Henry James – The Aspern Papers

‘The Aspern Papers’ is a tale involving three main characters, an unnamed male narrator, Juliana Bordereau, a very old lady, and her niece, Miss Tina. The tale is set in Venice and it was first published in 1888. The narrator is a biographer, whose main object of study is the poet Jeffrey Aspern. To him, Jeffrey Aspern is something of a deity, which is expressed in the following sentiment

One doesn’t defend one’s god: one’s god is in himself a defence.

When Juliana was still a young girl, she was Aspern’s lover and some of his poems are dedicated to her or describe her. The biographer’s mission in Venice is to get in contact with Miss Bordereau to obtain in some way letters and other Aspern writings he believes she possesses. He has written to her before, but she abhors publication of private letters and documents, so he thinks up a scheme to obtain the ‘Aspern papers’ in another way.

What follows is the account of how the biographer tries to obtain the papers. He plots and schemes, but the old lady and her niece also plot and scheme, although their precise plot is not uncovered to the reader. This introduces a moral dilemma. It seems obvious that the biographer is in the wrong, he is deceiving an old lady and her niece to obtain a very selfish goal. But what is so admirable about Henry James is that he is able to introduce doubts into both the reader and the biographer as to the innocence of the old lady and her niece. The biographer says towards the end

I hold it singular, as I look back, that I should never have doubted for a moment that the sacred relics were there; never have failed to know the joy of being beneath the same roof with them.

Notice again how the biographer refers to the papers as sacred relics. What I find most admirable about Henry James’ writing is that the reader does not find out whether the papers actually exist, let alone what their contents would be. In this respect ‘The Aspern papers’ is similar to ‘Turn of the screw’. As a result of this, it is also not clear who is the victim or the moral victor of this tale. Nevertheless, the ethical questions James poses are still relevant today; the public is still interested in obtaining details of the private life of celebrities and there are many people who earn a living through supplying these details.

Apart from this, another thing I noticed was the following couple of lines

That was originally what I had prized him for: that at a period when our native land was nude and crude and provincial, when the famous ‘atmosphere’ it is supposed to lack was not even missed, when literature was lonely there and art and form almost impossible, he had found means to live and write like one of the first; to be free and general and not at all afraid; to feel, understand and express everything.

I think I have read somewhere that one of the themes in James’ writing is that of the old versus the new world. I will have to do some more research on Henry James and re-read this novella. The writing is amazing!

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