“I don’t believe you ever see anything dead on, only at a peculiar angle through the corner of your eye”
Given to me by a good friend; Every Eye has been on my tbr for a long time. A slim novella at around 120 pages, I was prompted to read it following a conversation on the Libraything Virago group. A couple of members were discussing the equal brilliance of the last lines of the title story in Roman Fever and the final line of this Persephone novella. Well as I was already reading one I absolutely had to read the other too.
Isobel English is best known for Every Eye, her second novel, she wrote a couple more novels some stories and a play, but as far as I can see none of those are currently available. Isobel English was a pseudonym, her real name was June Braybrooke, and the prologue of this Persephone edition is written by her husband.
“Nothing is ever lost that is begun, no word spoken that can ever be broken down to unco-ordinated syllables, no tear shed that will leave only a powdering of white salt. Everything must go on, and on, and on, repeating itself and gathering force for the ever that is still only the bright whiteness of eternity meditated on by mystics and recluses.”
Every Eye is the story of a young woman whose life could have been made unhappier than it eventually turned out. There is however, a quiet sadness in the midst of what we are supposed to see as her final, recent happiness. We meet Hatty, when she is in her thirties, not long married to a younger man, and anticipating a holiday with her husband Stephen to Ibiza, a delayed honeymoon. On the eve of their departure Hatty hears that Cynthia has died (a few pages later we learn Cynthia had married her uncle 19 years earlier). It is six years since Hatty cut herself free of Cynthia – the novel is an exploration of this relationship – and others – and the impact these relationships have upon her.
As Hatty and Stephen travel by train through Europe toward their holiday destination, Hatty reflects on her relationship with Hatty, her Uncle Otway who Cynthia married, and the relationship she had in her twenties with a much older man. The story switches back and forth between the present and the past, Isobel English’s writing is superb. Hatty is a pianist, and it is around the time that Cynthia came into her life, when she was fourteen, that Hatty began to realise she wouldn’t make her living from playing piano on stage – she does instead become a piano teacher. Uncle Otway is a large presence in her life, a big handsome blustering man, a little interfering in the fatherless girl’s life. Hatty, who always feels like a stranger in her family, doesn’t care much for him, though she likes the small, blue eyed woman, Cynthia; who he brings to the house one day. Cynthia has been married before and has a son the same age as Hatty, she has spent time living in Ibiza – a place the fourteen-year-old Hatty can have no idea she too will one day travel.
Hatty has a problem with one eye, a squint or lazy eye, giving her eye the appearance of looking into the side of her nose, Hatty’s mother encourages her to have an operation to fix it, though it is a very expensive proposition – Hatty is not easily persuaded as she is a little squeamish at the thought. Years later when Hatty begins again to consider it, her mother works hard to dissuade her. Hatty has grown up being advised not to draw attention to it, wear broad brimmed hats to help disguise it.
Sight, as perhaps the title refers to in a way, is a recurring theme, clear-sightedness, the eye of the beholder, the way we see others, the way others see us. Hatty sees her eye as being a deformity, it affects her self-esteem, and impacts on the first proper relationship she has, with an older man. Hatty doesn’t believe he can find her attractive, she is charmed and attracted by his interest in her, his affection and kindness but she can’t help but notice his wrinkled sagging skin, his age. Similarly, as she now journeys with Stephen on their late, long looked forward to honeymoon, she can’t help but notice the disparity in their ages – wondering how others see them. Another theme is age, there is a discernible difference in age in three important relationships within the novel.
Cynthia of course we only see through Hatty’s reminiscence, a woman liked by the fourteen-year-old Hatty, but things change – and gradually Cynthia becomes a more negative presence in her life. Sharp, critical, she subverts Hatty’s first relationship – has Hatty doubting herself. Within a few years of marrying Otway, Cynthia has certainly altered physically, a baby born to her in middle age has played a part in that, as has the reduction of her husband’s army pension. She appears changed in other ways too, more cynical and brittle. When their money no longer stretches as far as it used to, Cynthia takes cleaning jobs behind her husband’s back. Cynthia is a survivor.
“ ‘I don’t know why people have their photographs taken,’ I say. ‘Cynthia altered so much in appearance that strangers used to ask who it was in the place of honour on the piano. She used to laugh; obviously she got a kick in keeping the record of the person she had once been always before her eyes.’
‘It must have been her peak period,’ Stephen smiles. ‘People sometimes go through their whole lives without ever reaching the moment when they are exactly the person they want to be.’ “
The sense of place in the novel is wonderful too – France, Spain and Ibiza by train and boat – places evoked beautifully by Isobel English, although Hatty’s view of them is warped by her view of herself and her memories of the past. The one person we never see clearly however is Stephen – I wonder if this is deliberate – I can only assume it is. Stephen is a bit of a mystery remaining an enigma for the reader as the novel comes to its brilliant end. The ending brings the past and present together in such a way the reader almost wants to go back and start all over again, it is the kind of ending you remember, but also makes you want to re-read – well I’m sure I will one day.