Isobel English’s Every Eye (1956)
Persephone Number 18
Persephone Books, 2000

Cynthia has died.

We learn that in the first sentence of Every Eye. From Hatty. Who is telling her story from the perspective of her middle years.

Hatty is freshly married and Cynthia has freshly died. Both events have given Hatty pause.

She remembers being a teenager, and first meeting Cynthia, who married Hatty’s Uncle Otway nineteen years ago. At the time, Hatty was fourteen and she was spellbound by Cynthia, but the relationship between the women changed as the years passed.

There were some imperfections in their relationship, even early on, but it wasn’t serious. Hatty observes that “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.”

Later there are more serious disappointments and conflicts between the women. In fact, when Hatty gets the news of Cynthia’s death, it’s been six years since she saw Cynthia. Small lacerations don’t heal as quickly in later life; they are compounded, the wounds widen and fester.

But now that Hatty is a new wife, she is re-thinking the kind of adjustments that Cynthia had to make when she was married to Hatty’s Uncle Otway.

The older Hatty recognizes some of the strains under which Cynthia laboured (although some of Cynthia’s truth is not apparent until the novel is well underway).

“I had watched the efforts of day-to-day living drag the tendrils of flyaway hair into an iron-gray cap, the wet forget-me-not blue eyes sink into their bruised hollows to become the color of stones.”

When she was younger, Hatty wasn’t aware or sympathetic to Cynthia’s day-to-day reality. (But doesn’t the author describe it perfectly?) Nonetheless, as Hatty has grown up, she has come to appreciate things differently. And, most of all, she has struggled to connect. Not only with Cynthia, but with anybody.

“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. I knew, without the exercise of much imagination, what happened to women like myself — nothing, except perhaps the increasing weakness…”

Even now, from the point at which Hatty is reflecting on her earlier years, when she is just married, she continues to marvel at her sense of isolation and separation.

“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.”

Every Eye is a short Persephone novel, and like some of the other short Persephone novels (say, Marghanita Laski’s The Victorian Chaise-Longue or To Bed with Grand Music, or Julia Strachey’s Cheerful Weather for the Wedding), there is more to think about and to discuss than you might guess from the page count.

Characters’ motivations are unclear throughout — partly this is because Hatty is still unclear on her feelings about Cynthia, and partly this is because we gain essential information which fundamentally alters our understanding of Cynthia near the end of this novel — and their emotions are heightened and complex.

In addition, it appears that Isobel English (actually a pseudonym adopted by June Braybrooke) has a healthy respect of the unknown. There is at least one scene in Every Eye in which readers are given to think that a spirit has presented itself. But, at the subject matter reveals, what is known is often every bit as confusing as what remains unknown.

In all, this makes for a curiously unsettling read. But in a good way.

Companion Reads: Ethel Wilson’s Hetty Dorval. Which would also make great reading for Persephone Reading Week, hosted by Claire and Verity.