The thirty-seventh book on the Penguin Moderns list, The Cracked Looking-Glass by American author Katherine Anne Porter, was one which I was particularly intrigued by. In this story, which was first published in 1922, ‘a passionately unfulfilled woman considers her life and her marriage’. This woman is named Rosaleen; she has been married to Dennis, thirty years her senior, for over two decades, and the pair live on a farm in rural Connecticut.
I particularly enjoyed the opening scenes of the story, in which Porter sets both scenes, and the complexities of marriage, with precision and beauty. She writes: ‘Dennis heard Rosaleen talking in the kitchen and a man’s voice answering. He sat with his hands dangling over his knees, and thought for the hundredth time that sometimes Rosaleen’s voice was company to him, and other days he wished all day long she didn’t have so much to say about everything.’
Porter is so aware of her characters’ flaws, and how these adapt with the passing of time. During their anniversary dinner, for instance, ‘He looked at her sitting across the table from him and thought she was a very fine woman, noticed again her red hair and yellow eyelashes and big arms and strong big teeth, and wondered what she thought of him now he was no human good to her. Here he was, all gone, and he had been so for years, and he felt guilt sometimes before Rosaleen, who couldn’t always understand how there comes a time when man is finished, and there is no more to be done that way.’
The Cracked Looking-Glass is quite tender in places. Of Rosaleen, Porter writes: ‘She wished now she’d had a dozen children instead of the one that died in two days. This half-forgotten child suddenly lived again her, she began to weep for him with all the freshness of her first agony; now he would be a fine grown man and the dear love of her heart.’ Given that this is a short story, there is a lot of depth here, and we learn a lot about the pasts of the characters, and how this has affected their present-day lives.
The looking glass of the story’s title is square in shape, and positioned in the living room. ‘There was,’ writes Porter, ‘a ripple in the glass and a crack across the middle, and it was like seeing your face in water.’ Throughout the story, Rosaleen views herself in it, and Porter records her thoughts. With this technique, and the scenes which she records, Porter has been able to create a fascinating portrait of a complex and complicated, and incredibly realistic, woman. The Cracked Looking-Glass also presents a searing portrait of a troubled marriage in a skilfully crafted way. I was reminded somewhat of Katherine Mansfield whilst I was reading, one of the highest accolades which I could give; not so much because of Porter’s prose style, but due to the way in which she builds her characters and their histories.