Vision Quest

Isobel English (1920-94) had a brief but distinguished literary career that established her as a highly original stylist. From 1954 to 1973, this British writer published three novels and a collection of stories. Several of her stories first appeared in Commonweal. English’s work has long been out of print, but now her second novel, Every Eye-a wonderfully idiosyncratic, compressed exploration of identity, vision, and will-has been reissued. The reprint, a small handsome volume with a delightful introduction by her husband, the late Neville Braybrooke, is a welcome literary reincarnation.

“Isobel English” is a pseudonym. Born June Jolliffe, English was a sickly child, educated from the age of eight at a Catholic convent. At sixteen, she asked her parents’ permission to convert to the faith in which she had been educated. Permission denied by her Protestant parents, she did not convert until a few weeks before her second marriage, when she became June Braybrooke. Neville Braybrooke, a frequent Commonweal contributor, writes that she did not like the term “Catholic novel,” but there is, he points out, a strong “religious dimension” to her work, an aspect which attracted, among others, Graham Greene and Muriel Spark. Indeed, her style in Every Eye is as elliptical as Spark’s, but her language is far more poetic, her humor softer and sparer.

In alternating sections depicting present and past, the novel follows two parallel journeys. In the present, the protagonist Hatty travels to Ibiza with Stephen, her husband of one year. The first leg of their journey gets underway just after Hatty learns of the death of her once-beloved, later-resented aunt, who for years spoke longingly of her own years teaching on the Mediterranean island. Hatty’s account of the French landscape, her first sight of Paris, and the train trip itself braids anticipation, elation, and dread. At the Hôtel du Rive Gauche, she says, “It’s sinister, Stephen-we can’t go into the pitch black-it looks like a brothel.” These intertwining motifs of threat, darkness, and sexuality will continue as the couple spends a heady day in Barcelona and ferry on to Ibiza. If Hatty’s reaction to the country (“I do not yet understand the arrested Latin philosophy that is Spain”) is an alarming reminder of British colonial attitudes, a Spanish island is nonetheless where Hatty finally begins to come to terms with her responsibility for her own life.

The parallel journey, Hatty’s internal exploration of her past, is a through-line of high expectations, thwarted. Hatty is now a music teacher in her mid-thirties. Before meeting Stephen, who is several years younger, she despaired that she would ever marry. She had a love affair with an older man named Jasper Lomax, a family friend, but the family-especially her aunt-belittled the relationship, and Hatty’s marriage hopes foundered. Her adult life has been informed by a sense of herself as unattractive and unworthy: she suffered through childhood with a lazy eye, a physical condition that doubles nicely as a metaphor for spiritual torpor. It was her lover Lomax who finally paid for an operation to correct the eye.

The surgery cannot, however, correct her feeling that she will always be less than a whole person: “My eyes are quite straight now,” she says, “and there is no weakness in the controlling muscles of my right eye-yet this had not altered my vision. I am as aware of my corrected squint as if a limb had been removed, leaving only a network of attenuated sensations.” She is frustrated that she is a “second-rate” musician, the possessor of a fierce childhood talent who succumbs to anxiety and clumsiness when asked to perform by her family. Her uncle, the substitute for a father who died when Hatty was young, has tried to push her into secretarial college instead of a musical career. Her mother, meanwhile, has continually warned her against men and the ways they will belittle her.

Small wonder that Hatty is bitter, even as she delights in her new life with Stephen. She rages in silence at her family for denying her an operation that might have changed her sense of self, support for a musical career, marriage to a man who loved her. The two journeys, past and present, converge at the novel’s climax, when Hatty and Stephen hike up an Ibiza mountain to a medieval hermitage, tracing the journey of a man who cut himself off utterly in order to find God. There is no path to follow-they must make their own-but their persistence allows Hatty to see, finally, that her family’s disappointments mirror her own. She must take responsibility for her own will.

This is a novel of psychological insight, then, but that “religious dimension,” half-buried for most of the novel, re-emerges at the conclusion. Vision (of both the psychological and spiritual varieties) is so central to the novel’s language, imagery, and meaning that the motif becomes too repetitive—yet what English is constructing is otherwise so complicated and subtle that it does seem churlish to complain about too many references to the eye (or the “I,” the self-centeredness that Hatty must overcome). When she is not focusing on vision, English’s prose is evocative and often gorgeous. Hatty says, “I have always been a prey to the hidden qualities of color and scent set going by the impact of sounds,” echoing the author’s fascination with the sound of each sentence in Every Eye.

It is the “religious dimension” that is the most subtle and complicated aspect of the author’s journey motif. Though Hatty has not heretofore alluded to her own religious search, as she contemplates hiking up to the hermitage she ponders “how there has always been pain and discovery in every ascent.” When she reaches the plateau, she reflects on “the bright whiteness of eternity meditated on by mystics and recluses” and at the sight of the hermit’s bare crucifix, imagines what is not there: Christ’s “arms outstretched to unfold his people.” A religious dimension, indeed: one that marries medieval mysticism to modernist prose. Here’s hoping that Isobel English’s other works of fiction soon follow this one back into print.

Published in the 2006-11-17 issue: 

Valerie Sayers, Kenan Professor of English Emerita at the University of Notre Dame, is the author of The Age of Infidelity and Other Stories and six novels.

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