Eyes in Fiction

Newspaper article: "Eyes in Fiction - Favourite Colours of Famous Novelists." published in the St James's Gazette - Thursday 13 October 1898

Eyes in Fiction - Favourite Colours of Famous Novelists.

In the October number of "Lippincott’s Magazine,” which is quite up the usual high standard of that excellent American periodical, Miss Nina R. Allen writes on the subject of gray eyes in fiction. No one who reads with an observant eye (she remarks) can fail to perceive that gray eyes are regarded with great favour by the writers of short stories and by recent novelists. It is also a fact that among the authors of two, three, or four decades ago there are many whose work gives evidence of an admiration for orbs of this colour. This preference may be due to the fact that the eyes of most writers are gray-blue or gray.

In England, where it is said more varieties of colouring in the iris are to be found than in any other country, the poets almost always have gray eyes. Lady Blessington has told us that Byron’s eyes were gray and full of expression,” while one of his biographers speaks of his beautiful, changeful gray eyes.” If we may accept tradition, Shakespeare’s eyes were gray; and Coleridge had eyes of the same colour, with greenish tints. George Eliot had eyes of bluish gray, constantly varying in colour from a decided blue to a pale, washed-out gray.

Both Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot seem to have had an admiration for gray eyes. Scott, himself blue-eyed, seems to have had scant liking for gray orbs. It is true that Jeanie Deans had eyes of this hue, but we are given to understand that her personal attractions were of the commonest description. A figure “short, rather too stout, gray eyes, light-coloured hair, a round good-humoured face, much tanned with the sun," —these surely formed but a poor outfit for a heroine in Scott’s time. For at this period noble brows were in fashion, and a heroine who was anybody had a forehead that extended half-way back to her crown; her eyes were several sizes too large for her; her mouth was of the rosebud variety, and scarcely as big as her eye. Swanlike necks prevailed; eye-brows were superbly arched; jetty ringlets were in favour. It can readily be seen that gray eyes would be but a poor accompaniment to charms like these. Scott’s fine ladies are accordingly either of the gentle, pensive, shrinking type, with mild, languishing blue eyes, or they are showy creatures with sable tresses and flashing dark eyes.

Dickens’s Catholic Taste. The fair women who appear in Dickens’s pages are seldom gray-eyed. The redoubtable Miss Mowcher, who is not fair, has a pair of roguish gray eyes. But Little Dorrit’s eyes are soft hazel; Dolly Varden’s are dark; Lucie Manette’s, like those of the child, Little Nell, are bright blue. Little Em’ly, too, has blue eyes soft, sorrowful blue eyes,” as they are described by Mr. Peggotty after the tragedy of her youth. Although there are fourteen different allusions in “David Copperfield” to the eyes of Agnes Wickfield, we do not find one word descriptive of their colour. But when we reflect that fourteen separate adjectives are used to describe them, and when we consider the nature of these, it seems to me that there is little doubt that they were gray. For no other eye is capable of such infinite variety of expression. What other eyes are at once soft, tender, clear, calm, mild, earnest, seraphic, beaming, cordial, serene, sweet, true, quiet, beautiful? Do we not think of the beautiful face which David Copperfield first saw, with the stained-glass window as its background, as pale, delicate, sweet, lighted up by large, black-lashed gray eyes, framed in silky dark hair?

Collins, Reade, and George Eliot.

Wilkie Collins, in his novel “No Name,” gives a description of gray eyes which is fine, because it so accurately sets forth their distinguishing peculiarity. Magdalen Vanstone, a young lady who is not beautiful yet singularly fascinating, is the possessor of large, electric light-gray eyes.” These (we are told), which should have been dark, were incomprehensibly and discordantly light; they were of that nearly colourless gray which, though little attractive in itself, possesses the rare compensating merit of interpreting the finest gradations of thought, the gentlest changes of feeling, the deepest trouble of passion, with a subtle transparency of expression which no darker eyes can rival.” Dinah Morris had such eyes as these, though perhaps with less range of expression, for George Eliot says, The eyes had no peculiar beauty beyond that of expression; they looked so simple, candid, so gravely loving, that no accusing scowl, no light sneer, could help melting away before their glance.” There was no keenness in Dinah’s gaze. As the fair young preacher appeared on the village green, stared at by a curious throng, her eyes “seemed rather to be shedding love than making observations.” To return to Wilkie Collins and his heroines, Mary Dermody in “The Two Destinies” has “grand, guileless gray eyes.”

From the pages of this novelist, also, looks forth Mercy Merrick, least puppet-like of Collins’s female characters, strong and pathetic in her efforts to rise from her fallen estate, turning towards us a patient, beautiful face, with “an innate grandeur in the gaze of her large gray eyes.” The “ sweet, celestial, superior gaze ” of Kate Peyton, the wife of jealous Griffith Gaunt, was due to a pair of gray eyes. In the following characteristic description, Charles Reade alludes to the reason why she was not popular with men. He says, “Her hair was golden and glossy; her eyes a lovely gray; and she had a way of turning them on slowly and full, so that their victim could not fail to observe two things; first, that they were grand and beautiful orbs; second, that they were thoughtfully overlooking him instead of looking at him. So contemplated by glorious eyes, a man feels small and bitter.” Ina Klosking, the beloved of “A Woman-Hater,” had gray eyes, large and profound.” These are the eyes described by Emerson as liquid and deep,—wells that man might fall into.”

 Examples from Living Writers.

Among living writers, Conan Doyle, like William Black, seems to have no little admiration for gray eyes. With one of two exceptions, the people are gray-eyed who appear in the stories that make up the Volume called “Round the Red Lamp.” Alleyne Edricson, the young squire of Sir Nigel Loring, in “The White Company,” has clear, pensive gray eyes, while the heroine of “The Refugees” has dreamy gray eyes, piquantly contrasting with her blue-black hair and ivory skin. A contrast to these are the gray eyes of the insane count in Mr. Crawford’s artistic and beautiful story, “A Cigarette-maker’s Romance.” “From under his rather heavy eyebrows a pair of keen eyes, full of changing light and expression, look somewhat contemptuously on the world and its inhabitants.” Equally different from the keen eyes of unfortunate Count Kariatine and the dreamy orbs of Adele Catinat are those which belong to Marcus Orford, one of John Strange Winters handsome young soldiers, who (we are told) had pair of eyes gray as tabby-cats; eyes that when they were not dancing with fun could put on a die-away look that women found irresistible.”

Charlotte Bronte’s Descriptions.

Charlotte Bronte has bestowed gray eyes on a number of her characters. Helen Burns, whose prototype was her own little sister Maria, has sunken gray eyes; the odious Mr. Brocklehurst has inquisitive-looking gray eyes; Rose Yorke, Robert Moore, and the heroine, all of “Shirley,” are depicted with eyes of this colour, differing from each other only in expression.

The cold gray eye has nowhere been better described than in “Jane Eyre.” The little governess herself, as every one knows, like Becky Sharp, had green eyes, although to Mr. Rochester they appeared radiant hazel. But Mrs. Reed, the hard-hearted aunt of this most attractive of plain heroines, turned upon her unloved niece “an eye of ice,” a “peculiar eye which nothing could melt,” a cairngorm eye, evidently a hard brownish-gray eye with a glittering surface but no depth, which is also spoken of as “ stony eye—opaque to tenderness, indissoluble to tears,” an “eye devoid of truth.”

St James's Gazette - Thursday 13 October 1898