Every Eye by Isobel English

I first heard of Isobel English’s 1956 novella Every Eye when Emily at Evening All Afternoon wrote about it so beautifully. I knew based on her description of “people are icebergs to one another, with only a tiny portion of their vast internal continents perceptible at any given time,” and that “even between people who imagine themselves quite close, or who society expects to be close, there are still times of great emotional distance” I had to read it. I did love this aspect of the novella, but Emily writes so well about Hatty and her relationships that you should read her assessment and consider it seconded.

I’ll shift my focus just a bit to address a closely related topic: the way Hatty sees the world. The importance of vision is clear from the title; also, Hatty was born and grew up with a lazy eye that she hid in the shadows of strategically placed hat brims until a wealthy lover paid for her to have an operation that fixed it. In a book about perception, a large part of Hatty’s distance from the world and the other people in it is the fact that her perception has always been slightly off.

This manifests itself in several ways, including a certain synaesthetic bent. Hatty reminisces about a shopping trip she took with her mother as a teenager, before her uncle’s wedding. Her mother, complaining about her aunt-to-be, tells Hatty that “There are some people in this world who do not know the ropes.” Hatty is immediately taken on a mental journey:

And from there my mind, in the gray-felted stillness of this hat department, with the distant sunlight filtering through the netted windows, had been suddenly flooded with vaguely nautical feelings. A certain release, like a ray of ease and lightness, came into the whole proceedings, so that my mother and I were no longer even slightly in opposition but united into an ecstatic front.

These are the feelings that make up the bulky bottom of the iceberg; could Hatty’s mother ever guess that her cliché would lead to these feelings? Here the outcome is positive and leads to a feeling of companionship with her mother, but it could as easily have been the opposite.

Her physical condition has helped Hatty spend enough time thinking about these perceptual issues that by the time she is narrating Every Eye she is quite perceptive indeed. She “thought always before the operation on my eye that he source of discordancy between myself and other people lay in the distortion of my own vision; I did not know then as I do now that this outward sign was only the visible proof of inward impediment.” Once she has realized the true impediment, though, Hatty can begin to combat it. In narrating her trip with her husband Stephen, she triangulates: describing a scene from outside and inside can eliminate at least some of the distortion:

We are like dry stalks of corn in front of all this&mash;and the infusion we drink is as cerebral and exotic as the inhuman Chinese paintings of the Ming period. That is the outside of it, seen as it were from within. In fact, we are the clumsy and eccentric English who choose to drink a tisane fit only for invalids. We are here to be fleeced, only slightly less so since the arrival of the Americans.

She has also learned by this time to recognize the thoughts that can creep up and get in the way of more accurate perception: “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.” That nautical cliché extracted from her mother’s brisk department store chatter, for example.

It’s an interesting angle. To some extent, perception should be ignored, not because as fallible humans we may perceive things that don’t correspond to some outside reality, but because even real things—real, actual words and gestures—cease being what they really are once they enter our minds, where they almost inevitably take on inappropriate meaning or significance. Like with the other interpersonal issues Emily describes, it can seem bleak. But it all lines up rather well with my own, ahem, perception of the world—and what can go wrong in it.