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Henry James: The Aspern Papers

ImageTo round off the Mystery Week, we have a different sort of mystery, where people die but nobody’s murdered, and the only crime is overzealous curiosity. Do the dead have a right to privacy? Does every extant scrap of intimate knowledge about historical figures belong to the public? Is it actually condemnable to hide, and even destroy, information that might shed light on biographical mysteries?

At which point, exactly, does a deceased human being become public property?

In The Aspern Papers (1888), Henry James was clearly inspired by Claire Clairmont: stepsister to Mary Shelley and Fanny Wollstonecraft, mother to Lord Byron’s daughter Allegra, and alleged lover to Percy Bysshe Shelley. Clairmont famously had a bunch of Shelley’s letters, much coveted by others.

The narrator of the novella is a devotee of Jeffrey Aspern, a famous American poet of the early 19th century, who had died young. The elderly Juliana Bordereau had once been Aspern’s lover; she is reputedly in possession of his love-letters, which are much coveted by Aspern scholars and biographers. To the narrator, these historically significant papers are nothing short of an obsession. Juliana leads a secluded life in Venice with her middle-aged spinster niece, Miss Tina, and the narrator has a plan: he rents rooms in their oversized, dilapidated palazzo, and tries to wheedle, flatter, and bribe his way into Juliana’s confidence. Juliana sees through the narrator, and she and he both try to manipulate each other. The awkward and naive Miss Tina, on the other hand, trusts and likes him a bit too much . . .

This is a strange, atmospheric story where nothing much happens outwardly – a lot of the time the narrator is simply biding his time, waiting for the ladies to react to his advances, and wondering how to proceed next – but on the inside, he is sinking lower in his own estimation and coming up with justifications for his lies and (attempted) thievery. The atmosphere is built by hypnotic long paragraphs and beautiful turns of phrase: for example, the two ladies live in a palazzo that ‘had an air of not so much of decay as of quiet discouragement, as if it had rather missed its career’.

(Again, you can find an e-text of the novella on Project Gutenberg – the following will contain spoilers.)

I’m afraid I’m writing this review too soon, as I haven’t even begun to understand The Aspern Papers completely. One thing I have yet to grasp properly about it is its mythological aspects. It can be no coincidence that Juliana always appears, like some kind of an oracle or human basilisk, with a piece of fabric covering her ‘extraordinary eyes’ that are only seen once, at a pivotal point in the story. She is like a monster guarding a treasure, further emphasised by her ‘acquisitive propensity’ – much to the narrator’s disgust, Aspern’s former muse hoards gold as well as letters. Miss Tina, on the other hand, is the strangest character of all: some people call her the true heroine of the story, but I think she’s tragically stuck in a role to which she’s unsuited. She’s not a beautiful princess, waiting to be rescued from captivity; but her efforts at carving out her own destiny are even more ineffectual. She’d be right at home as a good-hearted spinster aunt in a different book; here, she is simply out of place in her own life, helpless and friendless. This air of ineffectuality is partly owing to the way the character is built. She’s in the habit of repeating the things she says, sounding like a child or a person with a particularly slow mind; and her personality is often hidden and subdued with indirect speech: ‘I mentioned I had been waiting for her and she asked why I hadn’t let her know.’

The narrator is so blinded by his single-minded pursuit of the letters that he can’t see the tantalising possibilities right in front of him. To him, Miss Tina is a marginal figure of pity; it doesn’t seem to occur to him even to speculate that, instead of being Juliana’s niece, she might actually be the latter’s daughter by Aspern. Nowhere in the novella is this clearly hinted at (or at least I couldn’t find any such clear hints, and believe me, I tried hard to see them!) but I think the miniature portrait of Jeffrey Aspern, one of Juliana’s ‘knick-knacks’, might be key to something. Juliana offers to sell the portrait to him, at an extortionate price, and Miss Tina finally gives it to him as a present (though he, to his credit, eventually pays for it). On both occasions when he looks at the portrait, Miss Tina is present; but it never even occurs to him to compare Aspern’s features to hers.

The novella reveals that, for all his idolatry, the narrator doesn’t really understand the object of his obsession, Jeffrey Aspern, as a human being. Though he is at first awed by her company, he soon dismisses the old lady as a money-grubbing hag, and fails to understand how Jeffrey Aspern might have loved her once. Thus he also fails to recognise the humanity of his idol (which is probably why he fails to entertain the possibility that Aspern might have fathered such an insipid woman as Miss Tina?). Indeed, his failure to understand might even be read as a refusal to understand. Juliana is the last living link to Jeffrey Aspern, but the narrator can’t wait for her to die, so that he might get his hand on the letters and start constructing his own version of Aspern from the written documents. Isn’t there something rather perverse about that?

