‘The Aspern Papers’ by Henry James – A Literary Predator Acts with Hypocrisy and Duplicity in Venice

 

‘The Aspern Papers’ by Henry James    (1888) – 96 pages

Our nameless narrator comes to Venice for one purpose. The ancient lady Juliana had at one time a romance with the famous poet Jeffrey Aspern who died young, and she is known to have in her possession some valuable letters and other papers of Aspern’s, and our narrator wants them at nearly all costs. He concocts a scheme to rent some rooms from Juliana and her niece Miss Tita in their Venice palazzo and somehow get hold of the papers. Although our narrator has no romantic interest whatsoever in the niece Miss Tita, he rents the apartment at an exorbitant fee with a ruse to pretend to court Miss Tita in hopes of gaining access to the Aspern papers that way. Or perhaps he can grab the papers in the confusion that will arise when the old lady dies.

Our narrator in ‘The Aspern Papers’ is a predator, but not a predator of these women whom he makes abundantly clear he has little or no interest in. Our narrator is a literary predator. By his own admission, he will practice hypocrisy and duplicity in order to get the Aspern papers.

I can arrive at the papers only by putting her off her guard, and I can put her off her guard only by ingratiating diplomatic practices. Hypocrisy, duplicity are my only chance. I am sorry for it, but for Jeffrey Aspern’s sake I would do worse still. First I must take tea with her; then tackle the main job.”

After Juliana rejects his efforts to talk her into giving him the papers, he plays with the affections of Miss Tita. I won’t go any farther into the plot than this, but Henry James does seem to treat this scoundrel narrator more lightly than he deserves. Our narrator’s hypocrisy is that he pretends to like Miss Tita at all.

As is my usual pattern with Henry James novels, I was originally put off by the upper class twit-iness of the writing. When our narrator says he’d like to take care of the garden at the palazzo, he immediately says he will hire some gardeners to tend it for him. Then he also has a gondolier to haul him around Venice and I imagine a couple of servants to clean up his rooms.

However I then got beyond the twit-iness, and became deeply absorbed in the plot. By the end, I was hanging on every sentence. I finally had to admit that this novel or novella was very well done, even though Henry James’ distaste for women shines through to the very end.

 

Grade:   B+

 

 

6 responses to this post.

  1. I read this… in Venice! It was purely accidental, I picked it up in the English language bookshop in Paris, stocking up on books to read for our three weeks in Italy. (This was before I had a Kindle to travel with). I knew nothing about it (except that I like Henry James).
    I really liked this one, I like the whole idea of *literature* being so important that one can shed moral inhibitions, and I reckon James must have been in this situation himself at some stage or known and disapproved of someone who was. The story is all about obsession too, and I like books that explore that as well.
    I didn’t like the other one in that Penguin edition (of two novellas). It was The Turn of the Screw and I thought it was very silly. Disappointing.
    I think you’re being a bit hard on James: it’s not just UC, it was and still is also middle-class to have someone do the garden and clean the house. Middle class people in England had household help of one sort or another up to WW2, even if it was just a ‘daily’ or someone to mow the grass… and many still do.
    As for the gondola, how else can you get around in Venice? You’re not allowed to paddle round it yourself! I didn’t like the idea of it when we were there (like taking a rickshaw) so we missed out on getting to some places. But I don’t think we can be hard on James for doing so.
    Mind you, he is a bit pompous…

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    • Hi Lisa,
      Of course Venice would be the ideal place to read ‘The Aspern Papers’. I’ve been there and only took a short tourist gondola ride.
      I didn’t care much for ‘The Turn of the Screw’ either, but I read it before I really got into literature. I generally don’t like ghost stories anyhow.
      I wasn’t sure of James’ view of these literary predators. Since the one in ‘The Aspern Papers’ is also the first-person narrator, the reader builds up a certain amount of empathy for him. Only when Miss Tita offers to give him the papers when they get married does he decide he doesn’t want the papers that bad and he decides he will get out while he can. Poor Miss Tita.
      Coming from a fairly poor farm background, I do tend to overdo my scorn for the upper classes, and Henry James is a convenient target for that. Anytime I come across an attitude of attributing good qualities to somebody just because they are rich it gets me a little angry.

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      • I see that in the narrator too, but I think HJ does that on purpose, making us empathise with him and then subverting it to make us realise that we too were slipping into justifying it just like he does.
        I agree: I don’t like anyone getting stereotyped, rich or poor. It’s lazy characterisation and that’s got no place in literature.

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        • For me, the key line is when Miss Tita says he can have the Aspern papers after they are married, he says something about getting out while you still can. It almost seemed like James was treating the situation humorously which is very unusual for James.

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  2. I think this is the only James I’ve read, although it was quite a while ago and I can’t really recall my impressions. I think I perhaps need to explore a little more of his work.

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    • Hi Kaggsy,
      I avoided Henry James until I ran out of other classic writers to read, and I don’t mean only in the United States but in the entire world. Actually I still prefer Nathaniel Hawthorne to Henry James of 19th century American writers.

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