Hello readers! Today I'll review The Aspern Papers by Henry James. Published in 1888, this novella is a lovely classic that stood the test of time. A perfect choice if you're short on time but would like to get introduced to Henry James or just enjoy some of his writing. I'm no stranger to this author myself.  I've read many works by him. I even reviewed Henry James on my blog quite a few times here (  Four Meetings) here (The Portrait of a Lady), here (Washington Square). I might even do a special post about him on this little place to call my own ( sharing with you all of Henry James' works that I have read so far) but today I'll just focus on this beautifully melancholic novella set in Venice. If I recall well, I borrowed this particular book from a library some time ago. I do like to read books in physical form if possible, but if you prefer online reading, you can find a free version of this classic on wikisource and other sites.  This novella consists of nine chapters (links bellow) and is quite a quick read (so it's perfect if you're short on time).  

In fact, I couldn't resist reading three chapters while I was writing this review. Who knows,  I might reread the whole thing tomorrow or one of these days. The Aspern Papers is certainly a book worth rereading. 

*Prijevod ove objave na hrvatski u tijeku.


The Aspern Papers is a little gem of a book. Its plot is simple enough to grasp (especially at the beginning). An unnamed narrator sets to Venice, to find a woman who possibly still has love letters from a famous writer. The unnamed narrator is after those private letters and he feels justified in his quest- for he does it for the love of literature. However, where does the literature end and the private life begins? Does adoration of a certain artist gives us permission to meddle with their private matters? However, one can ask what is really private in art.  After all, all artists (one way or another) reveal their private self in their art. If writers reveal their private self in their writing, is it alright to read their private correspondence? This is a fascinating question. I myself felt a bit odd reading published letters by some famous writers. I was happy that I got to read them, but I was also  somewhat conflicted because they were often private (even if the writers in questions were long gone). Moreover, it is said that this novella was actually based on search for love letters left over by a famous poet.  

Now, I'm pretty sure I had actually read this novella before I knew about the plot being based on the letters Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote to Mary Shelley's (his wife's!) stepsister, Claire. Miss Claire Clairmont kept them until she died and so did (it seems) the lady this novella introduces us with.  Whether this fictional lover will be willing to share them is altogether another matter! I don't think I would have read this novella differently if I had known what 'papers' were inspiration behind it but I was glad to learn of it eventually. One can certainly see how, for example, someone devoted to Shelley's poetry would go to great length to acquire letters written by him. As a literature lovel, I found it easy to sympathize with the narrator. 

Henry James opens this lovely novella with following words, immediately inviting us (as readers) to find ourselves in the midst of things in Venice: I had taken Mrs. Prest into my confidence; in truth without her I should have made but little advance, for the fruitful idea in the whole business dropped from her friendly lips. It was she who invented the short cut, who severed the Gordian knot. It is not supposed to be the nature of women to rise as a general thing to the largest and most liberal view—I mean of a practical scheme; but it has struck me that they sometimes throw off a bold conception—such as a man would not have risen to—with singular serenity. 'Simply ask them to take you in on the footing of a lodger'—I don't think that unaided I should have risen to that. I was beating about the bush, trying to be ingenious, wondering by what combination of arts I might become an acquaintance, when she offered this happy suggestion that the way to become an acquaintance was first to become an inmate. Her actual knowledge of the Misses Bordereau was scarcely larger than mine, and indeed I had brought with me from England some definite facts which were new to her. Their name had been mixed up ages before with one of the greatest names of the century, and they lived now in Venice in obscurity, on very small means, unvisited, unapproachable, in a dilapidated old palace on an out-of-the-way canal: this was the substance of my friend's impression of them.

Mrs. Prest gives the protagonist sound advice, urging him to befriend Miss Bordereau but also playfull making fun of the protagonist because of his 'infatuation with the writer': "Mrs. Prest knew nothing about the papers, but she was interested in my curiosity, as she was always interested in the joys and sorrows of her friends. As we went, however, in her gondola, gliding there under the sociable hood with the bright Venetian picture framed on either side by the movable window, I could see that she was amused by my infatuation, the way my interest in the papers had become a fixed idea."

