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James' Inspiration

Henry James' “The Aspern Papers” was inspired by a true story he overhead while in Italy. Captain Edward Augustus Silsbee was a retired mariner and devotee of the poet Percy Shelley. Shelley was close with Lord Byron, and wrote several of his greatest works while in Byron's company. The Shelleys were introduced to Byron through his mistress, Claire Clairmont, the stepsister of Mary Shelley. Clairmont long outlived Percy Shelley, becoming more reclusive by the year and shutting herself in with her middle-aged niece Pauline. Silsbee believed that Clairmont possessed rare documents that would shed light on Shelley and Byron's relationship.

Silsbee traveled to her home in Florence, Italy, renting rooms with hopes “that the old lady in view of her age and failing condition would die while he was there, so that he might then put his hand upon the documents” (Berendt). Clairmont died during Silsbee's stay, and after her death he revealed his desire for the documents to Pauline. As in James' tale, the niece offered her hand in marriage in exchange for the documents. Silsbee fled, never to return.

The narrator in the novella was not a retired captain, but a “publishing scoundrel”. James found inspiration for this character within himself while struggling with the ethics of his intrusive biography of writer Nathaniel Hawthorne. Gary Scharhorts delves into this subject with detail in “James, 'The Aspern Papers,' and the Ethics of Literary Biography”.

The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt

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Film variations of Henry James' novella remain in obscurity, but three are relatively well-known:

The Lost Moment (1947)
Director: Martin Gabel
“The Lost Moment” is a black-and-white drama film set in Venice. It is a sweeping, romantic drama that focuses on the relationship between the American publisher (who is given a name, Lewis Venable) and Tina Bordereau. The film takes liberty with James' story, transforming it into a provocative, psychological thriller. Tina becomes a madwoman who falls into hallucinations wherein she believes that she is Juliana and Lewis is the poet Jeffrey Aspern. She is also shown as a heartless lunatic, violently beating her maid Amelia off screen for keeping a cat in the house. The film also diverges with Juliana's final climatic scene where she admits that she murdered Jeffrey in a desperate act of passion: “I killed him. I killed him. He was going to leave me, and I killed him.” Tina faints, scattering the letters across the floor. Lewis carries her outside, and Juliana attempts to seize the letters. She knocks a candle to the floor in the process and sets the room ablaze. The fire engulfs the palazzo, Juliana and the letters perishing within. Unlike the novella, the publisher was able to read the letters before they burned.
“The Lost Moment” is also aware of the anecdote which inspired James' novella. At the start of the movie, the camera pans over a portrait of Percy Shelley, the real-life Jeffrey Aspern.

Aspern (1985)
Director: Eduardo de Gregorio
There is not much information available online for this film, but it worth noting for its complete change in scenery. “Aspern” is filmed in a sunny Portugal village with French dialogue.

The Aspern Papers (2010)
Director: Mariana Hellmund
“The Aspern Papers” is currently screening at film festivals worldwide, awaiting DVD release. Hellmund has transplanted James' story from decaying Venice to modern-day Choroni, Venezuela, a colorful place alive with Caribbean culture. Many adaptations use James' revised name “Tina” for the character of the niece, but this film gives her the original “Tita”.


Aspern Papers (1988)
Composer: Dominick Argento
“Aspern Papers” is often seen as an awkward adaptation because it takes James' nuanced writing which focuses on the details of dialogue, and transplants it onto the grandeur of the opera stage. The setting is moved from Venice to Lake Como, where Jeffrey Aspern drowns like the real Percy Shelley. The Lodger in “Aspern Papers” is after a long-lost opera “Medea”, which embodied the love between Aspern and Juliana. Juliana is once again portrayed as a jealous lover who aided in Aspern's drowning. Argento gives temporality to the performance by creating flashback scenes to Juliana's youth.


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