Book Review: Henry James’ Distorted Feminism in ‘The Aspern Papers’

By Sage Keller PZ ‘25

Henry James’ novella, The Aspern Papers, reads like a rambling religious sermon that explores the wielding and seduction of knowledge through the hands of femininity. 

Written from the point of view of a nameless, seemingly average male character, this narrative follows his attempt to win the favor of two reclusive women, Juliana Bordereau and Tita Bordereau, in hopes of securing love letters written by Juliana’s former lover, and late poet, Jeffery Aspern. The narrator worships Aspern like a god, even going so far as to say that “…he is a part of the light by which we walk.” The narrator takes advantage of the Bordereau’s declining financial position to secure himself a room in their decrepit estate in Venice, Italy. Going to great lengths to deceive the women into thinking he is someone he isn’t, he reflects a certain religious zeal at the hands of art; typical of Jamesian texts. 

Situated within the Bordereau’s crumbling palazzo, James creates a complex world of historical continuities, contemporary society, and looming architecture that cultivates a space of discourse between the Old World and the New. Corruption, wickedness, and frankly, stupidity follow the characters throughout this longer novella of James. The Bordereau women seek shelter within their grand, yet unkempt estate, while the narrator finds solace within their garden. Falsifying his love for horticulture, the narrator exclaims he will nurture the garden back to health in an attempt to establish relations with them. However, he quickly realizes the estate, and thus the woman’s trust, remains a space he is unable to penetrate.

James’ use of the domestic space is interesting here. The domesticity of the home is often representative of the feminine position and simultaneously becomes a space of imprisonment. James almost turns this on its head. Rather than being a cage, it becomes a sanctuary for them; while the palazzo becomes a place of torment for the male narrator instead. At first glance, one might commend James for his attempt to give power to the feminine body throughout this text. Juliana is bearer to the esoteric knowledge that is Jeffrey Aspern and his work. Miss Tita is endlessly loyal to her dying aunt, and thus protective of Aspern’s letters. A certain surface level authority is given to these women within the power struggle at play here. Yet, this is quickly squandered when the narrator arrives, and remains, selfishly chauvinistic throughout his time at the Bordereau estate. Calling them helpless, pathetic, and far too unsophisticated for him, this paranoid masculinity lends itself to James’ narrow minded perception of the female psyche. 

James is notorious for his meandering, discursive sentences. At times, incomprehensible, his circuitous sentence structure creates a challenging read. Compared to some of his later works – What Maisie Knew (1897) and The Turn of the Screw (1898) – which reflect this stylistic dense syntax, The Aspern Papers (1888), being one of his earlier works, is a relatively simpler read and proves to be less digressive, less enigmatic, and more transparent. 

Typical to Jamesian writing, the readers take a deep dive into the minds of the characters and the details of the text’s physical surroundings. Many argue that in exploring the ever-changing social and personal relationships of Americans and Europeans, he reflects a nuanced version of realism throughout his syntax. If by realism they mean consistency, this might prove to be accurate. He offers his characters little to no development throughout their story line. The narrator – who practically resorts to seduction to access Aspern’s letters – leaves the palazzo nevertheless corrupted by his initial search for them. Closing out the novella with: “…my chagrin at the loss of the letters [is] intolerable” (131), James’ supposed exploration of psychological insight through melodrama emerges almost useless as he virtually posits that human nature is conditioned to remain arbitrary, only further emphasizing the transactional entity of human relations throughout history.

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