The Lady in the Looking Glass

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by Jesse Schotter

The Lady in the Looking Glass: A Reflection,” a short story by Virginia Woolf published in Harper’s in December 1929, describes the images reflected in a mirror situated in a woman’s dressing room, providing a glimpse of the furnishings of her life, but, pointedly, not allowing us a glimpse into the more private aspects of her character. As such, this sketch uses many of the same motifs and illustrates in a concentrated, more explicit form many of the themes that Woolf had explored in more depth and complexity in Jacob’s Room and To The Lighthouse.

The sketch begins with a description of an empty room reflected in a mirror, with the mistress of the house, Isabella Tyson, having left. The narrator begins a lyrical description of her, but then breaks off, calling attention to the inadequacy of the description of Isabella, to “how little, after all these years, one knew about her.”[1]  The sketch continues with a description of the letters that are imagined within the cabinets and drawers of the room, which, along with the furniture itself, seem to possess more knowledge of Isabella than the narrator. When the mail is delivered, the letters are imagined as “tablets graven with eternal truth; if one could read them, one would know everything there was to be known about Isabella, yes, and about life, too” (223). The narrator then precedes to imagine the details of her life, to “prize” open her “locked drawers,” but the sketch ends with an image of Isabella shorn of illusions, presented as “old and angular,” as “perfectly empty.”

In its minute description of the physical details of an interior, “The Lady in the Looking Glass” looks back to the final moments in Jacob’s room in Woolf’s earlier novel. As in that scene, this sketch complicates Woolf’s famous critical remarks about the Edwardian novelists, who she argues are obsessed with the material details of their characters’ lives and who lose sight of their interior, spiritual presences. On one level, this short story provides an illustration for that thesis—here Woolf provides us with all the trappings of the woman, but the woman herself remains absent. Unlike in a Balzacian novel, the painting of an interior scene sheds no light on the person who inhabits it. The narrator can imagine Isabella’s petty dinner-table conversation, but her spiritual side—the “profounder state of being . . . what one calls happiness or unhappiness” (224)—remains elusive.

However, conversely, this story and Jacob’s Room demonstrate Woolf’s enduring interest in the cataloguing of material possessions, in the old-fashioned mimesis of the details of bourgeois life. Indeed, as mentioned above, the furniture seems to have a greater understanding of Isabella, albeit a knowledge that is incommunicable. Woolf calls attention to this concern with mimesis in this sketch in particular, however, given its title and central image—the looking-glass—which, as a mirror held up to nature, is one of the most important metaphors for realist literature in general. As such, like many modernists novelists, Joyce above all, Woolf uses traditional realist mimesis for its own sake but also to point out the inadequacies of that mimesis, which fails to capture interior states.

In this sketch Woolf also utilizes many of the same motifs as in To the Lighthouse, most notably the longed-for “tablets of eternal truth.” As Woolf writes there, “in the chambers of the mind and heart of the woman who was, physically, touching her, were stood, like the treasures in the tombs of kings, tablets bearing sacred inscriptions, which if one could spell them out, would teach one everything, but they would never be offered openly, never made public” (51). As in “The Lady in the Looking Glass” the narrators of Woolf’s works long for the transcendent hidden knowledge in the tablets, and even perhaps believe that that truth exists, but they are unable to access or decipher it. As Erich Auerbach has pointed out about To the Lighthouse, “the narrator of objective facts has almost completely vanished” (534), and indeed “The Lady in the Looking Glass” consists almost exclusively of a lament for what the narrator doesn’t know—indeed, what no one can know, about Isabella Tyson.

“The Lady in the Looking Glass” thus emerges as not merely a critique of traditional mimesis—of “materialist” mimesis—but rather of any attempt to fully and definitively represent reality. Like Mrs. Ramsay, who possesses an unfathomable “core of darkness,” the letters that will reveal the life of Isabella, if they even have more significance than mere bills, can only reveal that she is “empty.” Even at the end of the sketch, when the narrator seems to see Isabella stripped of all literary consolations, she still is blocked from any privileged glimpse into her inmost core.

The image of the mirror also provides an important encapsulation of another Woolfian theme—the desire to create a sense of order and stability against the ravages and entropy of time and the sea. The mirror in “The Lady” is described as bringing that very stability—associated in To the Lighthouse with Mrs. Ramsay—to the world that it reflects. It seems to arrange into a picture the objects of the room, lending them “stillness and immortality” (223), but only, again as in To the Lighthouse, an ephemeral, temporary “stillness and immortality.” Woolf thus turns the looking-glass from an emblem of mimesis to one of arrangement—emphasizing the writer’s craft—and in so doing she anticipates and perhaps inspires James Merrill’s later, similarly-themed poem “Mirror.”

                                                                                                       --Jesse Schotter

  1. Virginia Woolf, The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf, 2nd Ed. (San Diego: HBJ, 1989), p. 222.
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