By Amelia Curran (1775-1849) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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 http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/25/books/review/Letters-t-OFHARDIERSTU_LETTERS.html
The novella begins with our narrator travelling to Venice in the hopes of finding various unpublished letters of the famed poet Jeffrey Aspern, which he believes to be possessed by Juliana Bordereau. The narrator keeps his plans to find the letters a secret from Juliana, instead telling her that he wants to live in one of her apartments, and plans to get closer to the letters by becoming romantically involved with Miss Tina, Juliana’s niece.
The narrator eventually trusts Miss Tina by telling her the reason he’s come there, and realizing that his affection towards her is entirely dependent on his goal to find the letters, she agrees to help him obtain them.
Juliana later becomes sick, and the narrator takes the opportunity to try and steal them from her room, but she’s woken up while he attempts to do so. She calls him out on his intentions before collapsing from her illness, and the narrator decides to run.
He returns some time later and discovers that Juliana has died. Miss Tina tells him that he can have the letters if he agrees to marry her. He refuses the concept of marrying her, but eventually changes his mind. Instead, when he finds Miss Tina she tells him that she personally burnt all of Jeffrey Aspern’s letters, one by one. The novella ends with us never being shown the papers the narrator so desperately sought, and we’re left unsure whether the letters were truly destroyed by her.
To a large extent, the novella is about the narrator’s strange obsession with Jeffrey Aspern. The narrator’s language when describing the story is highly indicative of his idolization of Aspern and his fascination with finding anything that has to do with him. It’s the narrator’s only motivation, and it’s what propels the events of the story forward.
The Aspern Papers has a double-climax, something not very common in most stories. When the narrator is discovered by Juliana before he attempts to go through her desk, we as readers get the feeling that the story may be coming to an end soon, however, we then reach a second climax of the story when Miss Tina reveals that she’s burned the letters.
This story, like many other works by Henry James, is largely focused on its characters, and their development and motivations are what moves the narrative forward for most of the novella. The narrator is continuously characterized, as everything we’re reading is from his viewpoint, and the bulk of the story focuses on his views of and interactions with Juliana Bordereau and Miss Tina.
As events in the story progress, we see pivotal changes in the way that characters are described and how the narrator is characterized based on his descriptions of them. For almost all of the novella, the narrator describes the letters as something great and almost intangible, yet when he’s learned that they’ve been burnt, he changes his mind-state and even refers to them as “scraps”. Similarly, when the narrator sees Miss Tina as the means to attaining the letters for himself, he views her as being attractive, but when she burns them and no longer serves that role, she again becomes plain and relatively unattractive.
Despite staying in the head of the narrator throughout the story, it’s arguable that he’s something of a villain, as all of his intentions seem to be dishonest (the bad nature of his actions being epitomized when he attempts to steal the letters). Miss Tina is more of a hero of the story, having realized that her attempt to coerce marriage from him was wrong, and more importantly having burned the letters that were at the root of such an unhealthy fascination.
The Invasion of Privacy
Henry James was infamously guarded in his private life, supposedly even having destroyed several letters sent to him by those close to him and asking them to do the same in the ones he sent to them. The narrator is portrayed as a dishonest and almost pathetic character, and his sole ambition in the novella is to pry into the private life of Jeffrey Aspern.
Miss Tina is strongly suggested as having done the right thing by denying the narrator the letters he’d sought, and Juliana calling him a “publishing scoundrel” is strongly indicative of how the story views the narrator’s attempt at invading Aspern’s privacy.
The Protégé vs. The Master
Throughout many of James’ works, one can often identify the theme of a new, younger, abrasive ideology or individual (often one in the same) juxtaposed with an older, experienced teacher. This novel perpetuates this theme with the advent of an overbearing literary historian attempting to ascertain information from his most beloved, masterful poet.
Unbeknownst to the narrator, 19th century Venice proves to be a rather un-eco-friendly environment. The façade of a gardener was hastily chosen by our untrustworthy protagonist as a mode of entry into the lives of the two women. As he eventually discovers, not only will the garden prove to be a money sink, but it will also fail in charming his adversary Miss Bordereau. Normally, a garden may symbolize growth or purity---a place where, if cultivated properly, life and hope may flourish. However, James shows us that for our narrator, this garden proves to be the opposite. To cultivate something in an environment where it cannot grow is unnatural and, even though the garden thrives, our narrator’s purpose does not, in effect proving the insincerity of the speaker’s intentions.
Considering the novella is centered on the lost papers of Jeffrey Aspern, it is worth entertaining them as a motif in themselves. They are constantly on the mind of our narrator and, though we do not gain access into the mind of Miss Bordereau, they may very well be in hers too. The papers can be representative of almost any tangible leftovers from an artist. It is peculiar, however, that the portrait of Jeffrey Aspern, which the narrator eventually purchases from his landlord, proves to pale in comparison to Aspern’s letters. One would think that if this historian were interested in the relics of Aspern, then any would suffice. The letters remain distinct from the portrait till the bitter end, even being shadowed completely by the loss of the papers.