The Aspern Papers — more a novella than short story — was published in 1888, soon after “Louisa Pallant,” which I wrote about here last time. It therefore seemed logical to tackle this one next, but I very nearly didn’t write about it — it just didn’t at first satisfy as much as the others I’ve written about here at The Mookse and the Gripes. I thought I’d explore why this might be. I find it necessary to talk about the ending as I go along, so if you haven’t read the story yet you might want to do so and (I hope) return here afterwards.
Like so many of his “tales,” James based this one on an anecdote he was told, as recorded in his Notebooks, during his stay with friends in Florence in 1887. It concerned a “curious adventure” that befell Edward Silsbee, “the Boston art-critic and Shelley worshipper” or “Shelley fanatic”:
Miss Claremont [more usually spelt Clairmont], Byron’s ci-devant mistress (the mother of Allegra) was living, until lately, here in Florence, at a great age, 80 or thereabouts, and with her lived her niece, a younger Miss Claremont — of about 50. Silsbee knew that they had interesting papers — letters of Shelley’s and Byron’s — he had known it for a long time and cherished the idea of getting hold of them. To this end he laid the plan of going to lodge with the Misses Claremont — hoping that the old lady, in view of her great age and failing condition would die while he was there, so that he might then put his hand on the documents, which she hugged close in life.
His scheme is initially successful: “the old woman did die,” having spent the last nine years of her life in Florence, where she died in 1879;
and then he approached the younger one — the old maid of 50 — on the subject of his desires. Her answer was — “I will give you all the letters if you marry me!”
He adds wryly that his informant said that Silsbee was still running.
From this scanty “essence” James developed his novella, delighting, as he puts it in the Preface to the New York edition (1907 – 09), in “a palpable imaginable visitable past” in which the “divine poet” is connected with James’s own modern world.
He changes quite a few of the details of the anecdote he had heard. The English Miss Clairmont becomes the American Juliana Bordereau, while the younger woman is either her niece or grand-niece, Tita (renamed Tina in the New York edition). The location is shifted to Venice. Shelley (with elements of Byron) becomes the New York poet Jeffrey Aspern: in this same Preface James makes several references not just to Shelley but also to Byron; he postulates “an American Byron to match an American Miss Clairmont.” This too is significant, as we shall see.
The end of his Notebook entry adds that a Countess Gamba, who married a nephew of Byron’s last mistress, had inspired the telling of the anecdote, for her family was in possession of “a lot of Byron’s letters of which they are rather illiberal and dangerous guardians.” They refused to publish any of these papers, scorning attempts to persuade them that it was in the literary public’s interests to let them at least be seen. Their contents he describes as “discreditable to Byron,” and the Countess admitted that “she had burned one of them.”
These details are found in The Aspern Papers; our unnamed narrator’s ungallant response, at the end of the story, in rejecting Miss Tita’s offer of the papers in return for his marrying her, is brutal, and her reaction is to tell him next day that she had “done the great thing” and burnt the papers, “one by one, in the kitchen.”
This is surely fair enough, for James makes us privy, as he does throughout the story through the device of free indirect discourse, to the narrator’s cruelly unpleasant thoughts when she proposes her humiliating, “embarrassing” (for both of them) offer of her hand:
That was the price — that was the price! And did she think I wanted it, poor, deluded, infatuated, extravagant lady?
His rationalizations conveniently excuse his rejection:
I could not pay the price. I could not accept. I could not, for a bundle of tattered papers, marry a ridiculous, pathetic, provincial old woman.
He bemoans having succumbed to “that most fatal of human follies, our not having known when to stop.”
Like Silsbee, he runs for it. This first ungentlemanly reaction is succeeded by shame; he blushes, hiding his face from the gondolier who is rowing him to cowardly safety away from the dilapidated palazzo. He wrestles feebly with his jaded, guilty conscience. When he does finally consider the possibility that “her delusion, her infatuation” might have been his own “reckless work,” that he had made love to her, even to get the papers, he tells himself:
I had not, I had not; I repeated that over to myself for an hour, for two hours, till I was wearied if not convinced.
Back on land, bewildered, it exhausts him to think that he “had been so much at fault,” had “unwittingly but none the less deplorably trifled.” This uncharacteristic but fleeting shameful thought is brusquely quashed:
But I had not given her cause — distinctly I had not. I had said to Mrs Prest [a friend who had first given him the idea to lodge at the palazzo in order to have a chance at the papers] that I would make love to her; but it had been a joke without consequences and I had never said it to Tita Bordereau. I had been as kind as possible, because I really liked her; but since when had that become a crime where a woman of such an age and such an appearance was concerned?
His capacity for self-delusion and — justification is ugly but horribly convincing, so artful is James’s narrative technique. Consider how, when his resolve falters next day — “Was I still in time to save my goods?” — and he returns to the decaying palazzo, having restored his ‘passionate appreciation’ of the papers, he has changed his viewpoint: “I would not unite myself and yet I would have them” — though he has been unable to devise an alternative stratagem for persuading Tita to part with them.
