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.

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