What follows is a discussion on The Haunted Mirror by Elizabeth Madox Roberts, published in 1932. This book is currently out of print, which is incredibly depressing, because it is beautiful. I hope you can find a copy of it somewhere.
When discussing The Haunted Mirror by Elizabeth Madox Roberts, my instinct is drawn instantly to the language that Roberts uses to create her stories. Though the Kentuckian backdrop in which her stories exists is grounded within the lived experience of Kentucky, Roberts constantly uses a poetic, lyrical writing style that lends many of her stories the feel of fantasy or magical realism. Within that nearly fairyland version of Kentucky, Roberts builds strong human characters, both men and women, that question and challenge what it means to be human in the cycle of time.
Roberts’ stories are like modern fables. People live in a specific set of rules, and a deviation from the norm creates an opportunity to instruct or to learn. A fantastic sensibility drives stories like “On the Mountainside,” and I spent the majority of that story waiting for the reveal that the returning traveler was actually the boy. However, the ending lacked the typical fantasy twist, leading me to believe even more strongly that the old man was the young boy in another time. This atmosphere of the fantastic allows the reader to suspend disbelief. In “The Scarecrow,” an imaginative mind can believe Joan both summons and scares the crows because of the way in which Roberts describes both Joan and the scarecrow. Joan becomes the scarecrow in order to escape the reality Tony Wright raping her in the field. Tony, himself a type of crow, is drawn to Joan but ultimately cannot have her because she is a scarecrow. Though Elizabeth Madox Roberts mentions no magic and hasn’t set her stories in an invented world, The Haunted Mirror is magical.
Part of the magic of The Haunted Mirror lies in Roberts’ ability to produce human characters. The people populating her stories are not just believable, they feel like developed humans. Roberts often chooses to use a male character as her main character, but instead of being flat or stock male characters, they are men. In them, Roberts explores emotion, and the angle and direction from which men experience them. Through the lens of men, Roberts portrays women, including injustices against them. In her story “The Sacrifice of the Maidens” Felix watches his sister Anne and three other women become nuns. As the last step in the sacrament, the priest gives each woman a new name. The brother realizes in horror that both his sister and the other women have sacrificed their identity to the church.
I would not consider The Haunted Mirror to be a feminist work, but Roberts does lean towards a feminist agenda at times. In both “The Sacrifice of the Maidens” and “The Scarecrow,” Roberts presents women that have their identities stripped away. In the first story, Anne makes a decision to defy the expectations of her family to marry and decided to take holy orders and become a nun. Her identity as Anne is replaced when the priest renames her as Sister Magdalen. Felix realizes the horror of this moment, but because Anne has chosen to become a nun, the change is her own. Joan, however, does not choose anything in her relationship with Tony Wright. While she is planning out her second scarecrow, he forces her to have sex with him in the field, then uses her loss of virginity to him as a bargaining point in gaining her as his wife. Joan’s mother Chattie makes the decision for Joan to marry, and Tony attempts to isolate Joan immediately. Joan herself acts in a feminist way when she decides to leave Tony on their wedding day and walk multiple miles home to her parents. After her arrival, her mother and her sisters try to convince Joan that her identity has changed now that she his Mrs. Wright, but Joan refuses this forced identity with the support of her father.