It is a typical feature of a James story that much of the interest in the narrative resides in his presentation of the protagonist’s point of view. For an apparently scholarly, intelligent literary biographer our narrator knows himself (and others) very imperfectly; shortly after Juliana’s death had left Tita feeling isolated and vulnerable, and before the marriage offer she decided would provide her lifeline, he’d weighed up his options (in a manner reminiscent of the equally unattractive narrator in “The Pension Beaurepas,” who also briefly considered behaving like the hero in a romance and whisking Aurora away to her beloved America, a point I discussed in my recent post on that story):
I certainly was not prepared to say that I would take charge of her. I was cautious, not ignobly, I think, for I felt that her knowledge of life was so small that in her unsophisticated vision there would be no reason why — since I seemed to pity her — I should not look after her.
He had earlier thought he might have killed Juliana by allowing her to catch him on the point of rifling through the desk in which he believed she had secreted Aspern’s papers: “Ah, you publishing scoundrel!” she’d cried. When she fell in a dead faint he bolted, touring Italy for twelve days, with the rankling feelings that her accusation had some foundation, grudgingly admitting to himself that he “had not been very delicate,” while indecisive whether to do the decent thing and stay away, or return to see how things stood with Tita. Of course he can’t resist returning to have another go at the papers.
Very soon after this return his selfish, misogynistic callousness re-emerges in his thoughts: “I could not linger there to act as guardian to a piece of middle-aged female helplessness.”
I think my initially lukewarm response to this story was indicative of my flawed reading. I’d seen it as a too-neatly constructed narrative in which the two climaxes — Juliana’s swoon and Tita’s humiliation — were melodramatic and contrived. Now I’ve looked at the story more closely I appreciate its subtleties. As I’ve gone on at too great length already let me end by pointing out a few more of these qualities to add to what I hope has become apparent in what I’ve said and quoted so far.
First there’s the ingenious double plot: the cat-and-mouse game of “watchings and waitings’” (James’s words in the Notebook) played by the narrator as he heartlessly schemes to acquire the Aspern papers is matched by Juliana’s own predatory stratagems, in a way he only dimly perceives (“Do you think she has some suspicions of me?” he asks Tita early on, for he soon reveals his plans to her, hoping to enlist her support in his plans). He toys with the notion in Chapter 5 that there is “a trap laid for [him]” and his putative wealth, that he had presented himself to Juliana “in the light of a victim,” and several times refers to her as an “old witch,” a “terrible relic,” her room when he enters it is likened to that of “an old actress,” she is “very cunning” and “a sarcastic, profane, cynical old woman”; yet he unwisely prides himself on his superior duplicity, and he is the one at the end left filled with “chagrin” at his “intolerable” loss. Meanwhile the reader is alerted to what he fails to perceive in Juliana. This is largely done through the frequent, suggestively ambiguous narrative references to darkness and light, clarity or obscurity of vision, and to eyes.
Juliana habitually wears a “horrible green shade” that covers her eyes, making her face resemble a “mask.” This means the narrator can’t really see what she’s thinking, but the implication is rendered clear to the reader: she sees through him from the start. He dimly, dimwittedly realises that the mask means that she can “scrutinize” him “without being scrutinized herself.” At the same time it “increased the presumption that there was a ghastly death’s-head lurking behind it. The divine Juliana as a grinning skull — the vision hung there until it passed.”
He’s so greedily intent on his literary spoils that he allows this perception to turn into a speculation that her appearance simply confirms that she must be at death’s door — “then [he] could seize her papers.”
When Juliana catches him about to rifle her desk he sees for the first time “her extraordinary eyes” that make him “horribly ashamed.”
My final thought concerns the possibility that some critics have entertained that Tita is in fact Juliana’s daughter, not her niece. I can find no evidence in the text to support this theory, but it is odd that Tita seems to have spent her entire life at the palazzo in sequestered “seclusion” (“We have no life,” she frankly, sadly tells the narrator; “[t]here’s no pleasure in this house.”) The narrator sees the two ladies as “like hunted creatures feigning death”; they receive no visitors, there’s no “comfort” in their “darkened rooms,” or contact with the outside world.
Is this a sign of the old lady’s guilt, her shame once her infatuation with Aspern had died out, leaving her with an illegitimate daughter that she shields from the world’s view? It’s true that she demands an extortionate rent from the over-eager biographer as a kind of dowry for Tita; the younger woman tells him frankly “the money is for me,” yet this unromantic “pecuniary question” simply convinces him that Juliana is too greedy to see that he intends to “take an advantage of her.”
This raises the question about the narrator’s extraordinarily obsessive desire (his “eccentric private errand” he calls it euphemistically) to obtain the papers. He justifies this with the airily aesthetic justification that his quest is part of his “mystic companionship” with other Aspern scholars, that “moral fraternity” who he sees himself as “in the service of art”:
They had worked for beauty, for a devotion; and what else was I doing? That element was in everything that Jeffrey Aspern had written and I was only bringing it to the light.
