Novels may hold up a mirror to society, but they can also contain mirrors within themselves. Some authors set up characters to reflect one another – there’s something compelling about two people who share the same name or same features, come from the same place, experience the same life-shattering event.
This concept is often an exercise in compare and contrast: give two people the same stimulus and watch how differently they react. Sometimes it’s clearcut – one is good and one is evil, one character’s virtues reflect another one’s flaws. Mirrored lives expose our reliance on simple binaries, especially when characters are distinguished by the circumstances of their birth – one rich, one poor; one Black, one white; one male, one female. Just as fundamentally, the trope shows how we are inclined to define ourselves in relation to someone else.
But mirrored lives can also become a vehicle for subtler themes. Nature and nurture, for example – not in opposition but as coterminous and confused. My debut novel, Violets, is set at the end of the second world war. The narrative is split between two women with the same name. It begins as one of them discovers she is pregnant, at the same time as the other finds she has miscarried. The book follows the two Violets to the point where their paths cross. The forces of nature and nurture combine in the son they share, forged by the desires of the mother who gives birth to him and the longing of the mother who adopts him.
It is what mirrored lives illuminate about time, fate and, crucially, choice and possibility, that I find appealing. Whether drawn for contrast or convergence, here’s a selection of other fictional mirrored lives.
1. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
Perhaps the ultimate mirrored life in fiction, representing the fight between good and evil within us all. Stevenson’s enduring creation – particularly Dr Jekyll’s reckless alter ego, Mr Hyde – is totemic of our fascination with what lies beneath civilized order and control.
two. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
Twins are an irresistible vehicle for mirrored lives, embodying sameness and difference at once. Rahel and Estha, the “two-egg twins” at the center of Roy’s family drama, are separated by the cruelties of social systems. Flipping back and forth between the tragic events that shape the twins’ childhoods and their reunion as adults, their bond becomes the culmination of all the bonds broken before.
3. Sisters by Daisy Johnson
Are they sisters? Is one a figment of the other’s imagination? Something is slightly out of sync in Daisy Johnson’s unsettling novel. Born close together, September is the more dominant sister, while July craves protection. But, as the novel progresses, it becomes difficult to separate the strands of a shared summer, a shared house, a shared sense of self.
Four. Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters
Ideas about passing, imitation, appropriation and exploitation are central to Waters’ bildungsroman set in Victorian London. When Nancy Astley’s sexual desire is awakened by Kitty, a male impersonator, it is she who begins a process of transformation. By the time the novel comes full circle, Nan has surpassed any act of imitation to assert her true self of her.
5. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
Dorian Gray swaps the sadness of his soul for the eternal beauty fixed within a flawless portrait of himself. It is the portrait, locked away in an attic, that becomes ugly with age and despair, while Dorian lives a parallel life of sensuality and lust.
6. Orlando by Virginia Woolf
A mirrored life is reflected back to us the other way round. So it is for the intrepid, gender-flipping hero(ine) of Woolf’s 1928 novel. Transcending time, it begins with the youthful exuberance of a young nobleman dallying in the court of Elizabeth I, until he becomes a woman at the age of 30 and lives on for 300 years. Ella’s naked body, as it transforms, is a new form combining strength and grace, her clothing is androgynously exotic, her pronouns briefly neutral. Through multiple genders mirrored at different times, Woolf explores the opportunities and constraints that shape us all.
7. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet follows two childhood friends as their lives take different paths, weaving in and out of one another’s influence and affections. The first book explores their relationship growing up in postwar Naples, a place of casual violence, sexual threat and a grinding lack of opportunities for escape. Elena and Lila make different choices, framed by the constraints of their circumstances but also by their different capabilities and fears. Their friendship has the sense of a quiet, calculated game, with one always a step ahead of the other.
8. On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin
“For 42 years, Lewis and Benjamin Jones slept side by side, in their parents’ bed, at their farm which was known as ‘The Vision’.” So begins Chatwin’s brooding life of twin brothers living very much in devotion to one another but also in suppression of their differences and frustration of their individual desires. The Welsh borders in the early 20th century is a place of harsh manual labour, local feuds, everyday violence and shameful transgressions, and the twin brothers bear their scars and disappointments in different ways.
9. A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa
There are two lives and two literary works mirroring each other in this avowedly “female text”. The author’s account of love and motherhood is refracted through her project de ella to translate an 18th-century poem written by an Irish noblewoman, Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill. It is Ní Ghríofa’s imagined relationship with this other, spectral author that is most compelling.
10. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
The mirroring of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre in Jean Rhys’s 1966 prequel holds up a mirror to the legacies of slavery, the inequalities within marriage, and the interlocking oppressions of race, class and gender that are lurking in Brontë’s cherished work. In Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys tells the story of Antoinette Cosway, Mr Rochester’s first wife, Brontë’s “mad woman in the attic”. Beginning in Jamaica and ending in Rochester’s British home Thornfield Hall, the overlapping narrative restores complexity to a character who in Brontë’s world is expelled as the dangerous, sensuous other to Jane Eyre’s pragmatism and restraint from her.