The Literal and Literary Circulation of Amelia Curran’s Portrait of Percy Shelley

Part of the Nineteenth-Century Major Lives and Letters book series (19CMLL)


Henry James’s novella The Aspern Papers (1888; rev. 1908) has most typically been read as a critical examination of the literary scholar’s obsession with the mystery of creativity.1 There are, of course, obvious and numerous autobiographical resonances to James’s own life in the tale (e.g., James’s interest in the figures of Pushkin, Walt Whitman, Julian Hawthorne, Constance Fenimore Woolson, etc.),2 but this essay focuses instead on the presence of what I would call the strange afterlives of Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and Claire Clairmont in the story. Presented as a famous American poet from New York and once the beloved of the now elderly daughter of a prominent American portrait painter, the portrait of the ghostly Jeffrey Aspern—not his papers—is, I would claim, the central and haunting object of desire in the story. One of the most memorable images remaining in one’s mind after reading the story is that beautiful disembodied male head, called a “relic” by the narrator, that has floated from its original and very private storage place in Juliana’s pocket (93) into the pocket of the narrator after Juliana’s death (131) and finally to its ultimate relocation in a public place of honor above the narrator’s writing desk (143). I would claim that James intended this portrait to be modeled very specifically on Amelia Curran’s famous painting of Percy Shelley (see figure 7.1), completed in Rome in 1819, a portrait that was so well known that it had assumed iconic and almost religious status by the time James was writing his novella.3


Female Body Love Object Poetical Work Reading Audience Elderly Daughter 
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  1. 2.
    Tambling sees Walt Whitman as the model for Aspern. Edel reads James’s anxiety about his own letters to Constance Fenimore Woolson into the conception of the story (Leon Edel, Henry James: A Life [New York: Harper & Row, 1985], 339–41)Google Scholar
  2. 6.
    Shelley’s visit with Allegra at the convent in Bagnacavallo is described in Robert Gittings and Jo Manton, Claire Clairmont and the Shelleys, 1798–1879 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 64–65.Google Scholar
  3. Richard Holmes, Shelley, the Pursuit (New York: New York Review of Books, 1994), 420–23Google Scholar
  4. Glynn R. Grylls, Claire Clairmont: Mother of Byron’s Allegra (London: Murray, 1939).Google Scholar
  5. 8.
    In a similar fashion, Goodman has observed: “James’s love of gossip—justified by the belief that ‘art is long & everything else is accidental and unimportant’—sometimes makes him appear almost ruthlessly detached from other people and their pain. For him, gossip was an art” (Susan Goodman, Edith Wharton’s Inner Circle [Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1994], 61).Google Scholar
  6. 9.
    Bonney MacDonald (Henry James’s “Italian Hours”: Revelatory and Resistant Impressions [Ann Arbor, MI: UMI, 1989], 80–91)Google Scholar
  7. [John R. Bradley, “Henry James’s Permanent Adolescence,” Henry James and Homo-Erotic Desire, ed. John R. Bradley [Hampshire: Macmillan, 1999], 47–48, 53).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 10.
    See, e.g., Church; Reesman; Veeder; E. Brown; and Hadley for various approaches to the misogyny that is implicit (or explicit) throughout the story. Reesman notes that “the literal is the realm of the female body and the male body is, in contrast, unreachable, undefinable, and unsayable” (Jeanne Campbell Reesman, “‘The Deepest Depths of the Artificial’: Attacking Women and Reality in The Aspem Papers,” “The Finer Thread, the Tighter Wenve”: Essays on the Short Fiction of Henry Jumes, ed. Joseph Dewey and Brooke Horvath [West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 2001], 43).Google Scholar
  9. 13.
    For a discussion of Wharton’s adaptations of the ghost story, see Allan Smith, “Edith Wharton and the Ghost Story,” Gender and Literary Voice, ed. Janet Todd (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1980).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Larry H. Peer 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Marquette UniversityUSA

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