 In the following paragraph, Henry James also shows us inner thoughts of his protagonist, revealing how the feels both about the writer whose letters he is trying to get hold of and the letters themselves:  "'One would think you expected to find in them the answer to the riddle of the universe,' she said; and I denied the impeachment only by replying that if I had to choose between that precious solution and a bundle of Jeffrey Aspern's letters I knew indeed which would appear to me the greater boon. She pretended to make light of his genius and I took no pains to defend him. One doesn't defend one's god: one's god is in himself a defence. Besides, to-day, after his long comparative obscuration, he hangs high in the heaven of our literature, for all the world to see; he is a part of the light by which we walk. The most I said was that he was no doubt not a woman's poet: to which she rejoined aptly enough that he had been at least Miss Bordereau's. The strange thing had been for me to discover in England that she was still alive: it was as if I had been told Mrs. Siddons was, or Queen Caroline, or the famous Lady Hamilton, for it seemed to me that she belonged to a generation as extinct.

The writer doesn't beat around the bush in this book, not when it comes to setting the scene and introducing us to the plot. The first chapter of this novella is full of information. Take this passage for example, where Henry James not only perfectly describes the house Miss Bordreau lives in but also her . You can really feel you're there in Venice with him: "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. But its wide front, with a stone balcony from end to end of the piano nobile or most important floor, was architectural enough, with the aid of various pilasters and arches; and the stucco with which in the intervals it had long ago been endued was rosy in the April afternoon. It overlooked a clean, melancholy, unfrequented canal, which had a narrow riva or convenient footway on either side. 'I don't know why—there are no brick gables,' said Mrs. Prest, 'but this corner has seemed to me before more Dutch than Italian, more like Amsterdam than like Venice. It's perversely clean, for reasons of its own; and though you can pass on foot scarcely any one ever thinks of doing so. It has the air of a Protestant Sunday. Perhaps the people are afraid of the Misses Bordereau. I daresay they have the reputation of witches.'"

The protagonist looses his courage again upon seeing such a majestic house, but  Mrs. Prests assures him that they might be looking for a tenant and that it is possible (despite the size of their home), that these two (Miss Bordereau and her nice) live on practically nothing. In chapter two, the narrator introduces himself to niece, charms her with talk of garden and comes quite naturally to the subject of renting a room or two in  the house. The niece suspects something and he is introduced to Miss Bordereau. "Then it came to me that she was tremendously old—so old that death might take her at any moment, before I had time to get what I wanted from her. The next thought was a correction to that; it lighted up the situation. She would die next week, she would die to-morrow—then I could seize her papers. Meanwhile she sat there neither moving nor speaking. She was very small and shrunken, bent forward, with her hands in her lap. She was dressed in black and her head was wrapped in a piece of old black lace which showed no hair.My emotion keeping me silent she spoke first, and the remark she made was exactly the most unexpected."  

At this point, I started to feel for this old lady. The protagonist clearly cares nothing about her, being motivated solely by the acquisition of these letters. I won't tell what happens next to avoid spoilers, but I think you get the general idea where the story is going from these two chapters. However, with the writing it is not just about the story, but about how the story is told. Henry James fascinates me as a writer and this is why- I always feel there is this wonderful ambiguity to his writing. At times I feel it to be both attractive and repulsive. It is as if there is some message that can never be fully grasped no matter how much you try. I admire the fact that here is a writer that does not try to simplify the world, that is not afraid to admit that we live in a complex reality.

Henry James' sophistication as a writer is worth praise, his style is elegant and his finesse seducing. However, I have to admit that at times I struggled with his writing. There is this feeling of expecting something and not finding it...yet that is what is fascinating about his writing, it's like a painting that is hard to decipher, and that perhaps portrays more then one reality. At the same time, that's perhaps the chief attraction to Henry James' writing, the ambiguity and the finesse he puts into his sentences.

