Do You Have A Lover’s Eye?

Do you have a Lover’s Eye?

No, I’m not talking about winking and fluttering your lashes. A Lover’s Eye is a tiny portrait of a human eye, often painted on a flake of ivory no bigger than your fingernail. They were usually worn as jewelry–on a pendant, a ring, a brooch, a locket, or a stickpin.

Courtesy of the Victoria & Albert Museum

If you lived at the end of the eighteenth century or beginning of the nineteenth century, you might have possessed one–or given one. They hinted at a secret affair while keeping the identity of the lover a mystery.

King George IV; Courtesy of The National Portrait Gallery

Lover’s Eyes became popular after Prince George of Wales, later King George IV, fell in love with Maria Fitzherbert, a twice-divorced Catholic. Since the law at that time didn’t permit such a marriage, Fitzherbert refused the prince’s proposal and fled to France. George wouldn’t take no for an answer. On November 3, 1785, he sent Fitzherbert a passionate letter, begging her to marry him. Included with the letter was a gift, a small painting of George’s disembodied right eye. “If you have not forgotten the whole countenance,” George wrote in a postscript, “I think the likeness will strike you.”

The Lover’s Eye must have achieved its purpose, for George and Maria were wed in a secret (and unlawful) ceremony on December 15, 1785. In the first year of their marriage, Maria presented George with a Lover’s Eye of her own, which he is said to have worn concealed under his lapel. Sadly, the marriage was declared invalid, and George bowed to the pressure of his father, King George III (yes, that King George) and married his cousin, Caroline of Brunswick. But a fad was born that lasted nearly fifty years.

Courtesy of The Smithsonian

Later, Lover’s Eyes became popular as mourning jewelry, often with a lock or braid of hair on the reverse. Queen Victoria commissioned several. But originally they were tokens of a secret lover, keeping an eye on the wearer (literally) to remind him or her to be faithful. I imagine Jane Austen’s double-dealing Frank Churchill (Emma) exchanging Lover’s Eyes with poor Jane Fairfax and dropping hints for fun.

Villains in a crime novel can be like those fragmentary portraits. They’re present from the beginning, and we usually know something about them, but not nearly enough to guess their identity. That’s part of the fun–following the clues as they unfold and comparing the ever-expanding portrait with the characters we’ve been introduced to in previous chapters. A skillful author can surprise us at the end, but the reader should be able to say, “Yes, of course! All the clues were there.”

In my WIP, antiques dealer Kate Hamilton finds a Lover’s Eye in a group of eighteenth-century miniature portraits. The image becomes a symbol to her of the unidentified person threatening her friend, Vivian Bunn. Chapter by chapter, the portrait of a killer expands until the final reveal.

Writers, how do you decide which details of character to reveal–and when?

Readers, have you ever guessed the identity of the bad guy too early? Did it spoil the experience?


  1. I am grappling with that issue right now. I find I can only figure out how the clues are working when I get to the second draft. In the first draft I’m still trying to figure out who everyone is.

  2. How fascinating about the little Lover’s Eyes! I had never heard of them. As for clue placing, this is the most intimidating part of the mystery, it makes me want to give up and start writing psych thrillers. I don’t mind guessing the whodunit early if the author constantly challenges my guess and I change my mind. Right now half-way through reading Catriona McPherson’s last Dandy and have no idea.

  3. This is fascinating. I wish we had something like this today….. private but permanent. And the comparison to clue pacing…. yes!!!

  4. I wonder if this is more of an issue with writers who outline. If the resolution isn’t revealed to the writer until the end, might the clues down along the way be less revealing to the reader? Love the Lover’s Eye as a writing device, Connie.

  5. I find outlining helps me conceal clues better. I don’t inadvertently reveal something I didn’t intend to and I’m better able to create red herrings.
    If you want to see more lovers’ eye jewelry, check out Pinterest for some great images!

  6. I want one, too, Emilya! Probably couldn’t afford it, though. As for plotting out clues, today I feel like I’m finally getting a handle on my WIP. That Lover’s Eye was my inspiration.

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