The Aspern Papers

by Henry James

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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...

(This entire section contains 450 words.)

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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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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 critical, domineering aunt. When the editor takes her into his confidence, she considers ways to make the papers available to him, yet even when her aunt becomes ill and lies semiconscious in her bed, Tita is controlled by her. Despite the editor’s wooing, Tita is hesitant to look for the papers; her timidity frustrates the editor, whose impatience impels him to act.

Angry at Juliana’s manipulations and Tita’s cowardice, the editor disregards their privacy and makes up his mind to steal the papers. Already a liar and a con man, he does not scruple to become a thief. Aware that his actions are morally suspect, the editor nevertheless defends himself by claiming, “I think it was the worst thing I did; yet there were extenuating circumstances.” He creeps into Juliana’s room and approaches the desk where he knows the papers are concealed; as he reaches out to open her desk, he hears a noise and turns to find Juliana glaring at him furiously. She condemns him as a “publishing scoundrel” and falls into a dead faint.

Appalled, the editor flees from Venice, but returns after some days when he hears that Juliana is dead. He decides to appeal once again to Tita, and is surprised to discover that she has acquired some of her aunt’s subtlety. Glad to see him, Tita explains that she has saved the papers from her aunt, who tried in her last moments to burn them. Yet Tita does not feel right about simply handing over the papers to the editor. She suggests that her aunt, who tried to provide for Tita’s future by collecting exorbitant rent, would understand if Tita shared the papers with a husband. Faced with the implications of his romantic charade, the editor panics, leaving Tita in confusion. At last, he seems about to recognize the extent of his obsession: “I could not, for a bundle of tattered papers, marry a ridiculous, pathetic, provincial old woman.” He wishes he had never heard of the papers and thinks himself strange for caring so much about them. Freed from his only desire, he becomes suddenly aware of Venice, for the first time acknowledging the delight of his surroundings.

Yet this reprieve from his fanatical idea is only temporary. He suddenly becomes more determined than ever to obtain the papers and returns to Tita determined to do whatever is necessary to achieve his goal. In this frame of mind, he sees Tita—who receives him without reproach—as almost angelic, altered by her forgiveness into a younger, more lovely being. In short, he begins to believe he could marry her, and that Aspern, were he alive, would approve his actions. Tita, however, has finally recognized the hypocritical nature of the man. Humiliated by him, she rises above him morally at the end by destroying the weapon he has used against her—the papers. Slowly, determinedly, she has burned everything, taking a long time, she notes, because there was so much. Her revenge for being manipulated is complete, and the editor leaves Venice with nothing but bitterness and chagrin.


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