Venice in The Aspern Papers
Venice, Italy. A city known for its extravagant art and culture, has been written about and placed in hundreds if not thousands of publications for hundreds of years. In the Aspern Papers, written by Henry James, we find a story set in Venice of an American biographer who is intent on locating and obtaining a very intimate possession from an elderly woman living there. She was an inspiration to his hero’s poems and writings, Jeffrey Aspern and a mysterious part of his life. Within this story, Venice has an indirect effect on it’s plot but it does hold a symbolic meaning. The author uses it to paint an image for the reader. It is described and symbolized in a way that shows Venice as a place of refuge and retreat. In my opinion, I see the setting of Venice used in an even deeper way. Venice represents the true goal of what the characters in this novella are after, and that is peace, refuge, and security.
The Aspern Papers was first published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1888 in three parts as a short novella which was later published as a book that same year by Macmillan and Co. publishing company. It was later revised with a preface and a name change of one of the main characters from Miss Tita Bordereau to Miss Tina Bordereau. Consisting of nine chapters, the novel is just under 100 pages long. Placed in the 1880s, the reader finds the characters in Venice, Italy. The story is written in the perspective of the narrator whom we learn is the protagonist of the story who is never called by name. A publicist and biographer, he ventures from America to Europe and we find him in Venice in search of the private letters written by an esteemed poet, Jeffrey Aspern, to his love interest Juliana Bordereau. Juliana, whom we come to know as Miss Bordereau, is the story’s antagonist and stays a static character. A shy and reclusive elderly woman, she lives in Venice in hiding from prying eyes and individuals. Throughout the story we find that her goal is to keep what is private to her private and provide for her niece Miss Tita Bordereau who is the final main character. Miss Tita is a dynamic and round character as she ultimately finds her independence through her relationship with the narrator and her aunt. (Cornwell)
The plot begins by following the narrator on his journey to gain the Aspern papers. He comes to Venice and seeks out the home of Miss Bordereau. Once arriving at her home he introduces himself as an individual in search of a place to live for a few months. After setting up a ruse of enjoying nature and gardening he convinces Miss Bordereau to allow him to rent a few of her rooms and fix the overgrown garden at a steep price of 1,000 francs per month. He leaves Miss Bordereau and receives a tour of the property by her niece Miss Tita. He moves in the next day and begins fixing the garden and transforming it into an oasis. During this time he waits patiently for an opportunity to speak with Miss Bordereau and find out more about the missing papers.
As time passes he finds a way in by earning Miss Tita’s trust by sending her flowers every day. He finds her one evening waiting for him in the garden and they speak for hours. He learns of her aunt’s declining health and that she may pass away soon. With this knowledge he begins to talk about his favorite authors in an attempt at getting her to talk about Jeffrey Aspern and the papers. Feeling confident that he could trust this woman, he comes clean to her about his true intentions saying, “‘Yes, I have written about him and I am looking for more material. In heaven’s name have you got any?’ ‘Santo Dio!’ she exclaimed, without heeding my question; and she hurried upstairs and out of sight (chapter V).” After a few days with no word from Miss Tita he stops sending her flowers.
Some time later he finds Miss Tita waiting for him and informs him the Miss Bordereau would like to meet with him. He goes to her room and speaks with Miss Bordereau. He is shown a portrait of Jeffrey Aspern and is told that she is willing to part with it for a few thousand francs. He declines the offer but continues to allude to the papers. This process begins to become the main conflict of the story. The narrator tries to patiently wait for the opportunity to take the papers from Miss Bordereau who keeps to herself and keeps him at a distance. He continues to move closer and closer to resolving this conflict but finds himself in a sticky situation at the climax of the story when he is found snooping around in Miss Bordereau’s desk by Miss Bordereau herself. He tells the reader:
It was a chance, an instinct, for I had not heard anything. I almost let my luminary drop and certainly I stepped back, straightening myself up at what I saw. Miss Bordereau stood there in her nightdress, in the doorway of her room, watching me; her hands were raised, she had lifted the everlasting curtain that covered half her face, and for the first, the last, the only time I beheld her extraordinary eyes. They glared at me, they made me horribly ashamed. I never shall forget her strange little bent white tottering figure, with its lifted head, her attitude, her expression; neither shall I forget the tone in which as I turned, looking at her, she hissed out passionately, furiously: ‘Ah, you publishing scoundrel!’
With this exclamation, Miss Bordereau faints into Miss Tita’s arms and the narrator quickly leaves the home and travels the surrounding areas for twelve days.
Upon his return we find out another twist in the story when he is told of Miss Bordereau’s passing. With this major setback and twist he finds Miss Tita and apologizes for what happened. Miss Tita talks with the narrator and begins alluding to what she believes must happen. She asks for the narrators hand in marriage. He is taken aback by this embarrassing proposition and is left without words. He again walks away and leaves for the second time.This conversation brings to light the sub-conflict of the story, the narrator’s difficulty in deciding what extent he will go to in order to obtain the papers and if marriage is something he is willing to do.
The story ends with the narrator’s decision to accept Miss Tita’s hand in marriage. He comes to her room to give her an answer and finds a new beauty in the old woman that he had not felt before. Miss Tita says goodbye to him and this confuses him. She then tells him that she burned all of the letters one by one the previous night after he had walked out on her proposition. This shatters the narrators hopes and dreams of obtaining the letters and changes his mind about accepting the marriage. He leaves Venice and writes back, sending money in compensation of a small portrait of Jeffrey Aspern that was given to him by her. All in all I enjoyed this short story. I would recommend it for someone wanting a small fix of literature. The writing style is easy to follow and the stream of consciousness that the narrator follows is free and smooth. The story follows two myths of Venice, and that is Venice the Free and Venice the Dying.
In this story Venice has an indirect affect to the plot. Venice is simply where the story is set. On the other hand, Venice does carry a more symbolic and metaphoric meaning. Venice is described as a place of refuge, retreat, and calm. In my opinion, this is what the protagonist and the dynamic character is in search for. The problem is that throughout the story the protagonist is always in a state of stress and anxiety. He finds some peace in the garden he rebuilds but the constant wait and desire to obtain the papers drives him to react impulsively. In the end he loses the papers but gains a better understanding of himself and how far his passions will drive him. The same goes for Miss Tita, as she is introduced as a woman who is trapped at home by her aunt. She speaks of the past and of Venice so highly but when she is taken out to the main square she hardly recognizes anything. By the end of the story she is transformed into a more independent woman and takes matters into her own hands by burning the papers the narrator desired one by one. They both were on a journey of find peace, refuge, and security and in a way they obtain it. Let that be a lesson to us; that we may feel driven to obtain our hearts greatest desires and whether we gain them or not, we will learn and gain the peace and refuge we all require.
Cornwell, Neil. “The Aspern Papers”. The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 17 January
2006 [http://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=1559, accessed 15 April 2013.]
James, Henry. Aspern Papers. London: Macmillan and Co., 1888. Print