What could be in the letters that hasn’t already been written about Aspern? The narrator tells us that the god-like Aspern returned to Italy for Juliana’s sake when she was just twenty and beautiful, that there was something “positively clandestine in their relations,” and that he’d written some of his most sublime verses about his love for her, “works immortal through their beauty.” The narrator’s view, as early as Chapter 1, is that his early death was the only “dark spot in his life” — “unless the papers in Miss Bordereau’s hands should perversely bring out others”:
There had been an impression about 1825 that he had “treated her badly,” just as there had been an impression that he had “served,” as the London populace says, several other ladies in the same way.
He had always been able to find evidence, however, to acquit Aspern, in those previous cases, of “shabby behavior.” The Bordereau case is still unresolved, hence his desire to acquire the papers for some answers.
“By what passions had she been ravaged? By what sufferings had she been blanched?” the narrator wonders in Chapter 4; there is a “perfume of reckless passion” about her, and he has “an intimation that she had not been exactly as the respectable young person in general.” Was this a sign that her “singer had betrayed her”? That her “fair fame” had suffered some obscure “imputation”? Did the letters Juliana hoards “affect her reputation,” he asks Tita at one point, to which she gives him a “singular look,” a “kind of confession of helplessness”; “Do you mean she did something bad?” she eventually replies. Is this an allusion to Juliana’s being her mother?
In Chapter 7 the old lady asks him if “it’s right to rake up the past,” batting away his defence that he likes the “discoveries” made by questing critics by retorting that they’re “mostly lies.” When he defends them as often being the truth, she responds that the truth “is God’s, it isn’t man’s.”
In Chapter 5 the narrator considers the women are “worse off than Carmelite nuns in their cells”; he later learns that Juliana was Catholic. This accords with the fact that Claire Clairmont converted to Catholicism in later life. She had thrown herself at the tender age of eighteen at the rakish Byron, first by bombarding him with increasingly frank letters, and borne his daughter after what may well have been their one sexual encounter. He rapidly tired of her (he described her as “that odd-headed girl,” a “fiend”). When Allegra was barely one she was persuaded by the Shelleys to hand her over to the father’s unwilling custody; Byron was by then living in — no surprises here — Venice. When the child was just three he broke his promise to care for her personally and placed Allegra in a convent, where she died two years later, breaking Claire’s heart a second time. She continued to send Byron importunate, melancholy, obsessive letters. Maybe it’s inflammatory correspondence of this kind that Juliana has kept so carefully guarded.
Or maybe they were part of a cache of her voluminous correspondence with others in the Shelley circle. One critic has suggested that Claire was less attracted to Byron (and possibly Shelley) than she was to Shelley’s eventual second wife, her step-sister Mary (and it’s also possible to detect a homoerotic element in the narrator’s reverential hero-worship of Aspern; it can be seen as a story of wished-for and undesired, past and future, fruitful but disastrous consummations, while our narrator is ultimately hopelessly impotent as a literary or romantic ravisher). Claire wrote to Mary often (and to her poet husband, with whom many believe she not only had an affair but another illegitimate child), despite Mary’s finding her increasingly tiresome and wilfully wild. Although I find this a little speculative, it might also explain some of the hints alluded to above about the dark secrets that might lie in the Aspern papers, and our narrator’s obsession: rather than being a “rich dim Shelley drama,” as James calls it in his Preface, perhaps it’s a sordid, scandalous Byronic one. Whatever the case, I think you’ll enjoy the teasing, mysterious, densely textured story that James managed to concoct out of this tidbit of Romantic gossip. It’s pertinent that James, that most private of writers, who guarded his detachment from sexual entanglements fiercely, and burned many of his own letters, encouraging his correspondents to do the same with the ones he had written them, should dramatize this duplicitous invasion of privacy with its anomalous role allotted to snooping literary biographers, and its paper-burning at the end.
Although it’s dangerous to indulge in the “biographical fallacy,” it’s tempting to see traces in the story of James’s own growing unease in his relations with his emotionally needy Venice-based friend Constance Fenimore Woolson — maybe she owned incriminating letters from him that he’d rather were burnt, Edel speculates in his biography. Certainly his portrayal of the once-beautiful Juliana is dominated by the delineation of her manipulative cunning that is more than a match for our narrator’s, so that we are left with a typically Jamesian bleak view of the appeal of romantic attachments, the female psyche, and the mutable shallowness (and danger to men) of feminine beauty and attractiveness.
We can’t even know for sure whether Juliana ever actually possessed any papers — the narrator never sees them, and has only witnesses as unreliable as himself to vouch for their existence. These are the moral, ethical ambiguities, paradoxes and complexities that I failed to detect initially, and which provide much of the story’s satisfying richness.