This weekend's story, "The Blue Lenses" is a reread for me. I enjoyed the story the first time around several years ago and was happy to revisit it, and even found I couldn't quite recall the twist at the end of the story. I originally found it in a collection my public library had called The Breaking Point that was published in 1959 and am now happy to have the story in a collection of my own. In the original book there are illustrations before each story by Margot Tomes. This is the illustration for "The Blue Lenses"--no doubt it will give you a few ideas about what the story is about. If you want to know more, read on, but beware of spoilers!
Marda West is recuperating in a nursing home in London after an operation which is supposed to restore her sight. Although she was blind, at one time she could see. For days after the operation she had rested, a crepe binder and layers of cotton wool covering her eyes. The nurses and doctors reassure her that the operation was a success and soon she will see again. Temporary blue lenses have been implanted in her eyes. When the binding is removed she will be able to see, but only shapes initially. After her eyes have had a chance to adjust, the lenses will be switched and she will see everything once again in vivid color. It has been arranged that after she is released from the nursing home, her favorite nurse, Nurse Ansel, will accompany Marda and her husband home for the first week as she gets used to having her sight once again.
The day arrives for the bandages to come off. Slowly everything comes into focus. She doesn't even care that she can't see the room in color. She could spend hours just looking at the shapes. She feels as though this is a rebirth for her, to see again. But something has gone wrong.
"Smiling, she saw the figure dressed in uniform come into the room, bearing a tray, her glass of milk upon it. Yet, incongruous, absurd, the head with the uniformed cap was not a woman's head at all. The thing bearing down on her was a cow...a cow on a woman's body. The frilled cap was perched upon the wide horns. The eyes were large and gentle, but cow's eyes, the nostrils broad and humid, and the way she stood there, breathing, was the way a cow stood placidly in pasture, taking the day as it came, content, unmoved."
It's not just Nurse Brand. Everyone has an animal's head. Her doctor has the head of a Jack Russell. The night porter the head of a fish. Another nurse the head of a kitten. With each person she encounters the animal seems increasingly more predatory. When she sees herself in a mirror she is normal. The photos of people in a magazine are normal. What is happening? She believes it to be some sort of terrible ruse. These people must be wearing masks. Her doctor assures her everything is as it should be and that the operation went off without a hitch. He tells her,
"You'll actually see more clearly in every way. One patient told me that it was as though she had been wearing spectacles all her life, and then, because of the operation she saw all her friends and family as they really were."
Most terrifyingly her husband has the head of a vulture and her favorite nurse, who will be returning home with her has the head of a snake. She tries to explain what she sees, but the nursing home staff is offended and think she's mad. She decides it is some sort of horrible plot, but is unsure how and why they are doing this.
In the end she tries to run away, but has nowhere to run to. And she's caught. I won't tell you the final denouement, but the story is worth reading. The final twist is wonderful. Marda's sight was indeed restored. Restored so perfectly that she now sees everyone for what they truly are. I found an article in the Guardian about "the dark side" of Du Maurier's short stories. Patrick McGrath (who also edits this collection) made a wonderful parallel between "The Blue Lenses" and "Don't Look Now". In both stories blindness and clairvoyance are central themes.
When I first bought The Daphne du Maurier Companion I was initially disappointed as it seemed most of the essays were simply the introductions reprinted from each individual novel published by Virago, but I am finding there is more new material here than I realized--particularly when it comes to her short stories. I always like reading more about a novel or short story when I can as it helps me make connections I might otherwise have missed. There were some interesting insights into this story--feminist undertones that I didn't quite see. I won't go into them here as I don't want to spoil anymore of the story, but I did come across something of interest, which I will share. It's taken from an essay by Sheila Hodges called "Editing Daphne du Maurier".
"The stories, like the rest of her fiction, were often based on some scene, person or episode that had struck her imagination and had been stored at the back of her mind until she was ready to write it down. 'The Blue Lenses' which was published in 1959 in the collection called The Breaking Point, goes back in origin to 1933, when she told Leo Walmsley that she wanted to write about an imaginary nursing home, describing all the odd characters who might be met in such a place. Here, twenty-six years later, they all are. The Breaking Point was written at a time of crisis in her own life, and each of these stories reflects her inner turmoil. 'In a sense,' she wrote to her friend Foy Quiller-Couch, 'they are all a protest at the cruelty and misunderstanding which abound in the world--beneath the surface lurk evils we do not understand in ourselves.' It was by writing about the things that disturbed, or even tormented, her that Daphne sought to exorcise them."
Next week two shorter stories: "La Saint-Vierge" and "Indiscretion". Sadly I am nearing the end of the collection, though the last story is almost novella length, so I guess I'll finish with a bang. I'll have to see what other short stories I can find by her as I've really enjoyed those I've read.