I find that many novellas sneak up on me: I spend the first 50 or even 75 pages feeling underwhelmed, struggling against the compression of the form, and just when I've got into the rhythm of the language and begun to be truly invested in the characters...the thing is over. Such was certainly the case with Isobel English's 1956 novella Every Eye. English writes with a careful precision that at first struck me as cold and unapproachable, but later came to seem like a perfect, unassuming vessel for the voice of her main character. She portrays an almost unbridgeable distance between humans, which at first appeared to be a lack of character development, but gradually revealed itself as a conscious philosophical—or at least psychological—stance, a portrait of the protagonist Hatty's lived reality. As I turned the final page, I ended up feeling that somehow, while I wasn't paying close enough attention, English's narrative had grown and ripened into itself, filling completely the space it had made.
The 37-year-old Hatty, as English's story opens, is torn between two impulses. She has just gotten word that her uncle's wife Cynthia has died: this brings back complicated feelings of events long past, memories of the ambivalent relationship with Cynthia she had as a young woman. At the same time, she is about to embark on delayed honeymoon through France to Ibiza with her younger husband Stephen, which forces her into the present and all the awkwardness and imperfection of traveling. As she and Stephen make their way south, strings of thought about what happened between her and Cynthia—and, by extension, between her and her uncle, and her mother, and a male friend of her uncle and aunt— occur and recur in Hatty's mind, as she tries to sort out her feelings upon learning that this family member who was once important to her has died. Hatty's memories of her past—from an awkward girl of fourteen, convinced that her skill at the piano marks her out as different from those around her, to a disillusioned twenty-five-year-old teaching piano between the wars, to a post-war emotional convalescent returning to the site of her childhood—intermingle fluidly with the pleasures and obstacles of her and Stephen's journey to Spain.
One of the things that kept striking me about Every Eye up until the last thirty or so pages, was a sense of coldness and unbridgeable distance between people, specifically between Hatty and Stephen (who, one gets the sense, the reader is supposed to feel glad are together). Compared to Hatty's visceral push-pull relationship with Cynthia, Stephen seems like a shadowy presence, asleep in a train car across from her or conversing with their tour guide while she lets her attention wander. While she suffers from shipboard insomnia, he is fast asleep on deck; when she hovers on the doorstep of a dodgy-looking hotel, he dismisses her fears and drags her inside. But although Stephen does comes to life a bit more in the last 30-50 pages of the novella, I came to realize that this distance is part of Hatty's experience of life with everyone—even, it turns out, Cynthia herself. There are moments of connection, of sympathy, and relief, but for the most part humans are set on tracks unknown to one another, which can only be understood much later, if at all. "I was over twenty-five," Hatty writes,
and I had come within the core of myself to know that I could never successfully make a real contact with another human being.
The one relationship she has in her twenties becomes unhappy and ridiculous precisely because she tries to overcome this, tries to make her dealings with her uncle's friend conform to the narrative she has learned about romance, love, proposals, and marriage.
I thought, he is a perfectionist and it is his way of saying that he wishes his possessions to be flawless. I read into the gentle coaxing subtleties that went far beyond the limited feelings that one human being can have for another.
This at first struck me as an overly bleak view, but now I think differently. I think it's less about condemning the whole of humanity to an isolated existence free of meaningful connection, and more about admitting that even between people who imagine themselves quite close, or who society expects to be close, there are still times of great emotional distance. Hatty, by the end of this novella, doesn't reach the romantic ideal of having all her demons exorcised, but she starts to gain the ability to take her interactions with other people for what they are—awkward or relieving, revealing or monotonous—without expecting them to be something different.
How far apart we were, sitting together side by side. I know that it is not enough simply to coordinate two lives by the trick of words and vows; rarely spaced are the moments that two people can settle together on a pinnacle of illumination or understanding and count it as unity. I thought always before the operation on my eye that the 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 an inward impediment.
When we finally see, toward the end of the book, the scenes of courtship between Hatty and Stephen, we understand better what a relief and accomplishment it can be simply to accept events as they happen, genuinely, without freighting them with expectation or fear. In the same way, Hatty is filled with happiness when she finally meets a villager in her old childhood home who will compliment her on having fixed her formerly lazy eye: she, and by this point the reader, crave a simple, honest interaction that acknowledges the past and exists in the present.
I've seen a few people describe Every Eye as "romantic," but I don't really think that fits, not in the traditional sense of "romantic," anyway. There is no whirlwind passion for Hatty and Stephen, or even, most of the time, a companionable understanding. (After all, they have only known each other two years.) Neither is there, thankfully in my opinion, any notion of "meant to be": Hatty frankly acknowledges that she and Stephen happened to meet at the right time in both their lives, and that if they had met in different circumstances, she would never have connected with him. In English's world, people are icebergs to one another, with only a tiny portion of their vast internal continents perceptible at any given time. Understanding does not come easily to these characters; it's not intuitive. But that doesn't mean they don't try, and that they don't sometimes achieve a moment of true sincerity and connection with one another—and, possibly more importantly, with themselves. In the end, having seen the importance of the time Hatty spends alone in her old childhood town, away from the controlling influences of her early life, I couldn't feel too sorry that she sometimes feels alone even when Stephen is present. If "alone" is separated from "lonely," after all, it becomes more about peace than about pain.