Tomorrow is the last day of Claire and Verity‘s Persephone Reading Week, and I’m happy to say I’ve managed to squeeze in another Persephone novella. I’ve had Every Eye by Isobel English on my wishlist for several years, having learned about it through the Bas Bleu catalog, so when I spotted it on the shelves of the Persephone shop on my visit last Friday, I knew I’d be bringing it home. (It didn’t hurt that it’s just 117 pages long and therefore something I thought I could finish this week.)
First published in 1956, Every Eye is, like Hetty Dorval, the story of a young woman’s coming of age under the influence an older woman who may or may not be a positive force. In this case, the older woman is the main character’s aunt. As in Hetty Dorval, we know that the older woman is believed to be a menace, but the nature of her wrongdoing is not entirely clear.
In Every Eye, Hatty, the protagonist, now in her late 30s and on a honeymoon trip with her younger husband, is looking back over her childhood and early adulthood, including her romance with an older man and her complex relationship with her aunt Cynthia. All of these relationships touch on one another, sometimes in ways that don’t make any sense until the final few lines of the book. Each character’s actions are affected by circumstances and experiences that aren’t always evident to those who are meeting them and trying to understand them in the present.
One of the themes of the book is how difficult it is to see the truth. Hatty herself has a lazy eye that keeps her from seeing the world clearly, and this lazy eye serves as a revealing motif. Even if her eyes were perfect, her vision would still be distorted, as everyone’s vision is, especially when it comes to romantic relationships:
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 present pressed into the leaves of a book when the life-giving stamens are blurred to a small yellow stain over the print.
I love this passage because it’s so honest about how we often look at relationships. Small gestures become huge and eventually disconnected from their original intent. It also makes me wonder how reliable Hatty’s own recollections about her past relationships are. She mentions several incidents that are pregnant with meaning for her, but are these mere specimens, detached from the people who gave them life?
Just as Hatty cannot always see the truth about others, she cannot always see the truth about herself. She lets others tell her who she is and what she is to become. In the company of others, she cannot be truly free and under her own control. When playing the piano before an audience, she slips up, even if the piece is familiar to her. In a beautiful section, toward the end of the novella, she plays only for herself:
I ran my fingers up an octave expecting discordancies that would make me bang down the lid and go away, but it was in pitch. The discovery was exquisite and soothing. I started carefully working my way into the first movement of Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto. I felt the power rising into my fingers and wrists; every note was under control, I could hear the line of melody ahead of my own playing, leading me on, the high points of the phrases shaped themselves from my fingers effortlessly. When I had come to the end, I got up and went away back to my room. I lay for a long time on my bed hearing isolated phrases of the music, and looked up at the ceiling, at the finally moulded rosette in the middle that had become blurred by the frequent layers of whitewash. I thought, this is at last my completion, an attainment of perfection that I had never hoped to hear from myself. The price I must pay is its secrecy. I think that I was happier then than I had ever been before in my life. This was my private harvest, and the knowledge of it was tempered with humility for the first time in all my more than thirty-five years.
This moment of clarity takes on greater significance a few pages later, and those moments combined make me delight in the direction Hatty’s life has taken.
Like so many great novellas, Every Eye is packed with ideas, and every moment seems to count. It’s a book that I think warrants revisiting.