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.)