Felony

Felony : The Private History of "The Aspern Papers"

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Felony is the story of the literary treachery that took place at no. 43 via Romana, Florence, where Claire Clairmont, once lover of Lord Byron and mother of his daughter Allegra, lived until her death in 1879. It is also the story of Henry James's brilliant novella The Aspern Papers, which is based on that household and the nefarious doings of the lodger there, Edward Augustus Silsbee, thief and Shelleyite. In Emma Tennant's novel, Claire Clairmont is nearly eighty years old. Looked after by her niece Paula and paid an exorbitant rent by Silsbee - who becomes Paula's lover to further his aim of acquiring the Shelley papers and letters at her aunt's death - Claire dotes on her great-niece Georgina. It is Georgina who narrates this story from the perspective of a thirteen-year-old girl, in turn baffled and entranced by the gallery of rogues and blackmailers who batten on her great-aunt. Who will extort the most from poor Claire, be it money, undiscovered poems by Shelley or simply anecdotes about Byron? Henry James will set The Aspern Papers in Venice, not Florence, while Claire and her niece are transformed into the American Misses Bordereau. James's narrator will 'lead on' the niece but there will be no love affair. With the setting and chief protagonists of the real story behind The Aspern Papers disguised, James cannot conceal his growing unease at the knowledge of the existence of letters he has written to the woman who loves him more than any other, Constance Fenimore Woolson, writer of novels and romances. Will the price of reclaiming their correspondence be marriage - will his portrait of dim Miss Tina, the niece rejected by the pilfering narrator, be seen to have been stolen from Constance herself? Felony is about the misdemeanours inherent in writing - theft, false memory, plagiarism and greed for celebrity - and it demonstrates too the embarrassment and shame suffered by those who steal from and exploit others in their quest - but who go on and do it all the same.show more

Product details

  • Paperback | 256 pages
  • Vintage Publishing
  • VINTAGE
  • London, United Kingdom
  • New edition
  • 009945209X
  • 9780099452096

Review Text

Emma Tennant's latest novel, subtitled A Private History of The Aspern Papers, charts Henry James's turbulent emotions during the writing of his novella in 1887, while simultaneously recounting events that took place in Claire Claremont's household in Florence ten years earlier. The narrative viewpoint is shared between Georgina, great-niece of Claire Claremont, James himself and Constance Fenimore Woolson, an American novelist who becomes increasingly attached to James. As this complex novel develops, these disparate strands become ever more intertwined. The plot of The Aspern Papers centres round an unscrupulous individual who inveigles his way into the house of two women in an attempt to defraud them of letters and manuscripts penned by the dead poet Jeffrey Aspern. Having heard the salacious details about Claire Claremont's relationships with both Byron and Shelley, and the attempts of the odious Captain Silsbee to relieve her of their manuscripts, James cannot resist using this material for his own novella. But as the book begins to take shape, Fenimore, who has long nursed an unrequited passion for James, is horrified and humiliated to find herself (as she thinks) caricatured in the book as a frustrated spinster. Felony is a masterpiece of Jamesian prose: Tennant's earlier works based on Jane Austen's novels perfectly captured Austen's ironic voice, and she again demonstrates that literary versatility, moving seamlessly from 12-year-old Georgina's indignation to James's ponderous eloquence, peppered with guilt as he gradually becomes aware of the depths of Fenimore's feelings for him. The Claremont episodes are dominated by the wonderfully realized character of Claire Claremont herself: the stepsister of Mary Shelley and lover of Byron (by whom she had a daughter, Allegra, who died in childhood) she was also believed to have been involved with Shelley himself. Demanding yet enthralling, this is a rich and satisfying exploration of artistic creation and the human interactions that surround it. (Kirkus UK)show more

Author information

Emma Tennant was born in London and spent her childhood in Scotland. Her most recent books were Strangers, Girlitude, Burnt Diaries and A House in Corfu.show more
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