It might be cliche to introduce a character by having them look into a mirror, but this doesn’t stop Dawn French, proving that writers who want to get published can actually break the so-called rules of writing. (I’m sure it helps if you happen to be a celebrity, but heigh-ho.)
Basically, writers can do anything so long as there is good reason, and there is indeed good reason for introducing two characters by way of a mirror in According To Yes (2015):
- The two main characters are polar opposites
- French chooses to use the ritual of putting on makeup to emphasise the difference between the two women, and putting on makeup by its nature requires a mirror.
- One of the characters is not actually the type to gaze at herself into a vanity mirror, so French has her observe herself in the unavoidable reflection of an elevator mirror. This mixes things up a bit.
In a new round mirror is a reflection of an old oval face. Everything is in its place here, especially on this fading face, because subtle expensive surgery has helped it be so. Glenn Wilder-Bingham has applied her make up this same way for sixty years. She could probably do it without the mirror, she could certainly do it without the actual make up, because the brushes, the pads, the puffs and the pencils have enough residue on them for a week’s worth of daily applications. It is nearly done, except for the very last part of the process, which is the concealer. She clicks the end of the expensive concealer pen and draws bold lines of creamy light-diffusing liquid under her eyes, around the base of her nose, over her frown wrinkles, and along the sagging lines of her jaw. The stripes are bold and her reflection shows her a reverse negative of her face. It’s light where it was dark, it’s seemingly tight where it was loose. She blends the concealer with her finger and after adroitly powdering it all down, only a trained eye would notice her renovations. Not bad for an Upper East Side dame.
Even the grammatical constructions in this book contain mirror images — ‘new’ and ‘old’, ‘light’ and ‘dark’, ‘tight’ and ‘loose’ contrasting with each other in the same sentence.
Notice how adeptly French tells us that Glenn really plasters the make up on — without telling us directly. A woman who uses a lot of make up is thought to be deceptive, not in touch with who she really is, lying that she is beautiful when she is actually not underneath. Fairytales make use of this particular anti-feminist trope about women, and so do modern storytellers, all the time.
In real life, women who wear make up are seen as more trustworthy than those who don’t.
Someone else looking at her reflection, in the panelled mirror of the elevator, is Rosie Kitto, but she sees something entirely different. She sees a drowned poodle of a woman. This wasn’t the look she had planned for an important interview. Until five minutes ago, she was dry and fairly presentable. She doesn’t ordinarily wear make up much, but she has put a little bit on today and she has wrestled with a round brush and blow-dried her naughty hair so that it looks nearly tidy. This is the Upper East Side. People here care about this stuff, so she wants to appeal, to be what her Cornish mum always called “andsom”. Typically, Rosie wears bright and bold clashing colours with great panache. She always has, and now that she’s thirty-eight she has found a vintagey way to wear them. She often wears a bright scarf in a big askew bow on her head and vibrant flowery blouses, with rolled up jeans that might reveal orange socks in her winkle-picker shoes, like a cheerful 40’s landgirl. She finds this style suits her curvey figure and makes her happy, because it gives her the chance to rootle about in vintage clothes shops, oh joy, her favourite pastime. The pleasure a hidden-at-the-back-of-the-rail treasure can bring, and the thrill of the bargaining to boot. But Rosie is not a fool. She knows instinctively she will have to introduce any new employer to this eccentricity in stages, slowly. So for today, she has really tried to tone it down, smart navy pleated-front slacks, a yellow blouse and a light blue linen jacket. The red brogues are a bit of a risk, but she wants to be at least a tad honest about who she is, to anchor herself as someone in her own authenticity.
Dawn French, According To Yes
French is using another technique which must be a cousin to paralepsis — she is describing what Rosie is not wearing, what she normally does not wear, how she does not want to come across. By emphasising the negative space Rosie is positioned in the reader’s mind as Glenn’s mirror image.
By not normally wearing make up, Rosie is a WYSIWYG kind of gal, no artifice, immensely likeable. French also makes use of the trope that fat people are jolly. The bright colours of clothing and her enjoyment of second-hand shopping bolster the reader’s view of this character.
Header illustration: John Dickson Batten illustration of the Wicked Queen and the Magic Mirror