The Aspern Papers by Henry James, 1888

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THE ASPERN PAPERS
by Henry James, 1888

Published first in 1888 and revised for Henry James's Novels and Tales 20 years later, The Aspern Papers is a novella with a suspenseful plot, characters who embody qualities inherent in James's greatest fiction, and a first-person narrative form. In his preface to the New York edition James attributes the "germ" of his narrative to an anecdote about a biographer who attempted to persuade the half-sister of Shelley's wife to entrust him with highly personal letters that Shelley had written to her years before, only to discover that his marrying the lady's niece would be part of her "bargain." James altered his story to make the poet an American, Jeffrey Aspern, a romantic writer of Nathaniel Hawthorne's generation. The biographer and first-person narrator is an American literary critic who idolizes Aspern much as James did Hawthorne. Famous for his international fiction, James located the ensuing events in Venice.

Miss Juliana Bordereau, the elderly spinster who was once the object of Aspern's passionate intentions and is now a disagreeable recluse, conceals under a sinister green visor the only vestige of her former beauty—her clear, fierce-looking eyes. The biographer/narrator has chosen an alias in order to inveigle his way into the Bordereau household. He never reveals his assumed name or his real one to the reader, although he confesses it late in the story to the younger Miss Bordereau. Miss Tina, the niece (called Miss Tita in the New York edition), is the story's one innocent person. Lonely and reclusive by necessity, she is depicted as being neither intelligent, nor beautiful, nor young. Yet she has the spirit to become engaged in life and to offer her love and trust to the narrator. Like Catherine Sloper in James's Washington Square, she is a dull, good person, capable of ardor and loyalty, who is betrayed by a callow, self-interested male. Rejected by those whose love they are most eager to claim (Catherine by her father and Morris Townsend; Tina by her aunt and the narrator), they nevertheless survive rejection without embitterment or loss of dignity.

Juliana claims to have her niece's interests in mind when she extorts a high fee for renting her rooms to the narrator, but significantly Tina comments after the old lady's death that she was neither "just nor generous." Justice and generosity are essential virtues in a rounded Jamesian character which none of his truly admirable protagonists lack. The conflict in this international tale does not occur between Europeans and Americans but within a group of Americans who exploit the legendary past of a dead compatriot for their own gain.

James, who valued both the moral and the aesthetic sense, recognized that individuals with exquisite tact and artistic sensibilities were capable of moral insensitivity. The narrator professes a great love of Aspern's poetry and also appreciates the beauty of Venice, but he is willing to manipulate two vulnerable women, to exploit their friendship without concern for their privacy or emotional needs.

Like Hawthorne, James often used garden settings to allude to the myth of Eden. Here he unexpectedly places a garden inside the walls of a dilapidated Venetian palazzi in which the narrator, as a paid lodger, will grow flowers for the Bordereau women. Claiming that he will "work the garden" as part of his strategy for gaining their confidence, the narrator identifies himself to the reader as a satanic tempter, and he ultimately enlists the younger lady's assistance in obtaining the papers. Miss Tina mistakes his familiarities as courtship rituals. The garden itself, unexpected in a city constantly threatened by watery erosion, is reminiscent of a Hawthorne tale such as "Rappaccini's Daughter." One senses that perversity and tragedy will result from its cultivation. Hidden from all but a handful of people, the garden parallels the isolation of the narrator, the Bordereaus, and perhaps James the author, who may have paid the cost of his privacy with a limiting emotional isolation.

What secrets did James take to his grave and at what price of personal fulfillment? The lonely bachelors of his later fiction often came to an awareness of what they had missed in life. John Marcher at May Bartram's graveside in "The Beast in the Jungle" is a prime example. Critic Millicent Bell has suggested that subtle changes in The Aspern Papers for the New York edition indicate that the narrator might have come to recognize the opportunity for love and trust he had squandered. While in the original version the narrator concluded, "When I look at it, my chagrin at the loss of the letters becomes almost intolerable," James alters his confession in the New York edition: "When I look at it I can scarcely bear my loss—I mean of the precious papers." The subtext of his remark is that he recognizes too late the absence of emotional commitment in his life.

Although James is often grouped with authors such as William Dean Howells as a realist, he also shares traits of writers in the romantic and naturalistic modes. Juliana Bordereau regards her love affair with the late Jeffrey Aspern as the defining moment of her life. After his death she secludes herself, preserving Aspern's love letters as if they are sacred relics. Eschewing publicity or even the opportunity to document her importance to the poet in terms of literary posterity, she inhabits the empty stage of her own romantic drama of the imagination. When she makes contact with the real world at all it is as an imperious manipulating spinster with a secret, thrilling past arranging a marriage for her lonely niece. But James also appreciates the inevitability of Juliana's self-entrapment. A woman not only immortalized but also compromised by Aspern's verses, Juliana becomes less than respectable, a woman about whom the narrator says, "there hovered about her name a perfume of reckless passion, an intimation that she had not been exactly as the respectable young person in general."

The narrator, having devoted himself to the canonization of Jeffrey Aspern, imagines that the late poet appears to him as a ghost, encouraging him in his quest for the love letters which he perceives as a heroic exploit rather than a self-serving intrusion. At one point the obliging spirit of Aspern encourages the narrator to extremes of expedience, pleading "get out of it as you can, dear fellow." When Miss Tina realizes that the narrator feels marrying her may be too high a price to pay for Aspern's letters, she burns them and tells the narrator she no longer wishes to see him. She has freed him of an unwanted obligation and herself of a temptation to barter documents for the illusion of being loved—a paradigm of the Jamesian renunciation.

Even though James suggests that the protagonists of The Aspern Papers spin romantic fantasies at the same time they are capable of moral choice, he is sympathetic to circumstances of their lives that inhibit them as free agents. Like a character in naturalistic fiction, the narrator is psychologically incapable of participating fully in life. He is one of James's "marginal" males in that he has been consigned to a sexually ambivalent limbo, less interested in pursuing women as sexual partners than in venerating a dead poet's youthful exploits with a now elderly Juliana. The old lady's opportunities for marriage would surely have been diminished by the notoriety of her affair. Finally, her niece has been isolated by her limited circle of acquaintances, her plainness, and her financial dependency on her elderly relative. While James's plot contains adventurous episodes, the outcome of his extended anecdote seems inevitable. The story of The Aspern Papers reveals James's artistic mastery of many fictional modes and may also be a parable of his refusal to expose his own vulnerabilities. Its lasting appeal is verified by Dominick Argento's opera adaptation, performed in New York in 1990.

—Kimball King