A Good Re-read

Book cover
Every Eyeby Isobel English

David R. Godine. 151p $23.95


In an age habituated to sensationalism and big effects, an austere and nuanced novel like Isobel English’s Every Eyelike the work of her French predecessor Gustave Flaubertmay not appeal to everyone. Even Madame Bovary has the soap opera appeal of adultery (a theme, by the way, it shares with English’s first novel, The Key That Rusts).

Isobel English is a perfectionist, crafting aphoristic sentences as if she were doing an etchinghere an etching of middle-class life in Britain in the 1950’s, an era chronicled from different perspectives by the likes of Kingsley Amis, Iris Murdoch and Graham Greene. The Key That Rusts, in fact, competed with novels by the first two of those authors for the 1954 Somerset Maugham Prize.

Every Eye (first published in England in 1956) presents a single voice, Harriet (Hatty) Skelton Latterly, telling of her relationship with an aunt, Cynthia Miller Otway, who is by turns Hatty’s confidante, pal, mentor and conscience. In true modernist fashion (as with English’s Four Voices, the epigraph to Every Eye is from W. H. Auden), Hatty is an unlikely heroine: a second-class concert pianist turned piano teacher, with a cast in one eye and an almost debilitating sense of inferiority and sensitivity. Like some of Jane Austen’s characters, however, she has an eye for detail and nuance.

The novel begins on the day that Cynthia is buried, the same day that Hattyin her mid-30’ssets off on what might be a postponed honeymoon with her husband of a year, Stephen Latterly, a man several years younger than she. A quick narrative cut takes us back to Hatty’s first meeting with Cynthia, when she comes to visit, accompanied by Uncle Otway.

Successive cuts in narrativeanother High Modernist techniquebetween Hatty’s early relationship with Cynthia and the train trip to Barcelona, thence by boat to the Mediterranean island of Ibiza, form the background of Hatty’s relationship to Cynthia, Ted (Cynthia’s son by an earlier marriage), Jasper Lomax (a friend of the family) and Uncle Otway, to whom Cynthia was married for 19 years. The style is indirect. Sentences often provide complex, ambiguously emotion-laden sense perceptions.

As Hatty and Cynthia grow closer, Hatty puzzles over Cynthia’s relationship to Uncle Otway. Cynthia and Uncle Otway’s rather sudden, simple marriage ceremony is further complicated by Hatty’s mother’s reaction. One day Jasper Lomax appears. A friend who knew Otway and Hatty’s late father in India, Jasper recalls Hatty as an infant, when she tried to kick him with her boots. In time, the 50-year-old Lomax is taking Hatty out to dinner, then down to the resort of Maidenhead for a weekend. He later pays for an operation to correct Hatty’s eye. Meanwhile, Cynthia cautions and criticizes Hatty about her relationship with Lomax. She also tells how she had once planned to spend her single life on the island of Ibiza. Then she met Otwayeven as she was quite fond of anotherand fell in love without reservation. Ironically, it is Uncle Otwaywho seems to be a philandererwho warns Hatty most bluntly about her relationship with Lomax.

As Hatty and her young husband settle into the lazy routine of Ibiza, the tone and intensity shift. So bored at times that they cannot wait for letters from England, Hatty and Stephen set off to explore the islanda place that a recent New York Times Travel section piece recalled had been a hippie paradise in the early 1970’s and 1980’s.

Now the narrative cuts back to Hatty’s first meeting with Stephen at the Catholic convent school in France where Hatty had spent a number of years in her youth. It has now become a vacation retreat. A single woman in her 30’s, Hatty finds herself alone and unable to strike up a friendship, even with the otherlargely femaleguests. Stephen hears her playing the piano in an old farmhouse once owned by a French nobleman, and thisplus an unexpected night spent togetherseal their relationship.

Back on Ibiza, Stephen and Hatty try to find what they are told is one of the few historic sights on the island, the small chapel of a 14th-century hermit and alleged miracle-worker. The curious detour of ascent becomes a kind of pilgrimage, a literal as well as spiritual ascent. When they reach the chapel-hermitage, they enter, first one room and then another. Darkness and light, along with the images that confront the pair, create conflicting resonances. Amid revelations spiritual and profane, the two leave their names etched on one wall, along with seemingly countless other pilgrims; and the novel ends on a suspended note that suggests a mystery of conversion.

Every Eye is full of paradoxes and tonal dissonances. At the start it exudes a crass and arid materialism. The characters have little thought for values or ideals beyond survival and the assurance of one’s own pleasure and security. It is Jane Austen without virtue or the acknowledgment of vice, an almost amoral universe. In this context Stephen’s comment that Cynthia dedicates her life to a single person sounds particularly discordant. This tone carries into the first part of Stephen and Hatty’s vacation on Ibizaand is not entirely absent even at the end of the novel.

The final 30 pages of this short novel, however, suddenly change tone dramatically. All aspects of the novelcharacters, action and imagerybecome symbolic and potentially religious, if not specifically Catholic. And this change of tone, in turn, affects the reader’s recollection of earlier events: the significance of Jasper Lomax and of Cynthia’s marriage to Otway in particular.

The modest little re-issue of this novel begins with an introduction by Neville Braybrooke, the second husband of June Braybrooke, who took the pen name of Isobel English. English was a friend of such British writers as Stevie Smith, Elizabeth Bowen and Muriel Spark (who, according to Braybrooke, chose the titles for June’s second and third novels). But do not read the introduction before the novel itself. While the biographical sketch provides interesting context, it may lessen the novel’s artistic and moral impact.

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