Thursday, 11 June 2015

The Aspern Papers by Henry James.

Portrait of Henry James by John Singer Sargent (1913).
The Aspern Papers (1888) is one of Henry James' many novellas. It's set in Venice and based on a true story - that of Captain Edward Augustus Silsbee, a Percy Bysshe Shelley devotee, who (rightly) believed that Claire Clairmont, the step-sister of Mary Shelley and mother of Lord Byron's daughter Allegra, was in possession of letters and other documents concerning Shelley and Lord Byron that would potentially shed new light on the pair's relationship. Silsbee wrote to George Edward Woodberry (a literary critic and poet),
I have been heaping up notes about [Shelley] for 40 years ... never have I been shaken in my feeling toward him & I may say, his mission. His mind seems to me rarer, more graceful, subtler & intellectual than Wordsworth's.
He later wrote,
Shelley has been my life to me.
In the late 1870s, when Claire Clairmont was an old woman (she was born in 1798), Silsbee travelled to Florence and rented rooms from her hoping to see these documents. During his time there she died, and her niece Pauline offered the documents in exchange for marriage. Silsbee declined the offer and left.

Edward Silsbee by John Singer Sargent (1899).
This desperate "need" for 'the Shelley Papers' is explored in The Aspern Papers. In this, the narrator (nameless) goes to Venice to rent rooms from Juliana Bordereau, the once lover of Jeffrey Aspern, the fictional poet with whom our narrator is obsessed. He hopes, as Silsbee did, that during his stay he may lay his hands on the letters of Juliana and Jeffrey. He writes,
Every one of Aspern's contemporaries had, according to our belief, passed away; we had not been able to look into a single pair of eyes into which his had looked or to feel a transmitted contact in any aged hand that his had touched. Most dead of all did poor Miss Bordereau appear, and yet she alone had survived.
He is fascinated with Juliana as a means to an end: she is only a gateway to his beloved Aspern. On meeting her, he writes,
... I was really face to face with the Juliana of some of Aspern's most exquisite and most renowned lyrics ... as she sat there before me my heart beat as fast as if the miracle of resurrection had taken place for my benefit. Her presence seemed somehow to contain his, and I felt nearer to him at that first moment of seeing her than I ever had been before or ever have been since.
From here we read of the narrator's desperate attempts to see, touch, and claim the 'Aspern Papers' with the reluctant help of Juliana's niece Miss Tita (or Miss Tina in later editions).

Biographical Criticism, the method of evaluating an author's works on his or her life, is an old technique dating as far back as the Renaissance. Samuel Johnson, for example, wrote Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (1779–81) on poets such as John Milton, John Dryden, and Alexander Pope based on the idea that their poetry may be (or is) reflected in their works, and understanding their life leads to a full appreciation of their works. It is, for me, an irresistible and seductive method. There are some authors, I think, whereby this approach is truly illuminating (Virginia Woolf, for example, though she too argued against it) but it is a dangerous and reductive method because it can all but extinguish the imaginative life of an artist. In The Aspern Papers however, James cautions against the methods obtaining the means to this approach - the private papers most notably, and the dehumanisation of those surrounding the author whom one seeks to know more.

The Aspern Papers is probably my most favourite of James' work. I do always seem to like or love his novellas - it's his novels I don't like (I've not yet read one I did like, and so far I've read The Portrait of a Lady, The Wings of a Dove, and What Maisie Knew). In the early stages of the novella it is possible to identify with the narrator - the love for an author and the awe at physical beings or objects that have been in the presence of him or her. But this novella gradually becomes darker and the narrator's obsession becomes more frightening. It is an outstanding read!


  1. Snap! I just read this for my Back to the Classics Challenge novella, but I haven't posted about it. Based on my experience and yours, I think I should look for more novellas by James...

    1. Yes, I much prefer his novellas! As RT says below, I think he writes best when he writes least! :)

  2. Now there is a coincidence. I was reading last night about Venice, and your posting reminds me that I need to revisit one of the great works by Henry James. In my humble opinion, James writes best when he writes least; in other words, his shorter works interest more than the novels. I have a hunch that my opinion is widely shared by other readers. In any case, thank you for the posting. It was just the reminder that I needed. I am now on my way to Venice via my bookshelf.

    1. Agree completely that he writes best when he writes least. I don't suppose you are aware of Edith Wharton's description of one of their outings when they get lost? Wharton recounts it just to show how verbose James can be. The Guardian wrote a piece on it - I'll quote the main bit here:

      Later, James and Wharton arrive in Windsor at night, and are unsure of how to direct their chauffeur to the King's Road. James, fortunately, spots an "ancient doddering man who had stopped in the rain to gaze at us", and asks him for help.

      Wharton relates what he said. "My good man, if you'll be good enough to come here, please; a little nearer – so," and as the old man came up: "My friend, to put it to you in two words, this lady and I have just arrived here from SLOUGH; that is to say, to be more strictly accurate, we have recently PASSED THROUGH Slough on our way here, having actually motored to Windsor from Rye, which was our point of departure; and the darkness having overtaken us, we should be much obliged if you would tell us where we now are in relation, say, to the High Street, which, as you of course know, leads to the Castle, after leaving on the left hand the turn down to the railway station."

      The old man is, obviously, stunned, or as Wharton puts it, "I was not surprised to have this extraordinary appeal met by silence, and a dazed expression on the old wrinkled face at the window."

      James continues. "In short" (his invariable prelude to a fresh series of explanatory ramifications), "in short, my good man, what I want to put to you in a word is this: supposing we have already (as I have reason to think we have) driven past the turn down to the railway station (which, in that case, by the way, would probably not have been on our left hand, but on our right), where are we now in relation to …"

      "Oh, please," I interrupted, feeling myself utterly unable to sit through another parenthesis, "do ask him where the King's Road is."

      "Ah–? The King's Road? Just so! Quite right! Can you, as a matter of fact, my good man, tell us where, in relation to our present position, the King's Road exactly IS?"

      "Ye're in it," said the aged face at the window."

      The main article is here. :)

  3. I loved the 'Aspern Papers' as well. I love Henry James since I read 'The Turn of the Screw' although it is a strange read and you are less wise when you have finished the book. I saw your review on this one as well. I read some years ago 'The Master' by Colm Toibin (one of my favourite authors) which is a historical fiction on the life of Henry James. One of the best books I have read. Can highly recommend it. I have downloaded, and not yet read, short stories of Henry James and am looking forward reading them.

    1. I'll look out for that, it sounds good - thanks for the recommendation :)


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