The Aspern Papers by Henry James

Henry James at his desk, 1900. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize three times.



On a summer’s night in Venice, 1894, the American writer Constance Fenimore Woolson, grand-niece of James Fenimore Cooper, author of the first American blockbuster novel, The Last of the Mohicans, fell – or jumped – from the third storey window of her elegant apartment to her death on the ancient pavement below. She is buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome and there is a memorial to her on the island of Mackinac in Michigan, USA, in the vicinity of her birth. She was a writer of poetry and novels of recurring subjects, “that of the female artist —who writes with such undeniable force that even the most successful, if supercilious, man, editing her work, can’t subdue it sufficiently for publication”; and stories which includeMiss Grief, The Street of the Hyacinth, and At the Chateau of Corinne—in which young female writers and artists appeal to chilly older men to evaluate their work… fantasies of judgment and rejection.” One older man, chillier than most, was a friend of Woolson’s, the American expatriate writer, Henry James: a man she had sought to meet and know in the mid 1880s and who eventually returned her friendship – he called her ‘Fenimore’ – but not quite returned in full measure. Woolson respected him, admired him, and some say, was in love with him, and thought his work was far superior to hers.

In 1886 the magazine The Atlantic, commissioned a piece from the more famous James about Woolson, who was a far more successful writer and whose work had graced the pages of the magazine on numerous occasions. James’ motives are unclear but he seemed to shroud his true feelings for her work under layers of polite and tactful criticism.

“She is interested in general in secret histories, in the ‘inner life’ of the weak, the superfluous, the disappointed, the bereaved, the unmarried. She believes in personal renunciation, in its frequency as well as its beauty.”

And then in his 1888 volume, Partial Portraits, he presented a revised version of this article where he said, rather pompously, that her fiction was “characteristic of the feminine, as opposed to the masculine hand.”

Constance Fenimore Woolson (1840 -1894)

He was devastated by her death, some say, because he felt so guilty at not returning her affection as she would have liked, believing that she didn’t fall, but jumped.

In 2004 two novels based on Henry James emerged, Colm Toibin’s The Master and David Lodge’s Author Author. Both fictionalize his life around the turn of the century and focus on his disastrous attempt to conquer the London stage with a play, Guy Domville, in 1895. In relation to Woolson’s death, Toibin recounts the rather pathetic, but telling, almost comic scene where a guilt-ridden James, given the task of cleaning out Woolson’s apartment following her death, tries late at night to ‘drown’ a horde of the woman’s dresses in a Venetian canal; but they do not submit. He attempts to assist them by pocking them with an oar to get them to sink, but they keep bobbing to the surface, sleeves, and petticoats bouncing up full of life despite his growing frustration, horror at his almost murderous antics, and protestations of the fearful gondoliere.

There has been much written about Henry James, his attitude, dealings with, and writings about women, as well as his sexuality. Some say he was asexual; some say he was bisexual; but most agree that he was a closeted homosexual and died a virgin. Sexual conduct and relationships do not exist in his work.

“I don’t think Henry James ever knew how ordinary people behave. His characters have neither bowels nor sexual organs. He wrote a number of stories about men of letters, and it is told that when someone protested that literary men were not like that, he retorted, “So much the worse for them. Presumably, he did not look upon himself as a realist.”

From W. Somerset Maugham, Points of View (1958)

“His work is incomplete as his experience was.” T.S. Elliot

“Making love” to Henry James was all about talking to women, being kind to them, taking them for coffee, and, mainly, feigning interest in what they had to say. However, there was an incident in his youth that could account, not only for his own lack of sexual behaviour, but also for that same lack in his created characters.

In 1861, James was 18 and was enlisted as a volunteer fireman. While trying to extinguish a blaze, he suffered an injury. He writes about this in his 1914 memoir, Notes on A Son and Brother, when he was

“jammed into the acute angle between two high fences, where the rhythmic play of my arms, in tune with that of several other pairs, but at a dire disadvantage of positions, induced a rural, a rusty, a quasi-extemporised old engine to work and saving the stream to flow, I had done myself a horrid even if obscure hurt.”

In true Jamesian fashion he doesn’t say exactly what happened but Michael Wood in his essay “The Mystery of Henry James’ Bicycle” proposes a theory.

