The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
"The Diamond Lens" (1858)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
“The Diamond Lens” was written by Fitz-James O’Brien and first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly (Jan. 1858). Michael Fitz-James O’Brien (1828-1862) is one of the sadder literary might-have-beens: a talented Irish American writer who was killed at a young age in the Civil War, he left behind a series of excellent stories and sad thoughts about what he might have created had he lived as long as Ambrose Bierce. “The Diamond Lens” is representative of O’Brien’s fine works of horror.
Linley, the narrator of “The Diamond Lens,” became obsessed with microscopy at a young age, when he first discovered the world of creatures inside a drop of water. He was given a good microscope by his cousin, and this further fueled his obsession. His parents wanted him to take a good, reliable profession and to enter the counting house of his uncle, but Linley refused, wanting only to spend time peering through the lens of his microscope. He entered medical school, although this was a ruse designed to mislead his parents. Linley intended to avoid his classes and spend all his time with his microscopes. Linley spent a year learning microscopy, the practice of it and the proper use of the equipment, and by the end of the year was an accomplished practitioner, even having made a few small discoveries of his own and debunked a few theories of older and more experienced microscopists. But Linley is always discontented due to the imperfections of his instruments, which cannot help him achieve what his imagination conceives of. Linley dreams of the ultimate lens, which can see anything. Linley begins experimenting with different lenses but is always dissatisfied with the results. But one day Linley hears from his upstairs neighbor, Jules Simon, about a medium who apparently has a real power and is not a charlatan. Intrigued, Linley visits the medium, who summons up the spirit of Antony van Leeuwenhoek, the discoverer of bacteria. Via the medium van Leeuwenhoek tells Linley how to construct the ultimate microscope lens.
There is one difficulty, however. This lens will require a diamond of 140 carats, something far beyond Linley’s ability or means to acquire. When Linley mentions this to Jules Simon, he reacts badly and eventually confesses to Linley that he has such a diamond. Linley, not to be put off from his quest, murders Simon in such a way as to make it seem suicide, and uses Simon’s diamond to create the lens. What Linley sees through the diamond lens, inside a drop of water, is a stunning microscopic world inhabited by a superhumanly beautiful creature in the shape of a woman. Linley becomes fixated on her, spending days doing nothing but watching the “animalcule,” who he calls Animula. He momentarily decides that he needs to wean himself from his “insane love” for Animula, but when he watches a celebrated ballerina at the theater he finds her unlovely and awkward in comparison to Animula. He returns to his apartment and looks at the animalcule again, but finds that she seems to be in pain. Linley realizes that he has not replenished the original drop of water since ae put it beneath his lens, so that Animula’s world must be dying as it dries up, and the animalcule with it, but this realization comes too late, and she dies as he watches. He faints, destroying his microscope as he does. This leaves him insane and a joke to other microscopists, and he no longer has the will or heart to work, obsessed as he is with his lost Animula.
Like “What Was It?” “The Diamond Lens” is accorded classic status by aficionados of nineteenth century weird fiction. “The Diamond Lens” is not horror, exactly, although the depths to which Linley’s obsession leads him are horrific in their way, and Linley can be seen as a modern version of the obsessed scientist (see: Frankenstein). “The Diamond Lens” is science fiction, the first story to feature a subatomic world—in it O’Brien “opened up to fiction all the dimensions of the microscopic worlds”1—with a supernatural element (the medium) and a mystery fiction element (the locked room setting in which Simon is murdered). “The Diamond Lens” might actually be considered hard science fiction, as O’Brien grounds the more speculative elements of the story in recognizable and realistic scientific facts about microscopes. Milton Millhauser disagrees with this point of view, stating that in works like “The Diamond Lens” and Bulwer Lytton’s The Coming Race, “fantasy, utopian speculation, or the like, is colored by a general awareness of science and its implications; but the actual figure of the scientist and the general details of his work remain parts of a vaguely delineated background.”2
“The Diamond Lens” is excellent reading, although “Lens” is told in a more formal and older-reading narrative style than the more modern-feeling “What Was It?” The description of the microscopic world is properly unworldly, and Linley’s character development and the tracing of his descent into an unhealthy obsession are convincing. Linley’s final, unbalanced state even allows the story to be interpreted as the ravings of a deluded and unreliable narrator. The only mar on the story is the moment of antisemitism in the description of Simon as having “many traits of the Hebrew character: a love of jewelry, of dress, and of good living.” But Jules Simon is developed as a character, not a stereotype or a paradigm.
“The Diamond Lens” is O’Brien’s most influential story; although, there was a predecessor to it dealing with the plot device of a microscopic world—O’Brien was falsely accused of plagiarizing the story—it was O’Brien’s story that became famous and that stood as the archetype for generations of writers making use of microscopic worlds. It was famous on publication, electrifying the world of magazine writers, editors, and readers,3 and its fame continued well into the twentieth century. The story is less well-known in the twenty-first century, but modern readers will find it enjoyable nonetheless.
Print: Fitz-James O’Brien, The Wondersmith and Others. Ashcroft, BC: Ash-Tree Press, 2008.
1 Howard Bruce Franklin, “O’Brien and Science Fiction,” in Howard Bruce Franklin, ed., Future Perfect: American Science Fiction of the Nineteenth Century: An Anthology (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1966), 279.
2 Milton Millhauser, “Dr. Newton and Mr. Hyde: Scientists in Fiction from Swift to Stevenson,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 28, no. 3 (Dec. 1973): 288.
3 Wayne R. Kime, “Introduction,” in Fitz-James O’Brien and Wayne R. Kime, Thirteen Stories by Fitz-James O’Brien: The Realm of the Mind (Newark: University of Delaware, 2012), xiv.