The Aspern Papers
is an 1888 novella by American author Henry James. First published as a serial in The Atlantic Monthly
, it has become one of James’ best-known works alongside The Turn of the Screw
and The Portrait of a Lady
. The novella is based on a series of letters sent between Percy Bysshe Shelley and the stepsister of Mary Shelley, Claire Clairmont. Clairmont saved the cache of letters until she died, and they were ultimately entered into the historical record. The novella is set in Venice, and uses drawn-out character development to very subtly build suspense; this method is in contrast to popular suspense forms, which tend to build suspense quickly and through a handful of common plot mechanisms.
As the novella begins, the unnamed narrator, who is the novella’s protagonist, arrives in Venice hoping to find a collection of love letters written by the (fictional) famous poet Jeffrey Aspern to his lover, Juliana. Aspern died a century before, leaving much unknown about his life; the narrator, an American scholar of literature, hopes to better contextualize the inspirations behind his poems. A colleague of his had previously written to Juliana asking about the letters, and Juliana had replied, bitterly, that no such documents exist. The narrator intends to deceive Juliana into handing over the letters and goes to the mansion where Juliana lives with her niece, Tita.
The narrator introduces himself as a traveling scholar who needs a place to rest and study before continuing. In exchange, he offers his services to renovate whatever Juliana and Tita want and to tend to their garden. Juliana has no interest in a tenant, but the narrator counters that he is also willing to pay a large amount of money to rent some rooms. She agrees to these terms, delighting the narrator. Once he is within the mansion, getting his hands on the letters is harder than he expected. Juliana lives almost exclusively in her bedroom. The narrator has no idea whether her bedroom contains the letters, but has few opportunities to probe for their whereabouts. He is afraid that as Juliana gets closer to death, she will one day decide to destroy the letters as a preemptive measure to prevent their circulation. Rather than win the cantankerous Juliana’s trust, the narrator decides to befriend Tita and convince her to intervene the moment Juliana tries to destroy the documents.
Tita also proves difficult to track down. Eventually, the narrator becomes friendly with her. He obtains anecdotal evidence that the letters indeed exist, and that Tita knows Juliana once dated Aspern. After a few months pass, the narrator decides to tell Tita his ulterior motive for living at the mansion. Though she loves and respects her aunt, she agrees to try to save the letters for him. Juliana also offers to sell the narrator a small portrait of Aspern for an extremely steep price. Though she doesn’t mention Aspern’s name explicitly, the offer confirms, in his mind, the idea that she possesses the letters. The day finally comes when Juliana becomes extremely sick and seems to be approaching death. The narrator goes to her room and looks for the letters. As he approaches a desk that he believes is their hidden location, Juliana enters with Tita and is aghast. She rebukes him and faints; Tita catches her before she hits the ground.
Ashamed, the narrator leaves Venice for about two weeks. When he returns, he learns that Juliana has passed away and that Tita has kept the papers, though she has been instructed to burn them as soon as possible. Tita suggests that it is acceptable for her to give the letters over to the narrator if he marries her since he would then be Juliana’s family. Disgusted at the idea, the narrator leaves the mansion again; however, he returns a day later to speak to her. When she meets him, he imagines that she has transformed into a beautiful mistress, and concludes that he is willing to marry her. In a devastating twist, Tita tells him that she has already burned each letter, one at a time, and adds that there were so many of them that it took hours to finish. The narrator never learns the content of the letters but pays Tita for the small portrait of Aspern, which has turned into an ironic consolation prize.
Tita’s guile and fidelity to her aunt thus prevail over the narrator’s lies and manipulation. The novella’s ending suggests that its masculine protagonist was weak and disadvantaged all along and that he underestimated Tita and Juliana, his intellectual adversaries, the moment he misunderstood the women to be fragile and gullible. The novella is also resonant with James’s own fear of his legacy being investigated and exploited after his death, relinquishing his control of his identity.