Henry James: The Aspern Papers
Penguin Popular Classics 1994 (1888)
Miss Juliana Bordereau lives with her niece Miss Tina in a run-down Venetian palazzo; it is here that a literary researcher — nameless throughout this novella — manages to track the pair down and inveigle them into letting him stay as a lodger. His ulterior motive is to gain access to any papers rumoured to exist pertaining to the late American poet Jeffrey Aspern, all for eventual publication.
Nine chapters detail the narrator’s underhand machinations, first to pull to wool over the eyes of the elder Miss Bordereau and secondly to gain the confidence of Miss Tina. James conjures up a kind of apologue or moral fable from what initially appears to be a factual first-person account but which increasingly makes us suspect the researcher is an unreliable narrator.
Despite the shortness of the tale the reader is party to a slow build-up which, eventually, leads to not one but two climaxes. Like a Greek tragedy a short prologue precedes our introduction to the narrator’s chief interests, the two spinsters. There follows a series of choreographed episodes where he tries to insinuate himself with Juliana, to little apparent avail, until first one, then another unexpected event takes place, leaving the narrator a sadder and, one hopes, a wiser man. He doesn’t much evoke our sympathy except when his prevarication results in no-one getting what they want; mostly he sails pretty close to the wind, displaying not just a ruthless but a reckless streak.
The two biddies are no more sympathetic, Juliana surmising his intentions early on and playing an equally duplicitous game, while Tina — isolated for most of her life and so relatively innocent in the wiles of the world — is vulnerable to the narrator’s manipulative approach and therefore liable to rash action when she feels rejected. The motive for all this intrigue is made explicit from the start: Juliana had an affair with Jeffrey Aspern in her youth and is assumed to still have correspondence and papers from that period but refused point blank to discuss it with the narrator’s colleague, hence the subterfuge. The narrator claims an interest in restoring the palazzo’s neglected garden, a parallel with his own attempt to cultivate a friendship with the two women. To continue the gardening metaphor, Juliana seems to want to, as it were, espalier the narrator by testing the narrator’s financial resources and arranging for Tina to spend time with him, all in the hopes of Tina being comfortably set up after her aunt’s decease.
Henry James is known to have based the kernel of his plot on a real story. A certain Claire Clairmont died in Florence in 1879 at the age of eighty, less than a decade before this novella appeared. Clairmont’s fame largely rests on her being the half-sister of the author of Frankenstein and sometime lover of Lord Byron, though she herself led an interesting life on her own account, travelling around Europe and Russia. Allegra, her daughter by Byron, died in Venice of typhus in 1822 at the tender age of five; many years later Claire moved to Florence in 1870 where with a niece, Paulina, she remained till her death, reputedly in possession of much Shelley memorabilia and apparently very embittered with both Shelley and Byron. Henry James will certainly have known about various attempts to get her to part with her keepsakes and manuscripts.
It’s no real surprise that things end badly, with virtually no-one coming out of this episode well. All this plays out against a Venetian backdrop, the author’s descriptions emphasising the city’s shabbiness overlain by a superficial brightness as typified by the Piazza San Marco; all in all, this Venice is a perfect metaphor for the narrator’s supposed high-minded quest for literary insights concealing lowdown subterfuge. Miss Bordereau gets to the dark heart of the narrator’s guile with her furious exclamation, “Ah, you publishing scoundrel!”
The plot of Donna Leon’s Venetian mystery The Jewels of Paradise was also predicated on sought-after lost papers, but she was only one of many authors to assiciate dark deeds with the Queen of the Adriatic. Henry James himself characterised Venice as a place with “endless strange secrets”; famous for its bocche dei leoni, letterboxes in which accusations of crime were posted, Venice would naturally have appealed to James as a setting for a novella of intrigue, lies and death. In an example of life copying art, the author’s own correspondence was carefully guarded by his surviving relatives, anxious to preserve James’ reputation by avoiding any hint of his sexual leanings.
Did I enjoy The Aspern Papers? Perhaps “enjoy” isn’t the right word: I certainly admire it for its sustained suspense, its tight focus on a handful of protagonists and its claustrophobic atmosphere. But I found it hard to empathise with any of the characters (as I suspect was the intention) despite — or maybe because of — their very human failings; and in that respect the air of regret, of lost opportunities, of decay and of bitterness that concludes the book was the only possible outcome.
In the Ultimate Reading Challenge this book fits the category ‘A Victorian Novel’; a film starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Joely Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave (Richardson’s mother) is currently in post production.
This is my 700th post, a milestone of sorts