The Aspern Papers by Henry James adapted by Christine Hall

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BBC Radio 26 April - 4 May 2010
Read by Samuel West, this adaptation of James' novella stressed the obsessive nature of the narrator's quest to view the papers, placing particular emphasis on his use of inappropriate language. At one point he talked of "extracting" the papers, as if it were some kind of mechanical process he was pursuing; on another occasion believed he had "corrupt[ed] the innocence" of Juliana and Tina Bordereau's house. However he did not feel guilty in any way for his behaviour, as he believed that by taking the papers he was acting in the public interest. Jeffrey Aspern was famous in his day; and, as with most celebrities, their lives were subject to general scrutiny. It did not matter how the papers were obtained - through violence, subterfuge, or a combination of both - so long he managed to consult them.
This adaptation also focused on the question of identity. Significantly James does not give the narrator any name, even though he likes to think he has a controlling presence at the heart of the story. He assumes a new identity to as to inveigle his way into the Bordereau's household; and for some time at least, it seems that his subterfuge has been successful. However in a climactic confrontation with Juliana Bordereau, the narrator's apparent position of security is assailed by her eyes boring into him; "the eyes of truth, the eyes of clarity," as he describes it. Juliana is secure in her identity - something the narrator conspicuously lacks. As a result his position as the controlling presence in the novella is undermined; we can no longer rely upon him to give a balanced account of what happened.
The narrator's identity is further undermined through his confrontations with Tina. At first he seems to be in no doubt that she is nothing more than a middle-aged spinster wasting her life away looking after an old woman. When he takes her out in a gondola one night, he has to tell her everything, as her experience of the outside world is so limited. However the narrator's view of Tina changes once he realizes that she might become the catalyst to give him access to the papers; she becomes a young woman - an attractive marriage prospect, no less. However, once Juliana has passed away, Tina acquires sufficient mental strength to make decisions for herself; she destroys the papers and sends the narrator away. Such "great things" are the making of her, as she discovers who she is. Meanwhile the narrator is left admitting that it is difficult for him to "bear [his] loss ... I mean, the papers." He has learned nothing from his experiences, either about himself, his identity or identities of the Bordereau family.
This adaptation also showed how James deliberately constructs the story to suit his theme. At the beginning, when the narrator appears in control of events, the story follows a linear progression - each event follows another as the narrator tries every strategem in the book to secure access to the papers. However the narrative keeps being interrupted by digressions, the majority of which are introduced by Juliana Bordereau. She waylays him with long discussions over money; refuses to answer his questions directly; asks him to sell a small portrait of Jeffrey Aspern; and ultimately moves the papers from one place to another. Juliana knows perfectly well what she is doing with the "publishing scoundrel"; it is highly likely that she has deliberately set up the final confrontation at the end of the novella, when she catches the narrator in flagrante delicto, trying to open the box containing the papers. To look at the novella in terms of gender construction, it begins according to masculine logic, determined according to agency and action. However that logic is eventually frustrated by a more discursive logic which (in the narrator's eyes at least) seems "inexplicable." We might call this "feminine" logic, but perhaps it might be more aptly described as "anti-misogynist" - the kind of logic that frustrates the male researcher's desire to "do."
This version of The Aspern Papers offers a chilling expose of the extent to which some researchers are prepared to invade people's lives in order to find out more about them. However it also suggests that such researchers - especially males - are somehow inadequate, and embark on the biographical quest in order to create an identity for themselves. Should they fail in this task, they are virtually emasculated.