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"'Who should I be afraid of if I'm not afraid of you?'" (James, 65) - Juliana Bordereau

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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Form is Content

Plot Synopsis

Plot Analysis



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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 is 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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Discussion Questions





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Map of Venice

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Annotated Map

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We view the world of Henry James’ 19th century Venetian society through the eyes of an unnamed, American editor. Like any good critic, our narrator has a rather precocious talent for meddling in other people’s affairs. Under the guise of a gardener, he invades the dilapidated property of Mrs. Bordereau, a decrepit old lover of Jeffrey Aspern, in a greedy attempt to ascertain any living relics of his most coveted poet. Often throughout the novella, our narrator refers to Aspern’s memorabilia as “spoils” in what he declares early on to be a “game”. Self-entitled and monomaniacal as he is, our narrator fails to realize that his façade is discovered fairly early on, as the women prove to be one step ahead of his rouse. Eventually, he degrades to the point of stealing and, after getting caught by Mrs. Bordereau, he acknowledges the letters to be merely “crumpled scraps”.

Juliana Bordereau

“She was very small and shrunken, bent forward, with her hands in her lap. She was dressed in black, and her head was wrapped in a piece of old black lace which showed no hair” (James, 60)

Our antagonist in the novella, Mrs. Bordereau, proves to be a suitable counterpart to the narrator. Her megalomania and narcissism coupled with the “horrible green shade which, for her, served almost as a mask” similarly mirrors the narrator’s ‘mask’ of a gardener (James, 60). Though she seems at first to be incompetent, the reader will quickly realize that it is she who controls the every whim of the narrator and, by extension, the plot. She befuddles his early attempts to ascertain the whereabouts of Aspern’s letters by denying him conversation; however, she eventually gives him rites only to wave a portrait in his face and inquire for more money. At the same time the narrators mask falls and he rummages through her belongings, so too are Mrs. Bordereau’s eyes finally revealed and her piercing gaze sends the narrator to walk the countryside in shame. Though it is unclear why she maintains such a stern grasp on Aspern’s letters, the reader may speculate that she was but one of many lovers the poet charmed.

Miss Tina

“Her face was not young, but it was candid; it was not fresh, but it was clear. She had large eyes which were not bright, and a great deal of hair which was not ‘dressed’, and long fine hands which were--possibly--not clean” (James 55-56)

The niece of the antagonist, and ultimately the final barrier the narrator must overcome in order to gain access to Aspern’s relics, Miss Tina proves to be a simple, albeit pivotal, character in the novella. Her plain demeanor and dialogue makes her easy prey for the narrator. He first sees her as not an obstacle, but a tool to be used in order to gain credence with Juliana. In fact, the narrator eventually becomes so comfortable with Miss Tina that he divulges his entire scheme to her in confidence. Eventually, after the death of Juliana, Miss Tina attempts to coerce the narrator into marriage via a cryptic and poignant speech. However, though the narrator facetiously purports to “make love to the niece” in the opening chapter, he later flees from the opportunity in yet another moment of cowardice, resulting in the burning of Aspern’s papers.

Mrs. Prest

“Mrs Prest knew nothing about the papers, but was interested in my curiosity, as always in the joys and sorrows of her friends” (James, 46)

Mrs. Prest serves as a flat character, whose only function is to encourage the pursuits of the narrator. She is only seen in two chapters and is never mentioned outside of them. Her plot-function is simply that of instigation, as she provides the narrator with the idea of subterfuge.

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Scholarly Articles


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