For my introduction to Henry James last year, I started with The Turn of the Screw (which I reviewed back in December). My Penguin Classics edition includes a second novella, The Aspern Papers, and since they were paired together I was expecting another supernatural tale. What I found instead was an amazingly modern story, which though it was originally published in 1888 perfectly fits our world in 2012. Even the language feels more modern, simpler and less baroque than in The Turn of the Screw.
The story is set in Venice. As it opens, the unnamed narrator is plotting with his friend Mrs Prest to make the acquaintance of the Misses Bordereau, aunt and niece, who live in self-imposed isolation within an ancient palazzo. The elder Miss Bordereau was once Juliana, the muse, the beloved, perhaps the mistress, of the famed American poet Jeffrey Aspern (now deceased). The narrator, more a disciple of Aspern's than a mere scholar, hopes that she has letters, manuscripts - perhaps the last undiscovered cache of his writings, which the narrator and his fellow dedicat can edit and publish.
Accepting Mrs Prest's suggestion that "the way to become an acquaintance was first to become an intimate," he succeeds in becoming their lodger, renting a set of rooms in the palazzo. He does so under a false name, prepared ahead of time with a calling card. On his first visit, he meets the younger Miss Bordereau, Miss Tina, shy and socially awkward but simple and honest. It is with her that he begins his campaign to gain access to her aunt's papers.
The narrator has no qualms about his campaign. In his view, the ends of access to this treasury of his idol's writings justify any means. Nor has he any qualms about opening every aspect of Aspern's life to the public gaze. "He had nothing to fear from us because he had nothing to fear from the truth, which alone at such a distance of time we could be interested in establishing." There is no mention of a family, parents or wife or children, who might have something to fear from such exposure. The narrator refers to Aspern as a celebrity at one point, and I could not help comparing the narrator himself to a paparazzo, worming his way into the household under false pretences, scheming to score a scoop. I was also reminded of A.S. Byatt's Possession, where the papers of two poets play such key parts. The narrator here has much in common with Byatt's American collector Mortimer Cropper, making his illicit copies of letters he cannot acquire honestly.
Juliana Bordereau's connection with Aspern dates from the 1820s, and the narrator is surprised simply to find her still alive. She is the last of his contemporaries: "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." Yet there she is, living quietly for decades in Venice. "But it was a revelation to us that self-effacement on such a scale had been possible in the latter half of the nineteenth century - the age of newspapers and telegrams and photographs and interviewers." Just add the internet and the 24-hour news cycle, and you have the celebrity industry of the early 21st century.
In discussing the papers, the narrator tells Miss Tina,
"It isn't for myself, or that I should want them at any cost to any one else. It's simply that they would be of such immense interest to the public, such immeasurable importance as a contribution to Jeffrey Aspern's history."I can't share his easy assumption that the public's interest outweighs everything, or that every aspect of Jeffrey Aspern's history must be made public (or acquit him of wanting his idol's papers for himself). Yet as an archivist, and a student of history, I know how vitally important letters and other personal papers can be, as primary sources. In one of the volumes of Queen Victoria's letters that I read last year, her daughter the Crown Princess of Prussia asked permission to burn their letters, which her mother refused. Except for purely personal letters that might embarrass individuals, she wrote, "I am very much against destroying important letters, and I everyday see the necessity of reference" (March 1874). As a Janeite, I mourn the loss of so many of Jane Austen's letters, particularly those sent to her sailor brothers, as well as those her sister Cassandra destroyed. But what would Jane Austen think of her letters being read almost two centuries after her death? She did not write with an eye to history, as Queen Victoria may have done. Where do we draw the line? It's not always easy to decide. But in the case of the Aspern papers, while I can sympathize with the narrator, I must side with Miss Bordereau.