The Aesthetics of Criminal Intent

Henry James was a prolific author who had an interest in portraying complex relationships and the psyches of his American and British characters who are often psychologically very intriguing and complicated. But what especially draws me to his work is his way of composing stories with incredible aesthetic sensitivity to the thoughts of his characters and their environment. James’s novella The Aspern Papers (1888) has become a particular favorite of mine for it mixes aesthetic writing with crime fiction, blending the genre’s suspenseful tone with his style that is considered higher prose – that often profoundly concerns the person, their psychology, and how they perceive the world around them.

James skillfully exhibits his rich style while also writing a more gripping story by portraying a desire to unveil secrets in the name of literary art and knowledge. Aspern Papers achieves this suspense because it is built around criminal intent than definite action. We are introduced to a literary scholar, also the narrator, whose obsession to a deceased American poet called Jeffrey Aspern takes him to Venice where he wants to meet Juliana Bordereau, a lover of Aspern when he was alive—therefore, possibly one of his muses. Juliana is an incredibly old and recluse person living in beautiful and warm Venice and the nameless narrator believes the woman possesses letters addressed by Aspern—which she has denied in the past. These become central to the plot and hoping to still find and publish this biographical material supporting Aspern’s work, it leads to a careful scheme of deception to acquire them. However, the biographer never does.

To me the novella demonstrates how James makes a tale of crime his own without sacrificing his aesthetic style, which is richly and densely descriptive, has intelligent symbolism and is often also sensual in its imagery. His blend of aestheticism with the suspense of crime begins with a striking allusion in the beginning that shows admiration, but can also serve as a prediction of the narrator’s indifference to his old “victim”, Miss Bordereau, whose letters he is after:

He was not a woman’s poet, […] in the modern phase of his reputation; but the situation had been different when the man’s own voice was mingled with his song. That voice, by every testimony, was one of the sweetest ever heard. ‘Orpheus and the Maenads!’ was the exclamation that rose to my lips when I first turned over his correspondence. Almost all the Maenads were unreasonable and many of them insupportable; it struck me in short that he was kinder, more considerate than, in his place […] I should have been. 

To the nameless biographer Aspern resembled the musician Orpheus who was ripped to shreds by the Maenads, female followers of Dionysus. Comparing the women in the poet’s life to these figures shows him as unsympathetic which also foretells how he will see the dying Miss Bordereau as a difficult obstacle in getting the poet’s letters. His fear will revolve around what Juliana’s niece shares—that as a “very cunning” person, Juliana might destroy them any day as she nears death. It becomes a horrifying thought that an old poetical muse should take her precious letters with her.

James uses the ornate and sensual way of writing especially when he builds the setting, but as readers we must not be entirely fooled by the narrator’s sensitivity. After gaining access as a lodger to the secluded Juliana’s dilapidated palace, who remains private, he would watch the Misses Bordereau’s doors inside and windows from their garden, wondering of the secrets confined to Juliana concerning Aspern. When he would come back to the palace in the evenings, to its dark “re-echoing hall”:

[i]t was as if at such a moment as that, in the stillness, after the long contradiction of the day, Miss Bordereau’s secrets were in the air, the wonder of her survival more palpable. These were the acute impressions. I had them in another form, with more of a certain sort of reciprocity, during the hours that I sat in the garden looking up […] at the closed windows of my hostess. In these windows no sign of life ever appeared; it was as if, […] the two ladies passed their days in the dark. But this only proved to me that they had something to conceal; which was what I had wished to demonstrate. Their motionless shutters became as expressive as eyes consciously closed…

This passage has a strange suspenseful tone, almost intriguingly romantic because of Juliana’s secrets seemingly in the still air that concern a love affair. However, it also gives the impression of an obsessed intruder, while already in the house as a lodger. He is held in trying to imagine what is behind the closed doors and windows. Since this is a perceptive narrator, his romantic contemplation of Venice’s central almost distracts from his true motives of intrusion and, thus, his questionable character. Rarely at the house in the evenings and instead at the Piazza square, he reflects:

The whole place, of a summer’s evening, under the stars and with all the lamps, all the voices and light footsteps on marble (the only sounds of the arcades that enclose it), is like an open-air saloon dedicated to cooling drinks and to a still finer degustation – that of the exquisite impressions received during the day.

The character’s way of considering his undertaking becomes almost appealing because of his vivid imagery and perceptions of lovely Venice. His contemplations, then, bring a certain depth to him, seemingly presenting sensible motives for his actions. Nevertheless, the nameless narrator seeking the letters can be considered mad for his journey to fulfill what he sees a desire for knowledge. His plot begins with deception by getting closer to an old lady and her niece, Miss Tita, in order to get a hold of mere documents that might reveal something of his obsession that is the deceased poet. Knowing that Miss Bordereau would never easily hand the letters, he still continues and hopes to gain the help of Miss Tita and justifies his scheme through matters of art and giving justice to an idolized poet. This certainly does not give the impression of the typical criminal who is mad or wants monetary or reputational gain, but the biographer’s obsession for the papers takes him as far as into the unapproachable Miss Bordereau’s house.

