Echo and Narcissus at John Rylands Library: Mirror, mirror

Polly Checkland Harding
Photo of a mirror inscribed with words, with a woman's reflection in it

Echo and Narcissus at John Rylands Library uses beautiful, handheld mirrors to look again at women in literature.

It’s amazing how often we look back at old stories to say something new. To say something twice, in a way: both echoing the tale as it was, and finding fresh life in it for now. In a new exhibition at Manchester’s John Rylands Library, artist Carol Sommer has used the Greek myth of Echo and Narcissus to think about literature’s heroines – to reflect on how, and by whom, they’ve been represented.

Lined up in flat glass cases are characterful, handheld mirrors, each beautifully inscribed with a quotation from a novel. The pools of silvered glass gesture towards Narcissus, eternally fixed on his own reflection, while Echo can be heard in the repeated lines from books. Each mirror is dedicated to the person it describes – a portrait, if you will, but not one that’s at all straightforward.

“A woman who is nothing but the look that sees him”

For instance: “The most attractive of all his parent’s friends” is “To Mrs Robinson” from The Graduate. It’s a wry, backhanded line with which to characterise her; as you lean over and peer at the mirror, and yourself, you realise that this is not, perhaps, how most people would choose to be described. Others, like Madame Bovary’s mirror, are similarly loaded (Flaubert’s heroine has the line “All surface but no feeling” dedicated to her) – few, in fact, feel uncomplicated in their gaze.

There’s irony at work, like the line “all surface and no feeling” on Madame Bovary’s mirror. To Inez from No Exit by Jean-Paul Satre is the line “a woman who is nothing but the look that sees him.” Many question how their characters are seen by men – and, in a broader way, point to a historic approach to both female authors and characters. The beauty of this exhibition is how much it yields: it’s incredibly layered for a rather unassuming installation.

It’s also quite lovely to look at. The mirrors, some crisp, others becoming blinded with fissures through age, all reflect the Historic Reading room’s lights and its high, intricate windows. Echo and Narcissus is a quiet, contemplative piece of free, public art; you might not spend more than half an hour of reflection there, but you’re likely to come out seeing books, and yourself, differently.

Culture Guides

HOME Reopening Programme

Cinema in Manchester and the North

We look at the socially distant screenings and digital releases you can enjoy as cinemas begin to reopen safely.

Images of protest: Black Lives Matter at People's History Museum

Exhibitions

Art and women’s wrestling, Ancient Akkadian gravesites and invented artefacts – check out this month’s pick of exhibitions from across the north.

Makefest At Home

Families

Need some inspiration for online activities and creative family fun? Look no further than our top picks online for families across Manchester and the North.

Poet Dean Atta. Photo by Hussina Raja.

Literature

Festival fever takes hold of Live Literature Land as it does every October, just this year it’s in the ether. Grab a glass and settle down in the Zoom room for some online readings.

Bicep

Music

Discover the best live-streamed concerts, broadcasts, musical activities and exhibitions on offer during lockdown Mk II.

Theatre in Manchester. Image courtesy of RashDash.

Theatre

We can’t wait to be back in the stalls again…until then our theatre guide brings the best of online theatre and interactive performance to enjoy at home.

Classical Music in Manchester and the North

We preview the standout classical music events and venues in Manchester.

Higher Ground

Food and Drink in Manchester and the North

For the August guide, we’ve dug out the best Food and Drink in Manchester and the North to explore now that lockdown has thankfully eased.

Isolation Broadcast

Online events

Discover the best things to do online from the organisations we love in Manchester and the North.

tours and activities

Tours and Activities

Socially distant walks and virtual tours are among the offerings in this month’s guide of Tours and Activities.

Things to do right now

Powered by culturehosts
virtual hidden nature tour
Activity Until 20 September 2020, FREE

Heritage Open Days: Virtual Hidden Nature tour

Writer Henry Normal.
Literature Until 24 September 2020, FREE

Word Central online

skyliner
Activity Until 27 September 2020, from £9

Skyliner: Alternative Tours of Manchester

Puffin Box
Music Until 27 September 2020, from £110

Puffin Box at Hilton House

gassing with the galdem
Activity Until 28 September 2020, FREE

Girl Gang: Gassing with the Galdem

Science Learning at Home with Jodrell Bank
Activity Until 30 September 2020, FREE

Science Learning at Home with Jodrell Bank

HOME Reopening Programme
Cinema Until 30 September 2020, from £5.5

HOME Reopening Film Programme

Visual Arts Until 30 September 2020, FREE

Manchester Art Gallery Highlights Tour

eat the archive
Activity Until 30 September 2020, FREE

Eat The Archive at Manchester Jewish Museum

MAD walkers
Activity Until 30 September 2020, £36.60 for annual membership

Manchester and District Walkers (MAD Walkers)