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‘I had no escape from it. I loved an animalcule:’ Romance Through the Microscope

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“The Invisible World,” a frontispiece for a chapter on microscopy in The Fairy Tales of Science (1859)

Fitz-James O’Brien (1828-1862) was an Irish-American Civil War soldier and one of the forerunners of the Science-Fiction genre. His primary literary connection was with Harper’s Magazine – a periodical that he contributed to – in prose and verse- over sixty times. He likewise wrote for the New York Saturday Press, Putnam’s Magazine, Vanity Fair, and The Atlantic Monthly. To the latter he sent “The Diamond Lens” in 1858.

“The Diamond Lens”  tells the tale of Mr. Linley, a man who has  had an obsession with microscopy from childhood. He forges a new microscope lens with a diamond of one hundred and forty carats that has been submitted to electro-magnetic currents to rearrange its atoms. Beneath his new microscope he sees an enchanted realm of minuscule beauty. Common mildew becomes “enchanted gardens, filled with dells and avenues of the densest foliage and most astonishing erdure, while from the fantastic boughs of these microscopic forests hung strange fruits glittering with green, silver, and gold”. Such a descriptive passage would have been familiar to the Victorian reader by 1858.

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Common Objects of the Microscope, by Rev. J Wood. (1880 edition.)

Charles Kingsley, for example in 1846 saw “in the tiniest piece of mould on a decayed fruit,’ a tiny animalcule amid a fairy-land of  inexhaustible wonders”. Such fervour frequently elicited ridicule, the Quarterly Journal of Science, Literature, and Art, for example, explains to us that a man who observes ‘a drop of stinking ditch-water or the amorous passions of worms and ants’ is likely to be regarded as ‘a puny, pitiful, pedant, whose passions and amusements were of a childish and even degrading complexion’. Unsurprisingly, children’s books of the era habitually married science or natural history with such a fairyland. Works like John Cargill Brough’s The Fairy Tales of Science: A Book for Youth (1859), or Arabella Buckley’s The Fairy-Land of Science (1878).

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‘Monster Soup’ a droplet of water from the River Thames.

Fitz-James O’Brien’s tale takes this convention a step further – into the genre of romance. His microscopist witnesses a ‘form’ moving slowly through the glades of a prismatic forest; ‘at last the violet pennons that trailed nearest to me vibrated; they were gently pushed aside, and the form floated out into the broad light.’ In this forest he sees what appears to be a ‘female human shape.’ Linley clarifies that when he say human, he ‘mean it possessed the outlines of humanity; but there the analogy ends.’

I can not, I dare not, attempt to inventory the charms of this divine revelation of perfect beauty. Those eyes of mystic violet, dewy and serene, evade my words. Her long, lustrous hair following her glorious head in a golden wake, like the track sown in heaven by a falling star, seems to quench my most burning phrases with its splendors. If all the bees of Hybla nestled upon my lips, they would still sing but hoarsely the wondrous harmonies of outline that inclosed her form.

Breathless with gazing on this lovely wonder, Linley withdraws his eye from the microscope: gazing with disbelief at ‘the colorless drop of water’ which imprisoned ‘this beautiful being.’ He bestows her with the name Animula. (A name derived from the word animalcule – a generic term for a microscopic animal.) Presumably Animula -with her ‘enchanting curves’, ‘earnest gaze’ and ‘delicate hands’- quite transcends the alien animalcules traditionally observed under the microscope. She has no tentacular protuberances, and does not wear a ring beating cilia around her person. Though her golden glow does suggest she may be bioluminescent.

Animalcule.  A Microscopic View of the different Animalcules. - Lower Center: London, Published as the Act directs, 12th Novr. 1796, by J. Wilkes.  Lower Right: J. Pass sculp. -  - J. Pass -  - John Wilkes - Encyclopaedia Londinensis; or, Universal Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Literature, Comprehending, Under One General Alphabetical Arrangement, all the Words and Substance of Every Kind of Dictionary Extant in the English Language. In which the Improved Departments of the Mechanical Arts, the Liberal Sciences, the Higher Mathematics, and the Several Branches of Polite Literature, are Selected from the Acts, Memoirs, and Transactions, of the Most Eminent Literary Societies, in Europe, Asia, and America - J. Adlard - London - November 12th, 1796 - B1-93 (cropped)
Animalcule. A Microscopic View of the different Animalcules. Lower Center: London, Published as the Act directs, 12th Novr. 1796, by J. Wilkes

By the time Animula disappears amid the opaline forest Linley’s ‘daylight had vanished’.  Tempering the paranoia that he has ‘suddenly gone blind’ he frets that Animula had ‘obeyed the summons’ ‘of a lover or husband’ and wishes he could ‘pierce the mystical walls that so inexorably rose to separate’ them.

With a bitter cry of anguish I fled from the room, and flinging myself on my bed, sobbed myself to sleep like a child.

After having a good cry Linley returns to his study at daybreak. Subsequently, in a passage bizarrely charged with voyertistic desire, the microscopist looks upon Animula as though she is a water nymph attempting to seduce a grecian hero.

I found the sylph bathing, as it were, with an expression of pleasure animating her features, in the brilliant light which surrounded her. She tossed her lustrous golden hair over her shoulders with innocent coquetry. She lay at full length in the transparent medium, in which she supported herself with ease, and gamboled with the enchanting grace that the nymph Salmacis might have exhibited when she sought to conquer the modest Hermaphroditus.

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“Join me in my water droplet, you colossus peeping Tom!” Waterhouse Hylas and the Nymphs Manchester Art Gallery 1896

As the hours go by Animulas grows ‘thin and haggard’ – ‘her features contracted, and she  writhed, as if with some internal agony.’ After racking his brain ‘for the solution of this mystery’ Linley looks ‘down on the stage of the microscope.’ Only to find that ‘the water droplet had vanished.’

The awful truth burst upon me; it had evaporated, until it had become so minute as to be invisible to the naked eye; I had been gazing on its last atom, the one that contained Animula — and she was dying!

Like Ayesha, the immortal sorceress of H. Rider Haggard’s gothic fantasy She (1887), Animula’s limbs ‘shrivel up into nothings’: her eyes are ‘quenched into black dust’ her lustrous golden hair discolored’.

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The slide work of James Neville (1840-1900)

Coming to terms with the fact that his unquenchable curiosity has killed his beloved, the microscopist promptly faints.

Fitz-James O’Brien ends his tale by informing us that his protagonist becomes known as ‘Linley, the mad microscopist’. He lives on the charity of young men who for ‘love of a joke’ invite him to lecture on optics – their laughter competing in his head with his ‘ghastly memories’, ‘the shapes of death’ which gripped his ‘lost Animula’.

Published by Rosalind White

I am a first-year PhD student at Royal Holloway looking at gender & emotions in the science & literature of the nineteenth-century. My research looks at how natural history in many ways dwelt within the feminine sphere of Victorian culture. And charts a more intimate, personal exploration of natural history that examines the lives of its practitioners beyond the impact of conventional watersheds.

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