If you think ... that a clergyman will come to a man who has got the Devil's Spectacles here, under his pillow, and who has only to put those Spectacles on to see through that clergyman's clothes, flesh and whatnot, and read everything that's written in his secret mind as plain as print, fetch him, Master Alfred, fetch him!
Readers of these pages know that I have a fondness – not a weakness, mind you – for the letters of Victorian England that cannot be explained away so easily. What does that glorious period offer the reader that he cannot obtain now? It stands to reason that there has been pulp cramming every bookstore as long as there have been books in that same establishment, and the worldwide literacy boom of the last hundred years has done nothing to better that situation. But something persists about that period, the twilight of the British Empire and its global achievements of culture and learning ironically coinciding with its highest opinion of itself, which unlocks endless labyrinths in the mind. It was the age of Holmes and Watson, Jekyll and Hyde, Drood, and Scrooge; it was also the heyday of this writer, whose fame while alive has obscured an appreciation of his talents. And few stories of his are more entertaining than this bizarre tale.
Our protagonist and narrator is a young and moneyed nobleman by the name of Alfred, who cannot be expected to be capable of anything beyond his class. Since he is a blooming bachelor and very eligible, his main concern is the acquisition of a wife. He announces this somewhat obvious preoccupation to us in passing because his initial interest, as our tale unfolds, is in a fellow called Septimus Notman, "a lodge-keeper at the second of our two park gates," and "the only survivor of our head gamekeeper's family of seven children" (hence, we suppose, his name). What Notman is and, well, is not, should be clear without much reflection:
Everybody disliked Septimus Notman. He was said to be mad; to be a liar, a hypocrite, a vicious wretch, and a disagreeable brute. There were some people who even reported that he had been a pirate during the time when we lost sight of him and who declared, when they were asked for their proof, that his crimes were written on his face.
When had Alfred's family lost sight of him? Oh, that was several years ago now; but his good father, for reasons that escape us at first then become more likely as our story progresses, could not turn Notman away after the latter's prolonged and wholly inexplicable absence. Now, of course, Notman straddles his deathbed – his response to Alfred's inquiry about summoning a priest begins this review – and we know that deathbeds have a certain effect on the mind besieged as life's light wanes by prior calamities and passions. Notman wishes to confess, not for the purposes of expiation, but simply to delay his inevitable descent into a fiery pit. More specifically, to confess the crime by which Notman was bestowed the mysterious article he now conceals beneath his pillow. And where did this crime take place? The same that concludes this much ballyhooed novel, when he and a "boatswain's mate" from an unsuccessful icebreaker take it upon themselves to find the North Pole even when their captain prohibits their disembarkation. Alfred is predictably intrigued, especially when informed that the confession "will take long and ... make your flesh creep" – and that quote may have given away too much as it is. In the end, Notman will die, but not before gifting those spectacles to his master, along with brief instructions on their use.
Here I will permit myself an aside. Although folklore and the history of fictional narratives surely welcome extraneous prefaces so as to introduce an object or character that would otherwise prove difficult to integrate, the opening pages of The Devil's Spectacles outdo themselves (somehow I recur to a film that I cannot spoil, into which a serial killer is written merely to abet a minor plot point). Doubtless, the conceit of the spectacles could have been handled much more easily, viz. with Alfred's passing a pawnbroker's shop and espying them in the window, or some chance encounter with a stranger who abandons them in a train compartment (reminiscent of the uncut version of this film). If we elect to grant Collins full credit for this arrangement, then the handoff of these glasses – which apparently allow you to read people's thoughts by peering into their hearts – has greater significance than first imagined. Given the alleged origin of the appurtenance, one may reasonably expect that the thoughts which will be 'read' will not necessarily rank among that person's happiest or most flattering. Once Alfred has the glasses in his possession he returns to his mission: choosing between Cecilia, "handsome, well-born, and poor" and the "companion and reader" of Alfred's mother, and his mother's niece and his first cousin, Zilla, "the Angel of the school." Without unfurling the numerous intrigues that ensue, we may enjoy the following gems: "If her eye had not been on me at the moment, I believe that I should have taken my Spectacles out of my pocket"; "My Spectacles informed me that she deliberately declined to face that question, even in her thoughts"; "For the first week I never even got the chance of looking at her through the Devil's Spectacles." And as Alfred no longer bothers to try to ascertain a person's true intentions through normal methods – listening, observation, and what the Germans call Menschenkenntnis, and what we can only lamely render as "a knowledge of human nature" – he becomes increasingly distrustful of everyone from his mother, to his butler, to the two young women in invisible competition for a sumptuous estate. A very sumptuous estate, in fact, as he begins to realize.
Were the name of Alfred's beloved Cordelia, not Cecilia, we might be reminded more immediately of this masterpiece, also featuring a ratiocinating, affluent nobleman with an eye for pretty women. The difference between Kierkegaard's alter ego and Alfred is that the latter does not really consider the possibility that what he discerns may not be true at all, and nothing more than the projection of his own worries. Only towards the end of his narrative does he perceive the contradiction:
I made no further use of the Spectacles that morning; my purpose was to keep them in my pocket until the interview in the shrubbery was over. Shall I own the motive? It was simply fear – fear of making further discoveries, and of losing the masterly self-control on which the whole success of my project depended.
We will not mention the shrubbery; suffice it to say that a critical conversation takes place literally sub rosa. But what then of the implication that one may know too much about one's fellow man to take effective action? That matter is addressed in the very last section of the story when Alfred – actually, it may not be Alfred at all who is telling us all this. At least not he of the sumptuous estate.