Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Diamond Lens by Fitz-James O'Brien

It is my privilege to rescue from obscurity an unfairly-forgotten writer from the annuls of history, and a man from my own county at that- the great Fitz-James O'Brien. Born Michael O'Brien in County Cork, very little seems to be known today about him (I reckon there's a decent English thesis in there somewhere, as the chap definitely deserves a revival).

What we do know about him is that he moved to America in the 1850's, changed his name and whittled away a sizable inheritance living the lavish lifestyle of a dandy. By all accounts (not that there are many), he was a raucous, rollicking man to have at a party, and he supposedly entertained and palled with many of the famous writers of the day. Like many an Irishman, he fought with the Yankees in the US Civil War, and died after being wounded

Fortunately for my own purposes, he also dabbled with ink himself. One of my favourite of his compositions is The Demon of the Gibbet, a rattlingly good Poe-esque tale of a late-night horseride past the Gallows Tree, where a demon is said to haunt. In every alternate verse, the demon speaks to the protagonist, telling him that he's going to steal his cloak, his wine, and eventually his woman as well! The existence of various locations around Cork city named for being former sites of gallows and hangings (Gallows Green, for example) makes me wonder if he had the Cork landscape in mind when he wrote this. The nature of this poem seemed to be crying out for a melody, so I did once put it to a tune, and played it many times with my group, The Thirsty Scholars, in our haunting ground, An Spaipin Fanach. Perhaps it will end up on Youtube someday!

Anyway, O'Brien also frequently wrote proto-sci fi stories for the American Victorian magazines almost thirty years before Wells was on the scene, which is pretty remarkable, especially seeing as how well he fares against the Grand Old Man of Victorian fiction. His tale What Was It?, though not one of my favourites, is thought to be possibly the earliest use of invisibility in fiction, predating The Damned Thing by Ambrose Bierce, The Horla by Maupassant and Predator. True to my own heart, he was massively influenced by the Arabian Nights (moreso even than Lovecraft, perhaps), and liked to inject his speculative fiction with a jolt of Orientalism, setting tales in Arab or far Eastern countries.

But for today's selection, I've chosen a tale that could have slipped easily into the Wells canon, except for one twist. The Diamond Lens at first appears as if it's going to be a classic Victorian sci-fi yarn- a a story of new science gone wrong. Here's the plot: Linley is a boy who grows up obsessed with microscopy. He loves it so much that as a child, he tears the eyes out of fish and animals in order to use the lenses within. Eventually his family buys him a real microscope, but this only fuels his obsession.

In order to live his life without interference from his family (who expect him to become a doctor), Linley enrolls in a medical course in a New York university and gets himself an apartment. He never turns up for lectures and spends his parents' money on more microscope equipment. But it's never enough! He wants to see more, he wants to see deeper. He curses the limitations of physics.

On the advice of his shady Jewish roomate (Wells would have approved), Linley does what any mid-Victorian gentleman would do when he had a problem- he goes to see a spiritualist. In a rather loopy twist, she puts him in touch with the father of microscopy, the eighteenth-century Dutchman Antonie Van Leeuwenhoek. The spirit of Leeuwenhoek tells Linley that to gain the clarity he craves, he must use a certain type of diamond to make the lens.

And what do you know? Upon returning home, the Jewish roomate (he's also French, just to add insult to injury) reveals to Linley that, through shady means, he's come into possession of just such a diamond! So what's a guy to do? Linley immediately decides to kill him and steal the diamond. After all, he reasons with himself, the Jew must have killed someone himself to get it (it's implied that the Jew had some background in South-American slave-trading). And thus, a perfectly good evening of wine and tipsy indiscretion ends in murder.

Linley carves the diamond into a lens, and finally gets the view he has always dreamed of. In a single drop of water, he discovers worlds that seem like fantastic gardens of colour and splendour. But then he spies something else in this world- a creature that looks like an exquisite, miniature girl. Linley is smitten. For days he cannot leave his microscope- even seeing the drop of water she inhabits depresses him, as it reminds him of the uncrossable gulf between them. I won't spoil the ending, but if you're thinking that this unnatural love will eventually destroy Linley, then have yourself a drink.

Man, I do love this story. It's simple, creepy and effective. It's also wonderfully old-fashioned and harsh in its themes of obsession and karma. From youth, Linley's obsession is depicted as driving him to unnatural acts, viz. the mutilation of animals. And the fact the he receives the information on how to make his breakthrough by supernatural means wonderfully foreshadows its later effects on him. Via consulting with spirits, theft and murder, Linley has achieved his goal. He has broken the natural order, and what he discovers will ruin him in the most personal way possible- through love (a touch that Wells would never use).

The writing is solid and far less annoying than even much later Victorian prose (Stoker, I'm looking at you!). The descriptions of the new world that the hero discovers are stirring, and the sense of wonder-turning-to-horror is masterfully handled. Who else but a Corkman could do as well?

Read the story here, if you would.


  1. Thank you for your wonderful post on one of my favorite 19th Century authors. I participate in (US) Civil War reenactment, and I try to mention Fit-James O'Brien whenever possible. This year is the 150th anniversary of his death.
    James O'Brien (No relation, that I know of.)

  2. Sorry about the typo. It should say "Fitz-James O'Brien."
    James O'Brien

  3. I ran the story with considerable commentary on Fantastic Worlds here

    It was interesting how O'Brien handles the morality of killing Jules Simon. Having read the story, I am certain that Linley was reflexively anti-Semitic (he uses Simon's Jewishness as one reason why it's not so bad to kill him). I do not know if O'Brien was, because Linley is himself neither sane nor admirable.

    I think that the slavery issue was far more important to O'Brien. The significance of Brazil was that by 1858, the United States of America and Brazil were two of the only places in the Western world which still legally-allowed slavery. O'Brien was almost certainly of Abolitionist sympathies, since he volunteered for and died in the American Civil War, at a time and from a place and social class from which he could have safely sat the war out.