, provided he gives her a great deal of money. He at first believes that “a great deal of money” may mean a different sum to her than it would to him, but when she requests for a thousand francs a month, he realizes that he was wrong. This is an extravagant amount of money, but he has enough at his disposal, so that he agrees and will send over three months’ rent in advance the next day. She asks for it in gold, which surprises him, since it is doubtful that she has sufficient security in the place for that amount of money in solid gold. Julian gleefully informs Miss Tina of the proposal. Julian dismisses her lack of enthusiasm for the amount as due to her “ignorance.”
The narrator asks if he might shake her hand to “seal the deal,” hoping for a touch of the hand that touched Jeffrey Aspern, but she refuses, saying that she belongs to a time when such things were not done. He then agrees to shake Miss Tina’s hand.
When the narrator is once again alone with Miss Tina, the latter explains that the money is intended for her. Juliana asked for a large amount of money so that her niece will have sufficient means when Julian dies. Miss Tina shows the narrator the choice of his rooms. They are unfurnished but he decides he can adequately furnish them. Taking a chance, the narrator mentions to Miss Tina that he has noticed that Julian is very proud. Miss Tina is impressed that he has noticed this already. When he says that he hopes she will not hide from him once he has moved in, she simply states that she must stay with her aunt.
(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 deprive him of anything written in her own hand, the hand that had been held by Jeffrey Aspern.
He waits in the sala (drawing room) constantly, staring at the entrance to their private apartments, hoping to get a glimpse of them, but sees nothing. He then makes a point of spending as much time as possible in the garden, for which they had shown some interest at his first meeting. He spends a great deal of money on a gardener to bring it into shape, but despairs of its every being near to completion. He contemplates buying flowers at a neighboring stall, but he knows that, with one look out the window, the ladies could tell that there was no possibility that any flowers could come from their incomplete garden.
As he waits, the narrator begins to speculate about the origins of Juliana Bordereau and what brought her to Europe in the first part of the century. His partner, Cumnor, believes that she used to be a governess in some family where Aspern discovered her. The narrator, on the other hand, chooses to fantasize that she was the daughter of an artist who had come to Europe, after losing his wife, with Juliana and a second daughter completely different from Juliana. He thinks she may have been reckless in her youth and had an unhappy love affair before her attachment to Aspern. As she traveled around Europe, trying to overcome her unhappiness, she met Jeffrey Aspern, who had himself forsaken America to come to Italy, intent on absorbing its atmosphere to give him inspiration as he wrote his poetry, some of it to her, perhaps.
The narrator has come to a standstill in his campaign to win the hearts and confidence of Juliana Bordereau and her niece....
(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 bouquets of flowers each day to his landladies. As he enters the garden, he notices a figure at the other end rise. Thinking that it is the maid come to meet a lover, he prepares to leave when he discovers that it is Miss Tina. She calls out, “Oh dear, I’m so glad you’ve come!” She says that she is nervous when outdoors at night. He says that she speaks as if she were in the backwoods, when only a few steps would take her to the safety of the indoors. He wonders that she never ventured out into the garden previously, but she reminds him that they had never been this nice before his arrival and superintendence of the garden. He asks her why he never received any acknowledgement of the flowers that he sent up daily; she replies that she did not know that they were for her. He tells her that they were intended for both she and Juliana.
Miss Tina asks him why he wants so much to know them. He recognizes that this is Juliana’s question, not her niece's. He discovers that Juliana is fading rapidly, and that Miss Tina is now frequently told to leave her alone. She tells him of their past, how they often went out with friends, most of whom are dead now.
The narrator begins to actively court her to win her favor, and decides to take some bold steps toward his true purpose. When Miss Tina asks if he writes at night he states that he usually reads Jeffrey Aspern’s poetry. This begins the conversation that he hoped for. She admits that Aspern used to come to visit Juliana frequently. The narrator asks if her aunt has a portrait of him, but Miss Tina says she does not know, since Juliana keeps all Aspern’s things “locked up.” She then asks him if he writes about Aspern. The narrator honestly...
(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, it was because she was fearful that he had stopped completely that she asked to see him. He promises he will send some more. He tells her that Miss Tina should come and pick as many as she wants. Juliana agrees, asking him to come and make her go out. He invites Juliana herself to come, but she says that she will no longer leave her rooms alive. She asks him, in reference to his previous promise of the use of his gondola, to take Miss Tina out so that she can see Venice.
