Vanity Fair, January 1916


A Brief in Favor of Specs, Pince-nez and Goggles

By Pelham Grenville

THIS is peculiarly an age where novelists pride themselves on the breadth of their outlook and the courage with which they refuse to ignore the realities of life: and never before have authors had such scope in the matter of the selection of heroes. In the days of the old-fashioned novel, when the hero was automatically Lord Blank or Sir Ralph Asterisk, there were, of course, certain rules that had to be observed, but today—why, you can hardly hear yourself think for the uproar of earnest young novelists proclaiming how free and unfettered they are. And yet, with the exception of Mr. Chambers,—and he lacked the nerve to do it in a long novel, and only tried it tentatively in a magazine story,—no writer has had the pluck to make his hero wear glasses.


HERE, roughly, is the list of rules for novelists in this respect: (a) Spectacles: These may be worn by (1) good uncles, (2) good clergymen, (3) good lawyers, (4) all elderly men who are kind to the heroine; by (5) bad uncles, (6) blackmailers, (7) money-lenders. (b) Pince-nez: These may be worn by good college professors, bank presidents and musicians. No bad man may wear pince-nez. (c) Monocle: This may be worn by (1) good dukes, (2) all Englishmen. No bad man may wear a monocle. (d) Those beastly tortoiseshell-rimmed things: Never worn in fiction. It is time that a stop was put to this arbitrary state of affairs.

In the old days, as I say, this was all very well. The hero was a young lordling, sprung from a line of ancestors who had never done anything with their eyes except wear a piercing glance before which lesser men quailed. But now novelists go into every class of society for their heroes, and surely to goodness, at least an occasional one of them must have been astigmatic. Kipps undoubtedly wore glasses: so did Bunker Bean: so did Mr. Polly, Clayhanger, Bibbs Sheridan, and a score of others. Then why not say so?

Novelists are moving with the times in every other direction. Why not in this?


IT is futile to advance the argument that glasses are unromantic. They are not. I know, because I wear them myself, and I am a singularly romantic figure, whether in my rimless, my Oxford gold-bordered, or the plain gent’s spectacles which I wear in the privacy of my study. It is useless to say that they are unbecoming. You have only got to look at me to see that. They are the very reverse. They lend an air, a zip, so to speak, to the appearance.

Besides, everybody wears glasses nowadays. That is the point I wish to make. For commercial reasons, if for no others, authors ought to think seriously of this matter of goggling their heroes. It is an admitted fact that the reader of a novel likes to put himself in the hero’s place—to imagine, while reading, that he is the hero. What an audience the writer of the first romance to star a spectacled hero will have. All over the country thousands of short-sighted men will polish their glasses and plunge into his pages. It is absurd to go on writing in these days for a normal-sighted public. The growing tenseness of life, with its small print, its newspapers read by artificial light, and its flickering motion-pictures, is whittling down the section of the populace which has perfect sight to a mere handful.


I SEEM to see that romance. In fact, I think I shall write it myself. “ ‘Evadne,’ murmured Clarence, removing his pince-nez and polishing them tenderly. . . .’ ” “ ‘See,’ cried Clarence, ‘how clearly every leaf of yonder tree is mirrored in the still water of the lake. I can’t myself, unfortunately, for I have left my glasses on the parlor piano, but don’t worry about me: go ahead and see!’ ” . . .“Clarence adjusted his tortoiseshell-rimmed spectacles with a careless gesture, and faced the assassins without a tremor.” Hot stuff? Got the punch? I should say so. Do you imagine that there will be a single man in this country with a dollar-thirty-five-net in his pocket and a pair of pince-nez on his face who will not scream and kick like an angry child if you withhold my novel from him?

And just pause for a moment to think of the serial and dramatic rights of the story. All editors wear glasses, so do all theatrical managers. My appeal will be irresistible. All I shall have to do will be to see that the check is for the right figure and to supervise the placing of the electric-light sign

Spectacles of Fate
By Pelham Grenville

over the doors of whichever theater I happen to select for the production of the play. The only drawback will be that I shall collect such a mess of money from the royalties that it won’t be any fun gambling in War Stocks. I expect I shall found a university.

HAVE you ever considered the latent possibilities for dramatic situations in short sight? You know how your glasses cloud over when you come into a warm room out of the cold? Well, imagine your hero in such a position. He has been waiting outside the murderers’ den preparatory to dashing in and saving the heroine. He dashes in. “Hands up, you scoundrels,” he cries. And then his glasses get all misty, and there he is, temporarily blind, with a full-size desperado backing away and measuring the distance in order to hand him one with a pickaxe. Shall I get a letter from E. Phillips Oppenheim tomorrow begging me to let him have that idea, or shall I not? Is Louis Joseph Vance even now kicking himself because he didn’t think of it, or isn’t he? Well, I guess!

Or would you prefer something less sensational, something more in the romantic line? Very well. Hero, on his way to the Dowager Duchess’s ball, slips on a banana-peel and smashes his only pair of spectacles. He dare not fail to attend the ball, for the dear Dowager Duchess would never forgive him; so he goes in and proposes to a girl he particularly dislikes because she is dressed in pink, and the heroine told him that she was going to wear pink. But the heroine’s pink dress was late in coming home from the modiste’s and she had to turn up in blue. The heroine comes in just as the other girl is accepting him, and there you have a nice, live, peppy kick-off for your tale of passion and human interest. Perhaps Robert W. Chambers won’t writhe like an electric fan when he realizes that he has let that one get past him! You bet he will.


OR does your taste run in the direction of those yearning tales of life-long separation of loving hearts through a misunderstanding? I can do you that line just as well. My hero would go out one morning without his glasses and pass the heroine, to whom he is shortly to be married, without a word. You can imagine her pique, her distress, the sudden flaming-up of her maidenly pride. In real life, no doubt, she would simply sprint after him and say “Harold, you old chump, what’s the big idea of cutting a fellow like this?” But in this type of novel that sort of thing is never done. The heroine would send him a note, breaking off the engagement without explanation, and would go right off and marry somebody else. Not till many weary years had passed and she was a widow and he a grave, sad man, gray at the temples and with lines of pain about the eyes, would they come together again and achieve the happy ending. I think Mrs. Barclay could handle that theme.


BUT I have said enough to show that the time has come when novelists, if they do not wish to be left behind in the race, must adapt themselves to modern conditions. One does not wish to threaten, but, as I say, we astigmatics are in a large minority and can, if we get together make our presence felt. Roused by this article to a sense of the injustice of their treatment, the great army of glass-wearing citizens could very easily make novelists see reason. A boycott of non-spectacled heroes would soon achieve the necessary reform. Perhaps there will be no need to let matters go as far as that. I hope not. But, if this warning should be neglected, if we have any more of these novels about men with keen gray eyes or piercing brown eyes or snapping black eyes or cheerful blue eyes—any sort of eyes, in fact, lacking some muscular affection, we shall know what to do.