I read Carson McCuller’s short novel, Reflections in a Golden Eye a few weeks ago and meant to write a review…but I never quite got round to it. McCuller’s first novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, was the first of hers that I read and it has remained a favourite of mine since; when I subsequently read some of her other works they never quite impressed me as much as ‘Lonely Hunter’ – but I now wonder if it was unfair to compare them against such an amazing book. Now, with a little distance from my reading of ‘Lonely Hunter’ I think that I can appreciate McCuller’s other works in their own right and Reflections in a Golden Eye is a real Southern Gothic gem of a novella. It is set on a U.S. army base and there are only five main characters which makes it read a bit like a play. There are two couples, Captain Penderton and his wife Leonora, their neighbours Major Langdon and his ill wife Alison, and there is the slightly unusual Private Williams who becomes obsessed with Leonora Penderton.
Rather than describe the plot I just wanted to share an excerpt of the book. It is quite close to the start of the novel so there should be no fear of spoilers. Captain Penderton has returned home to see his wife walking around in her bare feet, drinking brandy and dancing. Such slovenly behaviour irritates the Captain, especially as they are expecting their neighbours around for dinner.
‘The Langdons are coming any minute now and you will sit down to dinner like this, I suppose?’
‘Sure,’ she said. ‘And why not, you old prissy?’
The Captain said in a cold, taut voice: ‘You disgust me’
Mrs Penderton’s answer was a sudden laugh, a laugh both soft and savage, as though she had received some long expected piece of scandalous news or had thought of some sly joke. She pulled off her jersey, crushed it into a ball, and threw it into the corner of the room. Then deliberately she unbuttoned her breeches and stepped out of them. In a moment she was standing naked by the hearth. Before the bright gold and orange light of the fire her body was magnificent. The shoulders were straight so that the collar-bone made a sharp pure line. Between her round breasts there were delicate blue veins. In a few years her body would be full-blown like a rose with loosened petals, but now the soft roundness was controlled and disciplined by sport. Although she stood quite still and placid, there was about her body a subtle quality of vibration, as though on touching her fair flesh one would feel the slow live coursing of the bright blood beneath. While the Captain looked at her with the stunned indignation of a man who has suffered a slap in the face, she walked serenely to the vestibule on her way to the stairs. The front door was open and from the dark night outside a breeze blew in and lifted a loose strand of her bronze hair.
She was halfway up the steps before the Captain recovered from his shock. Then he ran trembling after her. ‘I will kill you!’ he said in a strangled voice. ‘I will do it! I will do it!’ He crouched with his hand to the banister and one foot on the second step of the stairway as though ready to spring up after her.
She turned slowly and looked down at him with unconcern for a moment before she spoke. ‘Son, have you ever been collared and dragged out in the street and thrashed by a naked woman?’
I think this sets the tone of the novel perfectly. This section is shortly followed by one of my favourite quotes from the book:
Leonora Penderton feared neither man, beast, nor the devil; God she had never known.
By the way Leonora is played by Elizabeth Taylor in the film version and the front cover is a still from the film. I haven’t seen it but apparently it bombed at the box office.