The narrator is good on his word and takes Miss Tina out one evening. She seems to have forgotten how beautiful Venice is, and she wants to go to the piazza at Saint Mark’s. There, she reveals that her aunt has been afraid that he has not been happy and fears that he will leave. When he asks if it is because of the money, she honestly answers in the affirmative. When the narrator offers to stay as long as necessary so that she may have the amount of money she desires, Miss Tina advises him to go to some other house. He says that he cannot, as he still wants to find out about the Aspern letters. When asked if her aunt does indeed have papers of value, Miss Tina replies that she has “everything.” The narrator’s interest is pitched to a fever level by this news. He asks Miss Tina to help him get the letters. She states that she cannot get access to them, as Juliana keeps them constantly locked up. He merely asks her to promise that she will keep her aunt from destroying them. He learns that she has no idea of the affair between her aunt and the poet; she merely believed that they were friends. He also discovers that Miss Bordereau has most likely left everything to Miss Tina in her will. Miss Tina promises to do what she can to help,...
(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 of cash, but he explains that he is not a well-known author, being more of a critic. When she asks what is his area of interest, he explains that he is interested in the lives of others, for example, poets. She asks him what the point is of raking up the past and exposing lies. He replies that, it is for the purpose of exposing the lies and bringing out the truth. She then asks him about her niece, giving him the impression that she is trying to make a match of the two. He changes the conversation back to the lease of the rooms, which he says he can only do by the month. She is unsure, but says she will consider it.
Juliana Bordereau then asks him what he thinks the greatest price she can get for a small portrait. When she shows it to him, he recognizes it as a portrait of Jeffrey Aspern himself, about the age of twenty-five, which is earlier than any other portrait then extant. He pretends he does not recognize the subject, but is impressed with the artist’s skill. Juliana informs him that it was painted by her father, which validates his earlier idea that she met Aspern in her father’s studio when he came to sit for a portrait. He cannot afford it himself, he says, but that she should remember him if she ever decides to sell it. She rudely states that she will have to see his money first.
Miss Tina then appears, explaining to the narrator that she is responsible for bringing her aunt down to the sala. The younger Bordereau lady says that she hopes her aunt has not been tired out by the difference in location, but Juliana says she feels better than she has felt in a month. The narrator suggests that he and Miss Tina should meet together more, and Juliana says she wants to watch them, but she...
(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 Jeffrey Aspern. In the meantime, the narrator surreptitiously looks around the room to discover some hiding place in which the papers and the portrait might be kept. Miss Tina sees him looking and knows what he is doing. He also notices the things thrown about the room, giving it a disheveled appearance, which Miss Tina says is by Juliana’s request. He notices a green-painted box, which Miss Tina says once contained the letters, but do so no longer. The doctor arrives, and the narrator goes down to the garden to await the medical verdict. When he finally goes back upstairs, he learns that she is in no immediate danger. Miss Tina states that it is because she consented to take her down to the sala. At the narrator’s urging, she says she will do so no more.
The conversation again turns to the letters, which Miss Tina says are no longer in the trunk. She looked there for the sake of the narrator. She admits she does not know what she would do if she found them. He asks if she will look again somewhere else, but she shames him by stating that of course she will not while her aunt is lying there.
At this point the narrator opens up and tells Miss Tina the entire truth, that he is an editor (he reveals his real name) who has come to Venice to find the letters. He admits that he is connected to Mr. Cumnor, whom they heard from previously, that so angered Juliana. He tells her how much he wants the letters. Miss Tina seems to accept this new truth with calmness.
The narrator goes out for a walk. When he returns he sneaks into Juliana’s apartments; Miss Tina is asleep. He looks around, trying to ascertain the location of the letters. He hears a sound, turns, and sees Julian Bordereau...
(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 no longer plain. She mentions nothing about his being discovered by her aunt. She tells him how her aunt died, and how she would now like to take some kind of journey. He does not ask her what she will do to provide for herself. The next morning he visits her again to ask about the fate of the letters. She says that there were a great many more letters than she had thought, but she cannot give them to him. She gives him instead the small portrait of Jeffrey Aspern. He says that he cannot keep it, but she insists, stating that he can perhaps sell it. He refuses to sell it, as it is worth more than any amount of money it may fetch. As for the letters, Miss Tina says she prevented Juliana from burning them, but she cannot let him see them, unless he were some kind of relation. By her hints he realizes that she is suggesting that, if they were married, whatever possessions she had, including the letters, would become his. The narrator says only that he will try to sell the portrait and send her the money, and then he leaves. He wanders around, unable to bear the thought of marriage to such a plain, middle-aged woman for the sake of his letters.
After a night’s sleep, however, he awakens to the desire for the letters more than anything. He writes to Miss Tina, asking if he may come to see her, to which she agrees. Returning to the palazzo, he looks at her with new eyes, seeing a new beauty that had not been there previously. He believes that he can willingly marry her, for the sake of the letters. Before he can speak, Miss Tina wishes him good-bye, as she will see him no more. She tells him that she has destroyed all the letters. He cannot believe it, and immediately the beauty he thought was there disappears,...
(The entire section is 914 words.)