Is there anything quite as magical as a mirror? A mirror contains a whole universe trapped in a film of silver paint, reflecting, reversing, and distorting reality. Everything you see in a mirror is a trick of the light. Thanks to scientific advances in the Victorian era of Industrialization, there were new methods for mass-producing large, flat panes of glass and new methods for chemical-coating those same panes, so that glass mirrors became easily available and much more affordable. And so there was a fashion for using mirrors as decoration and not just for their invaluable assistance with keeping tidy and checking for food in your teeth. Gazing Balls, also known as Gazing Globes or Orbs, were considered a fashionable and amusing addition to both the Victorian home and garden.
What made these gazing balls popular was the way they distorted their surroundings, as well as the beautiful way they dispersed light into the shadowy corners of a garden or room. They were considered beautiful in their own right, in the same way we like to decorate our Christmas trees with shiny glass baubles. Some of the gazing balls used coloured glass to good effect.
Mirrors are often used as metaphors in writing. Think of Alice going through into the looking-glass world; her adventures are one enormous analogy for the eccentricities of the Victorian era. Then there is the talking mirror in Snow White. J K Rowling’s Mirror of Erised in Harry Potter – I was very slow to realize Erised was ‘desire’ spelt backwards. All of these mirrors reveal a distorted or magical world.
The Lady of Shalott, by the Victorian poet Tennyson, is a one long reflection (pun intended) on the perils of living a secondhand life (as lived by writers and artists). The Lady is cursed if she looks upon the world, unless it is via a mirror. Her magic mirror cracks when she breaks the restriction of her curse. She dies while coasting down a river (another reflective surface). I guess Tennyson was hinting that writers and artists should stick to the pens and brushes.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that we should all copy Tennyson’s mirror allegory. But mirror are enchanting objects. It isn’t a great step from a gazing ball to a crystal ball, after all.