A small jewel that has always been hopelessly flawed

Dear Isobel,

Every Eye (1956) is a novella that plays with the ideas of perspective and sight, narrated by a character who is trapped in her blind spot. When we meet our protagonist, Hatty, she is in her late thirties and has been married for about a year to a younger man, Stephen. They are on the eve of a belated and much-anticipated honeymoon travel to Ibiza, and she has just heard that her aunt Cynthia has died. It’s been six years since they last saw each other.

This prompts Hatty, who is also our narrator, to reflect on her life until that point, and the story moves back and forth between her past and present, as Hatty and her husband travel across France and Spain. The novel is very much a journey from inside out: a journey to another country, as well as an emotional journey to our protagonist’s innermost memories. As Hatty is moving from one place to the next, her comprehension of what happened to her in the past is also shifting.

We learn that, around the time when Cynthia first came to her life, Hatty was fourteen and dreamed of becoming a pianist. She was immediately spellbound by Cynthia, the sophisticated older woman who captivated our protagonist with stories about dreamlike Ibiza.

Cynthia soon married Hatty’s uncle Otway, and we follow the way her marriage changed her. For better or worse, Cynthia was one of the most influential figures in her niece’s life, and, together with our narrator, we gradually learn why. For instance, Cynthia may or may not have been the main reason why Hatty chose Ibiza for her honeymoon.

The book is an exploration of the relationship between the two women, and of the changes this relationship underwent as Hatty grew up. The relationship had a life of its own – even with Cynthia now dead, it goes on, from the inside out and in a new dimension. “Yet small lacerations heal quickly when one is only fourteen years old; little more than the shallow warmth of a smile, or the quick concentration of an adult eye, can knit together the tiny hurts of the so recent past.”

The book reads very much as if we were following along Hatty’s coming-of-age story – a story which is still in process, happening in the intersection between past and present, as Hatty alternates between telling the story of her trip to Ibiza and reminiscing about episodes from her past. Or perhaps it is a coming of age that happens in the page, as our protagonist is excavating her memories, rearranging her thoughts to tell us her story, in a continuous narrative with no chapter breaks – as if past and present flowed from one another, only to merge in an illumination in the end, when the novel’s parallel timelines finally converge.

Hatty was born with a squint or a so-called ‘lazy eye’, and it has affected the way she sees herself and the world around her. She always sees things at a slant. “I was over twenty-five, and I had come within the core of myself to know that I could never successfully make a real contact with another human being.”

It is a condition that gives her a different perspective, but also affects her self-esteem, her career, and her relationships with others – particularly, her relationship with Cynthia, but also the one with an older man who grows to become our protagonist’s first love affair. “I had just sufficient self-knowledge to assess the extent of my own talent; but I could not accept it as it was. What at sixteen had promised to be the one thing that would protect me and put me far beyond the reaches of human despair had gradually shown itself to be uncoordinated and intermittent, like a small jewel that has always been hopelessly flawed and can have no intrinsic value except in the eyes of those who seek effect and not perfection”.

Hatty has undergone surgery to correct the problem, but her habit of wondering how people perceive her and what they think of her persists to this day. “People sometimes go through their whole lives without ever reaching the moment when they are exactly the person they want to be”.

How are we to consider Cynthia and the role she played in Hatty’s life? Was she trying to protect her niece, or was she luring her to fall from grace? What is Cynthia’s role in Hatty’s affair with the much older man? Is she spoiling the girl’s sense self-confidence, or trying to protect her? Is she playing with Hatty’s feelings of insecurity, with the girl’s naiveté? Is she jealous? Maybe it’s all in the eye of the beholder. “I don’t believe you ever see anything dead on, only at a peculiar angle through the corner of your eye”.

And Hatty may not be a reliable narrator either. We only view Cynthia through her perspective, and her memories of her aunt often collide against a blind spot. Hatty’s images of Cynthia change as her image of herself changes. If this is a tale of betrayal, who betrayed whom here? There are a lot of things that Hatty cannot see, or cannot see clearly. Not only Hatty, but all characters seem more or less lonely in their blind spots, trapped in an incommunicability of visions. As in Auden’s verse quoted in the book’s epigraph: “Every eye must weep alone.”

Hatty’s understanding of the main events in her life changes over time, past and the present illuminate each other, memory travels back and forth, and Hatty’s soul-searching excavation colours the way she experiences her journey. Her eyes change, she acquires new eyes, every eye shedding a different light to the past and to the present.

The book is the process by which she sharpens her vision; or her journey toward some form of clarity, or illumination. Hatty will stretch her hand out in the dark, and it will be taken.

Yours truly,

J.


Lover’s Eyes, ca. 1840. Miniature watercolor on ivory. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“How can one ever know the extent of one’s own or another’s victory in the hidden battles of the heart? Words and gestures extracted from their context become inflated to gigantic significance, then later as precise and moribund as a flower specimen pressed into the leaves of a book when the life-giving stamens are blurred to a small yellow stain over the print.” – Isobel English, Every Eye

*

Never to have the exact knowledge of one’s position is the predicament of human frailty. Compassless, to see the beckoning lights, one advances to find that there is nothing there but a reflection in the deep-rooted blackness.” – Isobel English, Every Eye


About the book

  • Persephone Books, 2000, 119 p. Goodreads
  • First published in 1956
  • My rating: 5 stars

12 thoughts on “A small jewel that has always been hopelessly flawed

  1. Ibiza at that time must have been very different from now – as Benidorm would have been when Sylvia Plath and T Hughes honeymooned there around the same time: small fishing communities, agricultural. I was surprised to find at the end of your post that the book is just over a hundred pages long; your account suggests the writer packs a lot in to a small space. Interesting name for the uncle: Otway. Like the 17C dramatist.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, English packs a lot into this slim book! It is one of my favourite Persephones so far. I have never been to Ibiza, but, yes, this book made it sound like a small place. Thank you for stopping by, Simon! 🙂

      Like

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