The women are a means to an end: Juliana is an old dragon guarding a treasure, Miss Tina a simple-minded creature who exists only to be manipulated by the narrator. In the end, he briefly sees another side to Miss Tina, but the very next moment she returns to her usual drab self, and the moment only serves to underscore his blindness.

The more I try to analyse The Aspern Papers, the more peculiar the tale appears. With its strangely anti-climactic ending, this isn’t the story of a man who goes too far in his obsession: the narrator’s ultimate problem is that he doesn’t go far enough. By his own standards, he fails in his commitment to his idol. As Miss Tina’s husband, he would get unlimited access to the papers, but he can’t bring himself to marry ‘a ridiculous pathetic provincial old woman’. He then changes his mind, in a half-hearted sort of way, but it’s too late: Miss Tina has already burnt the letters, the secrets are already lost for good. The narrator has a conscience, albeit a weak one, and a modicum of self-respect. Perhaps biographical mysteries can only be solved by those who are consumed by their subject to the point that they have neither?

The narrator’s failure to reciprocate Miss Tina’s (vaguely defined) feelings for him is closely linked to his failure to appreciate transcendental experiences: the papers are, ultimately, just papers – a MacGuffin – and it is unclear what exactly the narrator expects to find in them. He speaks vaguely about something to illuminate some of Aspern’s finest poems, but there is after all the possibility the letters might contain even more interesting information, something the narrator can’t guess at: Miss Tina’s true parentage . . . (Sorry, I keep harping on this!)

Finally, The Aspern Papers says something fundamental about mysteries. For all its beauty and fascination, this was actually one of the least satisfying books I’ve ever read – an anti-mystery, if you will. It builds suspense, and then fails to provide satisfactory answers. Well, not only satisfactory answers: to be honest, it fails to provide any answers at all.

Surely this is also the problem with biography-writing in general: a whole lot of theories, not enough evidence, and the people who could tell us more are usually long gone?

(The version I read was in The Aspern Papers and Other Stories, Oxford World’s Classics, ISBN: 0199538557, but the novella can be read online.)

5 comments on “Henry James: The Aspern Papers

  1. Jackie
    April 26, 2013

    Oh my, the narrator sounds like a thoroughly unpleasant person and I’m glad that he didn’t succeed in getting his hands on the letters, though it pains me to think of letters, especially love letters, being burnt. It also seems a waste for someone to idolize someone, yet not make an effort to understand them as a person. Makes the narrator even more slimy.
    I’d never heard of this work before & have gone & downloaded it from Project Gutenberg, though I don’t know how I’ll tolerate that horrid narrator.

  2. Jane Steen (@janesteen)
    April 26, 2013

    This has always been one of my favorite James stories. But I’d never seen the paternity angle!

  3. Hilary
    April 28, 2013

    Leena, thank you for such a splendid and illuminating review of a book that inspires in me similar feelings to those it inspires in you. The difference is – you have managed to articulate them brilliantly, whereas the best I have ever managed is a resounding ‘Gaah!’ An inarticulate rage at the lack of a satisfactory outcome, my loathing of the protagonists, mingled pity and contempt for Miss Tina in which finally pity wins for me.

    Why I, actually, class it among the more satisfactory books I’ve read is because I find it good to be reminded of certain things – for instance that characters of fame, note and achievement are not necessarily nice, kind or pleasant – or large-minded for that matter (I was having this conversation very recently about William Shakespeare, who seems to have a bit of a mean git in many ways). So there is a pleasurable frisson to have expectations of heroic attributes confounded in the narrator (remind me – does he have a name?) who is an obsessive deceiver, and Miss Bourdereau, who is a deeply unpleasant person now, whatever she was like when the romantic lover of the poet romantically snatched away by death. Oh, and neither had I thought of the paternity theory! So, thank you for that too.

  4. Amateur Reader (Tom)
    April 29, 2013

    When I read the book I puzzled a bit over whether there is any way to pin down the niece’s paternity, and my conclusion was like yours – no. Presumably the author saw this angle, but he preferred the ambiguity to a solved puzzle.

    I have come across one scholar who pushes the idea a step farther – that the so-called niece is actually the aunt’s daughter by the poet. Maybe so!

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This entry was posted on April 26, 2013 by in Entries by Leena, Fiction: 19th century, Fiction: literary, Uncategorized.



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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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