July 15, 2013
Review: "The Aspern Papers" By Henry James
This is a creepy read, and one can't help but sympathize with the poor lonely middle-aged niece, Miss Tina, and even for the ancient Miss Juliana who lives for the memories of her love affair with Aspern. It becomes altogether uncomfortable for the reader as the narrator emotionally and psychologically manipulates the niece into becoming his accomplice in trying to find and acquire the papers. Frankly, the ending of the tale is incredibly satisfying to my mind.
I think the point that James is trying to make in this novella is that there really is quite the moral dilemma when it comes to personal privacy and the pursuit of information for intellectual or commercial purposes. In other words, if an author or poet becomes famous and well-read, the question becomes just how much of their life becomes fair game, if you will, for future biographers, researchers, and so forth? It is a tough question for sure.
As I read The Aspern Papers, I realized that other authors have written about this dilemma as well. For example, Edith Wharton's superb novella, The Touchstone, written in 1900 revolves around a man who sells bundles of very intimate personal letters he received from a former lover who was also a very famous author. A.S. Byatt sort of gets to this same point with correspondence between two fictional Victorian poets in her Booker Prize winning novel, Possession (1990). Towards this end then, if you read The Aspern Papers, I strongly urge you to immediately follow it up with a read of Wharton's The Touchstone. It is a wonderful way to link the two novellas, and is made even more meaningful in that Henry James and Edith Wharton spent much time together and became very good friends.
The Aspern Papers & The Turn of the Screw
By Henry James
Penguin Classics Edition