Travis Elborough on the best books with specs
In an article for Vanity Fair published in January 1916 and entitled In Defense of Astigmatism: A Brief in Favor of Specs, Pince-nez and Goggles, PG Wodehouse took the likes of H G Wells and Arnold Bennett to task for failing to make the main characters in their novels glasses-wearers.
The creator of Jeeves and Wooster and the monocled Rupert (sometimes Ronald) Eustace Psmith, argued that with so many people wearing spectacles it was ‘absurd’ for contemporary authors ‘to go on writing in these days for a normal-sighted public’. They should therefore think seriously about ‘goggling their heroes’.
Over the course of researching my book, Through the Looking Glasses, a personal history of spectacles from their origins as optical aids for monkish scribes in the middle ages to the augmented reality of Google Glass, I sought out as many novels, stories, memoirs, plays, movies and songs as I could find featuring the four-eyed and glasses.
Given that spectacles were really first invented for squinting at the written word, it’s perhaps hardly surprising that the field is large. Eyewear is referenced in everything from William Shakespeare’s ‘Seven Ages of Man’ speech in As you Like It and Voltaire’s Candide to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.
Golding, however, gets a black mark from optometrists for claiming in his classic tale of feral schoolboys that the overweight myope Piggy’s glasses could be used to light fires. He would have needed convex lenses to correct longsightedness for this to work.
Piggy, in any case, represents an all too common trope in fiction and elsewhere of the brainy, if physically inferior spectacle-wearer. Clark Kent, of the DC Comics stable, is another prime example. He may allow the visiting alien Kal-El aka Superman to live covertly among humankind and is obviously a nice guy, but he is also clumsy and short-sighted, incapable of flight, and not the one doing the duffing up of wrong-doers and the general superhero stuff. In short, he is all too human, rather than an ubermensch, and Kal-El is always more super without his glasses on.
At the time Wodehouse wrote ‘In Defense’, he was Vanity Fair’s drama critic. His successor in that post was Dorothy Parker. To her great annoyance in later life, Parker would become almost solely known for ‘News Item’ – the pithy nine-word epigram in which she quipped that ‘Men seldom make passes / At girls who wear glasses’. And there is almost a whole literary sub-genre of novels, most written during the inter-war period, concerned with the thwarted romantic hopes of bespectacled spinsters.
The form is exemplified by Flora Macdonald Mayor’s The Rector’s Daughter. A magnificent and biting study of social mores from 1924, its eponymous heroine, Mary Jocelyn, is ‘a decline’ of thirty-five, whose beautiful eyes are hidden by a pair of thickly lensed glasses. But with only ten (or eleven) in the frame I’ve sadly had to omit it.
Similarly, the unnamed narrator of Zadie Smith’s Swing Time is nominally a glasses-wearer. But perhaps the most salient detail in the novel’s opening sequence, where she is horrified to watch Fred Astaire performing in blackface in the 1938 movie that supplied the book with its title, is that she doesn’t have her glasses on then.
Here is a selection of works in which spectacles get more than a decent look in. (There are bound to be others I’ve overlooked due to my own short-sightedness.)
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
Set in a Benedictine Abbey somewhere in Northern Italy in 1327, Eco’s novel combines a page-turning mystery – one whose plot revolves around the agreeably grisly murders of half a dozen monks, the coming of the antichrist and a ‘lost’ volume of Aristotle’s Poetics – with a disposition on the limits of secular and spiritual power, reason and faith, and tradition and progress in the late middle ages. The book’s main character is a monk-detective, the Franciscan friar William of Baskerville, whose ageing eyesight and sleuthing skills are enhanced by a pair of early rivet-nose spectacles. It also relates some of the mythic stories that surround the possible inventor of glasses in this era, an artisan whose much-contested identity is still unknown.
The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Eco’s Baskerville was named in honour of Sherlock Holmes’ most famous case. But before Conan Doyle achieved literary fame, he’d qualified as a physician in Edinburgh and practised in Southsea, going on to study ophthalmology in Vienna. On returning to Britain in 1891, he took premises in Upper Wimpole Street, London, and tried, without success, to establish himself as an eye doctor. The failure of this venture was soon softened by the sudden demand for the Holmes stories he’d begun to pen in his spare time, and Doyle abandoned medicine for good to concentrate on writing. And in this ‘Adventure’ involving pesky one-time Russian anarchists, published in 1904 in the Strand Magazine, the consulting detective is hired to solve the murder of a factotum to an elderly professor. The former’s dead hands are found to be still clutching onto a rather fancy pair of pince-nez style spectacles.
Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers
Lord Peter Wimsey, Sayers’ aristocratic and monocle-sporting sleuth, first appeared in her 1923 novel Whose Body? – another work of crime fiction featuring a corpse and a pair of pince-nez. The body in question here is discovered in a bath, all but naked aside from these spectacles. Some years later, fellow mystery author Ngaio Marsh would note Sayers’ own preference for this by then rather antiquated style of eyewear, describing the writer as ‘robust, round and rubicund’, a cross ‘between a guardsman and a female don with a jolly face (garnished with pince-nez), short grey curls, & a gruff voice’. With its action largely confined to Shrewsbury, a women-only Oxford college modelled after Somerville, Gaudy Night is itself almost entirely peopled by female dons. Intended by Sayers as a final outing for Wimsey, this 1935 novel belongs more fully to Harriet Vane, her whodunnit-writing fictional alter ego. Wimsey spends most of the novel conspicuously out of view, detained abroad on top-secret government business. If also lacking a body in the (university) library, the novel, nevertheless boasts a full complement of bespectacled spinster academics. All of whom come under suspicion as Vane seeks to unmask the person responsible for a malicious campaign that escalates from poison pen letters to physical assaults in the previously studious cloisters of her alma mater.
