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.
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.)
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.)