The writer himself supposedly treasured this book, I have to agree with him, it is a beautiful and delicate piece of writing. As a said, I found the theme to relevant and fascinating. The protagonist is a man in search of love letters written by his favourite poet. He is in for some trouble since the object of love letters in question is advanced in years and she not willing to part from them for the world. There is some tension there, obviously but also food for the thought.

 This novella makes me ask questions about human nature- Why do we feel right to take what we want? Why do we feel that if we love something or somebody that thing or person must belong to us? Why do we feel we have right to have something just we happened to want that? Why is love such a good justification for selfish acts? I remember this feeling of guilt I always have when I read Kafka's private letters. Should some things be kept private? Where is the line? Should we sometimes leave the artists alone? All in all, this book posses some really interesting questions. Moreover, the characters are well developed. The descriptions of Venice are mesmerizing. The dialogues sound natural. The plot is well executed and the writing is beautiful. I definitely recommend it. A must read for a Henry James fan.

Thank you for reading and stopping by! Have a lovely weekend!


  1. Es un buen escritor, aunque no he leído ese libro. Lo llevo anotado.y me gusto mucho tu look. Te mando un beso

  2. Ho preso nota, lo leggerò. Mi piace molto il tuo abito rosa!
    Kisses, Paola.


    My Instagram

  3. I must admit that the only Henry James I've read is Turn of the Screw. I saw the stage play many years ago and it scared the bejesus out of me!
    Looking lovely in lilac and black! xxx

  4. Oh, so great to read your review! Definitely some great questions! I have always enjoyed his work, but I can't remember this. Although, it's been a while. Thanks so much for introducing it and making it so intriguing. Love the cool outfit you are wearing. Awesome boots. Love the background of the photos too! All the best to a happy Sunday!

  5. Fantastic review! This looks very intriguing and such a great topic to think on. Is the narrator good or bad ..or just complicated. This piece certainly has a lot going on for it. Thanks so much!

    You are so cool in this outfit. Love the SCHOOL sign. So fun! Beautiful backdrop too. So inspiring. Love those sunnies too. All the best to a Great December!

  6. Dear Ivana, you must read so much that you can make so many great book reviews. Thank you for your very interesting description of Henry James' The Aspern Papers.
    And thank you for your beautiful photos. You won't be surprised that I'm thrilled with your outfit again. I love this feminine combo of the purple dress with the black stockings, heeled boots and coat! You look adorable!
    xoxo Nadine

  7. I've heard about this novella, but haven't read it. If I remember correctly, I've only read Portrait of a Lady and The Turn of the Screw by him, both back in the mists of time.
    Another gorgeous outfit created with your lilac dress, by the way.
    I hope your weekend is going well, and wish you all the best for the week ahead. xxx

  8. I have read a few Henry James' novel - The Portrait Of A Lady and Washington Square come to mind but I'm not familiar with The Aspern Papers. The premise of a man in search of love letters written by his favourite poet does sound quite appealing and compelling. Thank you for your thorough review. I will be sure to add this to my reading list.

  9. I must admit I have never read any Henry James. Love your sweet outfit, Ivana! I hope you got to go to School and enjoy a drink/meal! :)

  10. Hola!!! pero que buena entrada, que buen look y que buen libro *-* muchas gracias por esta publicación tan interesante :D ame encontrar tu blog así que me quedo como tu nueva seguidora <3 me encantaría invitarte a que me visites por mi espacio, espero que no sea molestia >_< es así nos estamos leyendo <3

    Un beso enorme desde Plegarias en la Noche.

  11. Great review and beautiful outfit, Ivana! I am not familiar with Henry James, but I would love to read the novel! Yes, we live in a complex reality. You can read and understand deeply always, so your review can help me choose good books!

    I love your sustainable outfit, and I enjoyed seeing other outfits with the same items from the links! Thank you for sharing<3


  12. Great photos. I don't know this book and have a litte knowledge of him!

  13. Great review (as usual!), really interesting to read about this book.
    And also lovely outfit!


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All your comments mean a lot to me, even the criticism. Naravno da mi puno znači što ste uzeli vrijeme da nešto napišete, pa makar to bila i kritika. Per me le vostre parole sono sempre preziose anche quando si tratta di critiche.

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