One of the most enduringly popular of Henry James’s shorter fictions, The Aspern Papers was first published in serial form in the American journal Atlantic from March to May 1888. Its central theme concerns the attempt by the story’s anonymous narrator—an American literary historian—to procure documents relating to the life of an imaginary expatriate American romantic- era poet named Jeffery Aspern. These documents (chiefly love letters), he believes, are in the possession of Aspern’s former mistress Juliana Bordereau, who, now elderly and very infirm, lives alone with her middle- aged niece in a crumbling palazzo in Venice. Taking advantage of the two women’s financial straits, the narrator installs himself as a boarder in their home, hoping to find a means of obtaining the papers, if necessary after Juliana’s death. But the stress of waiting proves to be too much for the narrator, who eventually succumbs to the temptations of proximity and attempts to steal the letters. He is caught in the act by Juliana herself, who denounces him as a “publishing scoundrel.” The only alternative offered to him is the suggestion by the younger Miss Bordereau that he join the family, by marrying her and thereby gain legitimate access to the papers. Although he has trifled with her affections, the narrator refuses to marry a “ridiculous, pathetic, provincial old woman” to gain his ends. Instead, he flees Venice, and the precious papers are painstakingly burnt one by one.
The story, with its mixture of comic, gothic, and realist elements, has intrigued critics since the time of its publication. First, the identities of James’s characters and the broad outline of his story parallel certain facts surrounding the history of Claire Clairmont, former mistress of the infamous romantic poet Lord Byron (1788–1824). In old age, Clairmont accepted an American lodger named Captain Silsbee, who was himself in pursuit of papers pertaining to Byron and his fellow poet Percy Shelley. James included these details in his notebook, but his alterations to the original story he had heard are important and give some indication of the tale’s wider significance. For example, James relocates the story from Florence to Venice, using Venice’s blend of cosmopolitanism, historical continuities, and unique landscape as a metaphor for his questioning of the priorities of literary criticism and the importance of privacy even among public figures. Venice’s palaces, outwardly austere and inward-looking, mask the private gardens inside which, like the secret lives of the inhabitants, provide the literal and figurative means by which the narrator gains admittance to the Bordereaus. Likewise, the narrator’s anonymity (and pseudonymity) contrasts with the scrutiny he intends to give the lives of his hostess and her dead lover. Last, James’s model for Aspern himself has caused much speculation, though the truth is probably that James created him as a kind of hybrid figure, representative of many literary figures whose works have fostered ruthless investigations into their authors’ private lives.
Klujeff, Marie Lund. “The Shades of Tone: The Narrator’s Tone of Voice in Henry James’s ‘The Aspern Papers.’ ” In Reinventions of the Novel: Histories and Aesthetics of a Protean Genre, edited by Karen-Margrethe Simonsen, Marianne Ping Huang, and Mads Rosendahl Thomson, 191–202. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2004.
James, Henry. The Aspern Papers and Other Stories. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Reeve, N. H., ed. Henry James: The Shorter Fiction: Reassessments. Basingstoke, England. Macmillan, 1997.