The Cheaters by Robert Bloch
PG Wodehouse is credited with being one of the very first people (if not the first) to use the American slang, ‘cheaters’, for a pair of eyeglasses, in print. The horror writer Robert Bloch, whose novel Psycho was famously brought to the big screen by Alfred Hitchcock, began his career writing for pulp magazines as a teenager. He’d been encouraged to submit stories to such periodicals by his hero HP Lovecraft, who served as a mentor to Bloch, and the pair kept up a lengthy correspondence, though never met in person. And ‘The Cheaters’, despite first appearing in Weird Tales in 1947, a decade after Lovecraft’s passing, bears the imprint of the master’s influence – though shades of James M Cain’s classic noir The Postman Always Rings Twice are also discernible. A peculiar pair of spectacles that allow their wearers to see what others are thinking are at the centre of this brilliantly, mordantly creepy story. The title also alludes to the ignoble actions of many of its characters, who are variously would-be murderers, swindlers, shoplifters, double-crossers, chisellers and adulterers. Told in a sequence of first-person narratives, it reveals the unhappy fates of a series of individuals who come into possession of the aforementioned ‘cheaters’. This pair of old silver glasses have the word ‘Veritas’ engraved on the bridge across the nose and are initially discovered during the house-clearance of a suitably spooky ruined mansion once owned by Dirk Van Prinn, a dabbler in sorcery.
The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler
Much like his creator, Chandler’s Philip Marlowe is chiefly a man interested in the sort of glasses into which you pour Old Forester bourbon – and in book after book the gumshoe is a fastidious, almost obsessive-compulsive, washer-upper and wiper-cleaner of spent nightcap highballs and morning chaser tumblers. But in The Little Sister Marlowe displays a rather canny awareness of contemporary female optical fashions when engaged to find a missing brother by the novel’s namesake, Orfamay Quest, a ‘prissy-looking’ young lady from Kansas with ‘that Librarian’s look’ in ‘rimless cheaters’. The plot, even by Chandler’s standards, is as twisted as a lemon peel in a martini, involving as it does blackmail, extortion, filial betrayal and all manner of other dark deeds under the bright sun and neon lights of Southern California – including a run of slayings by ice pick. One of those murdered, and adding further spectacle-interest, is supposedly a ‘retired optometrist’ from El Centro.
A View from the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor
As someone who was raised in a faded seaside town and as also the author of a history of the English by the beach, I believe Elizabeth Taylor’s 1947 novel, A View from the Harbour, with its decayed coastal setting, deserves its place in any marine library worth its (sea) salt. But as Sarah Waters observes in her introduction to the current Virago edition, it’s a novel ‘in which people watch each other’ – and a book where one of its main characters, Beth, is a bespectacled novelist who fails to see the burgeoning affair between her husband Robert and her friend, their next door neighbour Tory.
The Adventure of a Nearsighted Man by Italo Calvino
Calvino’s fable-like story, featured in the collection Difficult Loves, relates the experiences of a myope whose whole world has been opened up by his new spectacles. However, on returning after some years’ absence to the provincial city of his birth, he finds that while he can finally see former classmates and old billiard-playing companions, no one recognises him.
The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles by Giorgio Bassani
Bassani’s 1958 novel is one of a series of books (of which the best known is The Garden of the Finzi-Continis) written by the Italian author and editor about his native Ferrara that have recently appeared in elegant new English translations by the poet Jamie McKendrick. Providing a potent metaphor for Italy’s descent into fascism and the persecution of Jews and other minorities, it tells the story of the gradual ostracisation of Athos Fadigati, a kindly gay doctor in 1930s Ferrera whose spectacles and dapper dress serve to conceal his nature, if simultaneously drawing attention to it.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling
Perhaps one of the most short-sighted acts of my life was to leave an advanced uncorrected proof copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in my locker when I left a job in the children’s department of Waterstone’s bookshop in Birmingham in the mid-late 1990s. Despite more recent controversies, these now change hands for thousands of pounds, with one seemingly selling for £9,275 at auction in 2017, and the boy wizard has to be among the most-loved glasses wearers of all children’s literature. Quizzed by BBC’s Newsround about why she gave him spectacles, Rowling replied that she’d worn glasses throughout her childhood and had always wanted to read about a bespectacled hero, having grown ‘sick and tired’ of only encountering ‘brainy’ characters with glasses in books.
Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
Admittedly the black-framed glasses she sports are lensless – part of the costume she dons, along with a sweatshirt and jeans with turn-ups, when snooping on her neighbours in the Upper East Side of Manhattan – but as an antidote to the likes of the Prom Queen-groomed Nancy Drew, Harriet M Welsch, the precocious sixth grade protagonist of Louise Fitzhugh’s 1964 children’s book, surely helped a generation, or three, of young girls to feel a whole lot better about wearing glasses and not quite fitting in. Fitzhugh herself was gay, and the tomboyish character has since been hailed as something of a lesbian style icon.
Glad to Wear Glasses by John Hegley
Cutting his teeth on the cabaret circuit with the band The Popticians, who recorded a session for the John Peel show in 1983, Hegley’s poetic output touches comically on the matter of spectacles, alongside dogs and his childhood hometown of Luton. This collection from 1990 contains some of his choicest verse about eyewear, including the sequence ‘Alice looking through glasses’ and ‘Poem about losing my glasses’.
Cultural historian and glasses wearer Travis Elborough has written on the seaside, parks and LPs, among other subjects. His latest book, the highly entertaining Through the Looking Glasses: The Spectacular Life of Spectacles (Little Brown), is available now. Buy a copy here.