The beautiful, seemingly innocent imagery, however, continues throughout and is strongly present as James’ narrator sees that he has a duty to the art and literary community. "[P]art of the light by which we walk," the biographer considers Aspern as a divine poet of whose "temple" of followers he sees himself as one of the ministers. While in Juliana’s house, he rarely sees the hostess, but the narrator nonetheless enjoys his time in the grand palace for he feels Aspern’s spirit and an actual connection. “[I]t was as if his bright ghost had returned to earth to tell me that he regarded the affair as his own […] and that we should see it fraternally, cheerfully to a conclusion.” This inspires his incentive further, thinking of his mission as a romantic search for Aspern’s words:

My eccentric private errand became a part of the general romance and the general glory – I felt even a mystic companionship, a moral fraternity with all those who in the past had been in the service of art. They had worked for beauty, for a devotion; and what else was I doing? That element was in everything that Jeffrey Aspern had written and I was only bringing it to the light.

Again, we must not be fooled by James’s eloquently described artistic passion for, in the end, the narrator is trying to intrude into Miss Bordereau’s personal life. Of course, not every reader might be fooled, and I am perhaps one of the few that was first captivated by James’s narrator who actually gets close to a poet’s letters which he regards precious knowledge. So, it initially created a paradox: with his beautiful, passionate thoughts, does the biographer deserve any amount of sympathy from us readers? Why could he not gain access to letters that might help literary history? Of course, this is an intriguing paradox for literary scholars perhaps—if they had to think of themselves in this strange kind of situation.

What fascinates me about the story, along with its captivating aesthetics, is that while the biographer’s conduct becomes strange and even ominous to a certain extent (because of his obsession) – he does not commit a crime. He does not even get the chance to actually commit it for he never gets Aspern’s letters. However, his criminal intent becomes striking for it ends up resulting in the death of Miss Bordereau, who dies of shock when she catches the biographer searching for the documents when he gains access to Juliana’s room. It all remains a horrible deception where he tricks the Misses Bordereau with a fake name and by persuading them into financial gain as their lodger. He makes the niece, Miss Tita, feel acknowledged, whom the narrator gives amorous-like attention, but truthfully, considers her a mere spinster. He plans to put Juliana “off her guard, and I can put her off her guard only by ingratiating diplomatic practices. Hypocrisy, duplicity are my only chance. I am sorry for it, but for Jeffrey Aspern’s sake I would do worse still.” His “worse still” is getting very close to the letters but never even touching them, but which horribly shocks Miss Bordereau.

This deceptive process that James builds seems to emphasize more the inherent ugliness that can be a person’s thirst for knowledge and its worst possible outcomes. This shorter story of a crime, then, is more about the human character – what it is capable of, than the plot of a crime being committed and its consequences. What then becomes notable about Aspern Papers is that the protagonist is never punished. Or, he is punished, but merely by Miss Tita herself eventually burning her aunt’s secrets which he sought to discover. The literary scholar, however, is not left empty handed because he manages to get a portrait; nonetheless, James keeps him in the dark on Aspern’s “divine” words.

James, thus, creates a thrilling story of trying to obtain secrets for the purposes of literary art that fills the tale with suspense. The tale becomes a description of how far one may go for knowledge about an artist and their oeuvre. It raises the question whether the means to share this as part of biographical and critical material is justifiable when it comes from personal documents. Aristie Trendel (2008) sees James dramatizing this issue by presenting “two radically opposed” perspectives of the biographer and the muse (for the protagonist is seeking material that may explain Aspern’s poems inspired by Miss Bordereau): “the former has no doubt that the papers belong to the public, while the latter dismisses every attempt at their publication. They both act in the name of truth whether accessible or inaccessible.” There can be found some context to the motive of the plot from James’s own life: J. E. Rosenberg (2006) writes that James was, in fact, “a prodigious letter burner himself,” and is documented as against sharing his own personal correspondence. However, questions of whether art and the artist’s life should be separated—whether biographical material should or should not be pried into and if this comes off as a crime on the artist—remain rhetorical questions for the novella ends merely in an intolerable feeling of loss and it is not contemplated further.



James, Henry. The Aspern Papers and Other Tales. Penguin Classics, 2014

Trendel, Aristie. “The Cult of Art in Henry James’s “The Aspern Papers” (1888).” Alizés: Revue angliciste de La Réunion, 2008, pp. 25-37 (p. 33)

Rosenberg, Joseph Elkanah. “Tangible Objects: Grasping “The Aspern Papers”.” The Henry James Review, vol 27, no. 3, 2006, pp. 256-263