Nicola here, talking about magic mirrors! It’s possibly the most famous mirror quote in literature. The evil queen in Snow White has a magic mirror that each morning gives her the validation she is looking for by telling her that she is the most beautiful woman in the world. Until Snow White grows up that is, and the mirror, ever truthful, has to break the bad news to the queen that Snow White is a thousand times more beautiful than she.
I’ve always loved old mirrors. Not because I’m vain and enjoy looking at my reflection (or at least I don't think that's the reason!) but because they are often so very beautiful and it’s easy to see how myths and magic collect about them. When I was writing my first timeslip book, The Silent House, which is out later this year, I needed an object with magical qualities that had first started to exert its power centuries before the story begins. A mirror seemed the perfect item to choose.
By the way, the real life story behind Snow White apparently dates from the 18th century when Philip Christoph von Erstal married his second wife and gave her a mirror as a gift. It came from the Lohr Mirror Manufacture, a company that made looking glasses that were so fine they were said to “speak the truth,” and show you exactly what you looked like with no blemishes. This “talking mirror” is still on display at the Lohr Museum.
Mirrors go back a long way. Glass mirrors dating back to the third century A.D. have been found in Egypt, France, Asia Minor and Germany. These mirrors were very small, only a few inches in diameter and the quality of the reflection was not good. For many centuries, metal mirrors of steel, silver and gold were preferred to glass until a technique was found for producing long, flat and thin glass, and craftsmen devised a way of spreading hot metal onto glass without causing it to break.
In the past the term "mirror" referred to metal mirrors as well as to crystal mirrors and mirrors of glass, whilst "looking glass" or "seeing glass" described mirrors made of glass compound. By the end of the twelfth century looking glasses were reintroduced in Europe, first in Germany and Italy, and later reaching England. A mixture of antimony and lead was heated two or three times. Molten resin was poured into the mixture, which was blown by means of a pipe into a spherical bowl with a hole in it. The bowl was shaken so that the mixture would spread around the inner wall, and the leftover liquid was drained out of the opening. The bowl was then left to stand until the amalgam had cooled and hardened, when it was cut in half to make two convex mirrors. Such mirrors provided a novel way of distorting the face but were not much used to provide a true reflection!
In sixteenth-century Venice the production of glass mirrors became an important industry, and techniques for making mirrors were significantly refined until they gave a very good reflection. The Bohemian glass industry was also world famous, and it was from there that the mirror in my story originates. Large glass mirrors were very difficult to make, and so were expensive and difficult to get hold of. In mid-seventeenth century Venice a silver-framed looking glass, 115 cm by 65 cm, cost 8000 pounds, while a Raphael painting cost 3000 pounds in comparison. In a society where only the rich and aristocratic could afford a large mirror, they became status symbols but also items of aspiration. If you had a large mirror in your house you might be considered a social climber! This overmantel mirror from the V&A museum is a good example of a statement mirror!
Mirrors were frequently used as part of a courtesan's armoury and were important both in crafting a toilette and as artifacts that helped to define the intimacy of a dressing room. Small, mass-produced glass mirrors were also produced in sixteenth-century Venice, making their way to England by the middle of the century. While these were not hugely expensive, their use was mainly for those working at court, and mirrors the size of a powder compact were worn decoratively at the waist by women (which happens in one scene in The Silent House) and in the cap by men. Out in the shires it was unusual to find mirrors mentioned in inventories, which suggests that most people did not possess one. This wasn’t surprising since a decent sized mirror could cost more than a horse!
Amongst the upper classes, however, the small "seeing glass" was particularly useful, as service in court circles depended so heavily on personal grooming. In his conduct book, The Book of the Courtier, Castiglione praises the courtier who shows "a meticulous regard for… personal appearance." But he also adds a warning in view of the rising interest with this newly industrialized means of reflection, criticizing those individuals who carry "a mirror in the fold of [their] cap[s] and a comb in [their] sleeve[s], … walking through the streets always followed by a page with a brush and sponge." Mirrors, then, might suggest an unattractive obsession with one's appearance. That stigma still holds true today when cheap mirrors are widely available in all shapes and sizes. They are useful but do they promote vanity?
Mirrors have featured in a number of stories. In Through the Looking Glass, Alice climbs through the mirror to visit the world she can see there. In Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray the mirror reflects a perpetually youthful appearance. The Mirror of Erised in Harry Potter does not reflect a person’s face but their heart’s desire. There is something about the idea of the mirror and a reflection that seems to lend itself to magic of some sort,or to time travel or stepping between different worlds. In the fantasy world of books this is very appealing.
In real life it's a bit different - some people think magic is just superstition whilst others may secretly or not so secretly believe that they own things that bring them luck. We have a horseshoe above our back door, for example, that was a gift from a family member who insisted it would invite good luck into the house. The four leafed clover has a reputation for bestowing good luck if you find one although I never have. I do have a gorgeous little silver and glass necklace shaped like the Uffington White Horse which changes colour when you hold it in your hand. Now that feels like magic to me!
In The Silent House, Holly, my heroine, doesn't like magic, superstition or anything that cannot be explained rationally and I had a lot of fun challenging her beliefs and assumptions. But what about you? Do you believe in magic or do you dismiss it as no more than superstition? Do you like reading books with magic elements in them? And do you have any lucky charms of your own?