39 pages 1 hour read

Henry James

The Aspern Papers

Fiction | Novella | Adult | Published in 1888

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Summary and Study Guide


The Aspern Papers by Henry James is a novella first published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1888. The unnamed protagonist and narrator is an editor and obsessive fan of fictional poet Jeffrey Aspern, who is no longer living. Having heard that a former romantic partner of Aspern’s, Juliana Bordereau, and her niece, Tita Bordereau (renamed Tina in later editions), are in possession a collection of papers related to the poet, the narrator rents rooms in their house in the hope of obtaining the collection.

James was born in New York but lived most of his adult life in England, eventually becoming a British citizen. Several of his works address the emigrant experience, which is relevant to the novella’s representation of Americans in Venice. A reportedly private individual and prolific writer, James’s own experience is also related to the novella’s focus on Privacy and Reclusiveness. The novella focuses on archives, both tangible and ephemeral, and a key theme is the Importance and Ambiguity of Archive. The narrator is obsessed with Aspern, and eventually must make a choice of whether to marry Tita, who is a plain spinster, in exchange for the Aspern Papers. James thereby explores the theme of The Influence of Hero Worship on Actions.

The novella’s genre is literary realism, but it also includes precursors to narrative techniques of literary modernism (particularly stream of consciousness). James himself is often regarded by critics as a bridge between these two epochs in literary history. Several films have been loosely based on the novella, and a direct adaptation was released in 2018, starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers as the narrator (named Morton Vint in the film) and Joely Richardson and Vannessa Redgrave as Tina and Juliana Bordereau, respectively.  Redgrave also played the role of Tina in a 1984 theatrical adaptation.

This guide refers to the Penguin Classics Edition (2014), edited by Michael Gorra.

Plot Summary

The Aspern Papers focuses on an unnamed American narrator who serves as an editor to the fictional, deceased poet Jeffrey Aspern. The narrator, who is obsessed with Aspern both personally and professionally, has travelled to Venice based on information that a woman named Juliana Bordereau—who was once Aspern’s romantic partner—is in possession of a collection of letters from her relationship with Aspern. Bordereau lives with her niece, the middle-aged spinster Tita Bordereau. The narrator suggests, somewhat facetiously, that he is willing to court Tita in order to access the papers, and develops a plan to become a lodger in their house.

The narrator visits the Bordereaus’ “dilapidated castle,” where he convinces Tita to ask her aunt about lodging, promising to hire a gardener to improve their garden with flowers. Juliana accepts this offer after the narrator agrees to pay an exorbitant sum of money for the rooms. While he is initially frustrated with his lack of progress, the narrator enjoys spending time reading, writing, and speculating about the contents of the papers until he begins to interact more frequently with both Tita and Juliana.

The narrator tells Tita about his interest in the Aspern papers, eventually eliciting a promise that she will help him by attempting to prevent her aunt from burning the papers. Juliana suggests that the narrator take Tita into the city in his gondola, and she tells him her aunt’s new interest in speaking with him is an attempt to get him to agree to rent the rooms for longer. Juliana attempts to persuade the narrator to stay because she is worried about what her niece’s financial state will be after her death. She also shows him a miniature portrait of Aspern, under the guise of asking his opinion on its value. He suspects that her real purpose is to entice him with it.

Juliana’s health begins to decline, and one evening after the doctor has left the house, he enters her rooms in the dark, inspecting a piece of furniture where he suspects the letters are hidden, though he says he doesn’t intend to steal them. Juliana emerges, calling him a “publishing scoundrel.” As he moves toward her, she falls into Tita’s arms.

Unsure whether Juliana has survived, the narrator leaves Venice for 12 days. When he returns, he learns that Juliana has died in his absence, and he speaks with Tita to discern the fate of the letters. Influenced by Juliana, Tita obliquely suggests that the narrator can access the papers if he marries her. He is overwhelmed, and leaves the room abruptly, but continues to debate on the matter, seriously considering the offer. When he returns, he is on the verge of accepting—though his final decision remains ambiguous—when Tita tells him that she interpreted his initial reaction as a rejection and proceeded to burn the letters one by one. She gives him the miniature portrait, which he later keeps above his desk, a reminder of the “intolerable” loss of the letters.