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Henry James Hits the Screen with “The Aspern Papers”

in Pop Culture by

In “The Aspern Papers,” the new movie based on the book of the same name, the beauty of Henry James’ words is matched by the movie’s Venetian white marble and black canals. But it is the faded beauty of a great poet’s muse that gives depth to both.

The plot is deceptively simple: In 1885, an American biographer has arrived in Venice in search of the papers of the title, letters written by the famous American poet, Jeffrey Aspern, to his long-ago lover, Miss Juliana Bordereau (Vanessa Redgrave). Very old and frail, she has for decades been living in secluded penury in a dilapidated palazzo with her middle-aged niece, Tina (played by Joely Richardson, who is a daughter of Vanessa Redgrave and filmmaker Tony Richardson).

The biographer (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) presents himself on their doorstep as a would-be lodger, and when he agrees to pay an extravagant rent, is allowed to move into their second floor. He finds Tina to be a timid, simple soul, but Juliana challenges him. She seems to know what he is seeking, and he begins to believe she is tormenting him. She calls him a “publishing scoundrel.” The shifting relationship between Tina and the biographer, and his determined pursual of Juliana’s guarded letters add fire to the story.

The narrator’s obsession with the Aspern papers is the book’s driving force. But is the narrator’s research necessary or consuming his life? As an author, James was very private, and the question of how much a famous person owes to fans is unspoken but always present.

When Henry James wrote The Aspern Papers, published in 1888, he had a template from an earlier time to inspire him: Letters written by Percy Bysshe Shelley to his wife’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont.

Shelley’s wife, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, wrote the famous Frankenstein;or The Modern Prometheus. Her parents were William Godwin, the radical anarchist, and Mary Wollstonecraft, author of the trailblazing Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Claire was the illegitimate daughter of Godwin’s second wife. Claire herself gave birth to a child fathered by another famous poet, Lord Byron, when she was in her teens.

Whether Shelley and Claire were lovers is debated, but the four (Shelley, Mary, Claire and Byron) all lived together at times, and certainly made for good gossip. When James heard about the possibility of letters from Shelley to Claire, she was elderly and living in Florence with a niece. She died there in 1879 at the age of 80.

The young French director Julien Landais, with executive producer James Ivory, have made a beautiful movie of dark Gothic chills and pastel romantic settings, shot on location in Venice. The drama captured in the film though, radiates straight from the great mind of Henry James.

The Aspern Papers is now available to purchase.

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ABOUT HENRY JAMES:

Henry James, OM was an American-British author regarded as a key transitional figure between literary realism and literary modernism, and is considered by many to be among the greatest novelists in the English language. He is best known for a number of novels dealing with the social and marital interplay between emigre Americans, English people, and continental Europeans – examples of such novels include The Portrait of a LadyThe Ambassadors, and The Wings of the Dove

Joanna Poncavage had a 30-year career as an editor and writer for Rodale’s Organic Gardening magazine and The (Allentown, Pennsylvania) Morning Call newspaper. Author of several gardening books, she’s now a freelance journalist.

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