Read Like a Writer Book Club Recap: The Aspern Papers by Henry James

Hello dear readers! This is the recap of our second meeting. Our next meeting will be July 19, 2022. If you would like an invite, please contact me at readerlybooks[at]gmail[dot]com.

Happy Reading!


Published in 1888, Novella, later edited by James and reissued.

Genre:  Realistic Fiction at the time; today it would be classic or literary

Setting is Venice and the story is based on a real life incident involving Claire Clairmont, the mistress of Lord Byron, according to Britannica:  

There is an opera based on the book.  

Here is a recorded scene from it: 

In 2019, Julien Lansais adapted it for film, thought the reviews were mostly like this one in the New Yorker:  

Theme:  James is examining the cult of celebrity which got its start during the Regency, but especially in literary circles is in full flower by the 1880s.  One Example of this is the Ireland Shakespeare forgeries of the late 1790s


During the 1870s and beyond literary tourism evolves into a booming practice.  

James places our narrator as an editor who is at once a voyeur and a scholar.  It is unsettling, to say the least. 

Things we thought James did well as a writer that we would like to emulate:

  • Setting:  James excels at evoking a place and time.  
    • Venice
      • Gondolas, Marble, Canals
      • Venice is frequently portrayed during the time that James writes as a place to hide, to have a secret life, to have more freedom. It is kind of like the Vegas of the Edwardians.  Part of the reason for this is the Carnival atmosphere and masks; part of it is the ease of clandestine travel and backdoors due to the canals
      • “The gondola stopped, the old palace was there; it was a house of the class which in Venice carries even in extreme dilapidation the dignified name. “How charming! It’s gray and pink!” my companion exclaimed; and that is the most comprehensive description of it. It was not particularly old, only two or three centuries; and it had an air not so much of decay as of quiet discouragement, as if it had rather missed its career”(4).

James, Henry. The Aspern Papers (p. 4). Kindle Edition. 

  • P. 52 gondola, previous pages the discussion of the elder Bordereaux about Venice.
  • Cultural References–serve to ground the reader in time
    • Queen Caroline (d. 1821)
    • Sarah Siddons (d. 1831)
    • Lady Hamilton (d. 1815)
    • Baedeker p. 35
  • Use of language
    • “Well, you’re a precious pair! (8)
    • The maid wears pattens and then patters… (8-9)
    • “I had not struck the note that translated my purpose, and I need not reproduce the whole of the tune I played. I ended by making my interlocutress believe that I was an honorable person, though of course I did not even attempt to persuade her that I was not an eccentric one” (12).
    • Beginning of Ch. IV (page 27) He gives a summary of what has happened in 6 weeks, so the reader knows where she is in time.  The summary is telling, but done so well, just as telling ought to be!  Metaphor of the war is carried all the way through.
    • “I had never encountered such a violent parti pris of seclusion; it was more than keeping quiet—it was like hunted creatures feigning death. The two ladies appeared to have no visitors whatever and no sort of contact with the world.”

James, Henry. The Aspern Papers (p. 28). Kindle Edition. 

  • Foreshadowing
    • P. 39 He wonders whether it is a trap; in earlier pages he has remarked how dull she is and stupid.  Is it purposeful on her part?  
    • P. 48, she looked like she would burn the papers…
    • P. 56 he thinks she knows he is asking her to turn against her aunt in exchange for attention…but he wonders  (again from a point in the future looking back) whether it isn’t strange that she doesn’t resent it.
  • Maintaining tension throughout the story
    • The reader knows what the editor does not about the women, about himself, about his situation.
    • There is always the question of will she or won’t she?

Discussion Questions:

  1. Where does the narrator stand in time?  Why do you think James chose this way of telling the story?
  2. Why do you think the narrator decides from the beginning to use a pretext in his investigation into the papers?  Why doesn’t he just ask? (5)
  3. Why does he fix on the garden as his entree? (11)
  4. Do you think he overplayed his hand by agreeing to the high rent so quickly? Why or why not?
  5. On page 34, James writes this, ostensibly about Apsern, “His own country after all had had most of his life, and his muse, as they said at that time, was essentially American. That was originally what I had loved him for: that at a period when our native land was nude and crude and provincial, when the famous “atmosphere” it is supposed to lack was not even missed, when literature was lonely there and art and form almost impossible, he had found means to live and write like one of the first; to be free and general and not at all afraid; to feel, understand, and express everything.”  Do you think he is speaking in any way about himself?  He was a longtime expat in Britain and Europe.
  6. When did you decide that Tita/Tina was playing him? Why does the narrator underestimate her so?
  7. Why does he pretend not to know who the portrait is of, when he specifically asked Tita/Tina about one?
  8. Why was he unwilling to marry her after all the rest?  
  9. What do you think of the resolution?
  10. How did James maintain the tension all the way through?

Something to think on:

Writing books, unless one be a great genius—and even then!—is the last road to fortune. I think there is no more money to be made by literature.”

James, Henry. The Aspern Papers (p. 62). Kindle Edition. 

Page count/structure

Act I:  p. 1-20 inciting incident  He decides to ask about lodging and goes to visit the house

Break into 2–he gets the rooms

Acti II  He stays but makes no progress, then midpoint conversation with Tita, and also Juliana where hope is reignited

Act III: p 70 the portrait scene.  

Denouement p. 80 the secretary

20% Act I, 60% Act II, 20% Act II

Published by Robin Henry

Independent Scholar and Book Coach specializing in Historical Fiction and Literary Fan Fiction.