“What, after all is the most odious, horrid, intimate, thing that can happen to a man?  However much different men might have different answers, in the case of Henry James critics tended to see a relationship between the accident and his celibacy, his apparent avoidance of involvements with women and the absence of overt sexuality in his work.  Thus there emerged a ‘theory’ – promptly converted into a rumor – that the novelist suffered a hurt, during those ‘odious twenty minutes’ which amounted to castration”

or at least genital injury.

So, now onto the point of the above in this review, of James’ Venetian novella of 1888, The Aspern Papers.  The connections will soon become obvious.

The unnamed first person narrator is a bit of a cad. He is a writer who, along with his publisher, are desperate to get their hands on the papers of the late, and extremely famous, American poet Jeffrey Aspern. These papers, letters, etc are rumoured to be in the care of an aging spinster living in Venice with her middle-aged niece, Miss. Tita. Juliana Bordereau was the young lover of the poet when he came to sit as a model for her father’s art classes. The narrator – easy to assume and delicious to think that he is James – plans a strategy with a Venetian friend, Mrs. Prest to get the papers at whatever cost, even if that means ‘making love’ to the niece.

“Ah,” cried Mrs. Prest, “wait till you see her!”

Having read several of his long and short fiction I was struck by his novelistic skill here to illicit tension, suspense, interest, and to be intriguingly clear (So he can do it!). James’ prose is usually circumlocutory and occasionally frustrating, causing the reader to shout, “Oh, p-lease! Get on with it!” or as Alan Bennett has Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II say in The Uncommon Reader (2007)

“Am I alone,’ she confides in her notebook, ‘in wanting to give Henry James a good talking-to?”

The narrator does indeed ‘make love’ to the niece, Miss. Tita – called Tina is some later editions: he talks to her, brings her flowers, takes her for coffee, and tries to listen intently to what she has to say. He confesses his motive for being there, and his real name – but curiously not to the reader – and she offers him help. The lodger’s sinister ulterior motive, and that he speaks to the reader, confides in the reader, and surreptitiously elicits the reader’s sympathy is deftly handled by James; the tension is maintained and the reader gets a curious thrill from being on the side of a cad – or ‘bounder’ as the English of the time might say –  no matter how much self-deluded justification he indulges in: also well handled. He not only fails (Spoiler alert! Sorry!) – he is caught rifling through the old lady’s drawers and flees in shame – but his wooing of Miss. Tita produces results: the woman proposes to him although in a rather Jamesian unspecified manner; giving him another reason for him to flee but for very different reasons.

He wanders remorsefully around Venice with his gondoliere; lies distraught on the beach on the Lido, and then wanders the streets finally finding himself staring up at the magnificent equestrian statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni beside the Scuola Grande di San Marco in the Campo SS Giovanni e Paolo, by the Florentine sculptor and painter, Andrea del Verrocchio, a teacher of Leonardo da Vinci. It was his last commission and erected in fulfillment of a request made by the condotierro before his death in 1475.

James was a scholar of Venetian art and history and certainly would’ve known about this famous mercenary soldier and captain-general who defended Venice from neighbouring city-states for over four decades. He also would’ve known about the particular and famous physical attributes of this successful Venetian hero: he was a polyorchid; he had an asymptomatic rare congenital disorder called polyorchidism, or more specifically in his case, triorchidism: he had three testicles. And there on the Colleoni coat of arms emblazoned on the massive pedestal is proof of the fact:

colleoni-statue                                                          coleoni-coat-of-arms

“I found myself staring at the triumphant captain as if he had an oracle on his lips. The western light shines into all his grimness at that hour and makes it wonderfully personal.”

“… it is, indeed, the whole reason for his having chosen this particular landmark as the venue for his narrator’s crisis of confidence. If the statue could speak, his message to the narrator would be: “Sorry, old chap – you just don’t have the balls.”

 Elizabeth Lowry

The narrator finds the courage to visit Miss. Tita again only to find her seemingly physically and emotionally changed. They part coolly never to see each other again. He sends her a letter to say that he has sold the little portrait of Aspern she gave him, along with as much money as he could gather; of course, he hadn’t sold it but kept it hanging above his writing table, not to remind him of Miss. Tita, but

“When I look at it my chagrin at the loss of the letters becomes almost intolerable.”


If you have ever thought you might like to read Henry James but have never tried; or you have, and found him impervious, try this one. You can find the free e-book here.

You can also find a selection of works by Constance Fenimore Woolson, here.









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