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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.

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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 to return in the evening and request an interview with Tita the next day. As she enters the room, he beholds her transformed (by his imagination) and realizes that he is indeed willing to “pay the price,” as he puts it. He has come too late, however, for Tita has already destroyed the papers. In a fine touch of cruelty, worthy of the dead Juliana, Tita discloses that she burned them one at a time and that consequently “It took a long time—there were so many.”

Doubtless, this story resonates with James’s fears as a writer of having his bones picked over after death, but the tale’s power derives less from this personal anxiety, which many writers have experienced, than from its taut plot with its delineation of cunning and calculation. The unscrupulous editor is, finally, no match for the wily Juliana, nor even for the suddenly crafty Tita—or has Tita’s guile been here all along? Has she been a willing accomplice to Juliana’s machinations? The tale leaves this as a tantalizing possibility. Like Aspern’s letters, which are never actually produced, the contents of Tita’s consciousness remain an insoluble mystery to the end.


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(The entire section contains 1527 words.)

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