Advisement: this draft remains a work-in-progress.
Veiled Ladies: Fashion and Bleak House’s Inscrutable Women
In her examination of urban women and public life, Walking the Victorian Streets, Deborah Epstein Nord contends that all classes of street-walking women were identified as eroticized players in the urban pageant (4). Rather than assume the detached perspective of the flaneur, women were aware of (and wary of) their status as spectacle in a place “traditionally imagined as the site of exchange and erotic activity, a place symbolically opposed to [traditionally feminine] orderly domestic life [. . . .]” (Walkowitz 46). Despite their common presence on urban streets, women were under threat of being seen as “fallen women” and available to male urban spectators. To deflect unwanted attention, women were advised to “assume a quiet dress and manner when unaccompanied in the city” (Nead 63). In other words, bourgeois women were asked to perform public self-negation. We see this in Bleak House, where three women don veils in order to maneuver about the city anonymously. An extreme reaction to this, Jo interprets the veiled figure as one that is a woman, but at the same time isn’t; under the veil, one woman cannot be differentiated from another. When disguised by the veil, as well as Victorian norms of feminine behavior, women become interchangeable.
That middle-class women were accosted by predatory men is undeniable. Letters from offended ladies, as well as their male family members, led London newspapers and journals to publish advice on how to avoid improper treatment on the streets. To minimize their public presence, women were advised to walk at a steady pace, avoid stopping to window shop, and shun eye contact with strange men (Walkowitz 51). In one example, a mid-century London Journal illustration of two young ladies walking a city street features the caption: “We cannot lend any countenance to such glaring impropriety as ‘trying to catch the gentleman’s attention’! It is his duty to try to catch yours; so preserve your dignity, and the decorum due to your sex, position, and the usages of society” (Davies 4). Yet “catching the gentleman’s attention” meant more than avoiding eye contact; many of the newspapers’ letter writers focused on the role of women’s public dress. Fashion, as much as any other signifier, allowed the bourgeois woman to participate in urban life.
Fashion’s performative function is based upon its grounding in the public sphere, as “the clothed body is simultaneously defined by begin looked at and by its own way of looking at the surrounding world” (Calefato 76). In negotiating meaning between the individual and society, fashion is a primary instrument in reflecting and engaging in (and thus reinforcing) the dominant culture. Fashion is a means of self-definition and–especially in terms of class distinctions–provides a means by which others might define the individual, for “when we speak of fashion we inevitably refer [. . .] to bodies that fashion puts clothes on: the ‘clothed body’ is a subject in process, one that is constructed by its visible guise, its being in the world, its appearance style” (71). As a means of indicating true identity, however, this could be problematic, as “[i]dentities in the city, [which were] based on appearance rather than personal knowledge, could never be certain” (Nead 72). Yet this kind of ambiguity could work to the middle-class woman’s advantage; the clouding of identity permitted bourgeois women to explore urban streets.
One method of accessing the city was through disguise. Flora Tristan, a Frenchwoman, would don non-western ensembles of tunic, trousers, and veil while touring the London streets (Nord 119). Despite the fact that such clothing was exotic, the wearer was not marked as sexually available as she was thoroughly enveloped in cloth. Tristan praised the costumes’ freedom, but Deborah Epstein Nord believes that, “so seductive was the possibility of camouflage for [Tristan] that [she] romanticized what, from another perspective, could be seen as a repressive regime of dress [. . . .] Peru” (119). However, this is judging from a contemporary context when a nineteenth-century frame might be used. The foreign clothing was constructed to hide a woman’s sexual identity, which allowed her some public freedom. European women’s clothing was, in many ways, just as restrictive.
Like the exotic ensemble favored by Tristan, the Victorian day costume enabled public freedom by negating individual feminine identity; it hid all flesh excepting the face. Moreover at certain periods of the era, a veil was used to further mask the urban walker. Commonly, veils of the Regency era were “short [. . .] just covering the eyes or hanging loose to the chin” (Cunnington 365). These veils were typically made of lace, thereby simultaneously revealing and concealing the wearer’s identity. These gave way in the 1830s to large swaths of fabric, approximately a square yard, which were attached to the bonnet and hung well past the chin (Buck 125). The shape and size lasted into the next decade, where they were “either draped over the face or thrown behind as a form of decoration” (Cunnington 436). The fabrics included lace, net, and gauze, and they were sometimes embellished with embroidery. Colors ranged according to trends, but white, blonde, pink, green, and black were variously worn (Buck 125). The veil seems to have been–like any fashionable prop–designed to draw rather than deflect attention; however, its significance is threefold, and its peaks in popularity appears to correspond to periods of concern over feminine public vulnerability.
Although it remained in use throughout the Victorian era, the veil hit its stride at mid-century (1830s-1860s). Its functions were practical as well as aesthetic. It served “as a protection against sun and dirt, [and] in part as an added elegance for the bonnet and head” (Buck 125). These considerations certainly enhanced its popularity, but the veil also marked a woman’s modesty. Not only did it make a face inscrutable, but the veil masked a woman’s gaze. This is critically important in an era were women were discouraged from looking about when on the street. The veil allowed the bourgeois woman to observe and note urban activity.
Culturally, the veil “represented feminine chastity and modesty; in rituals of the nunnery, marriage, or mourning, it concealed sexuality” (Showalter qtd in Buckley and Fawcett 34). Paradoxically, the veil marked feminine sexuality by the very fact that its function was to negate such sexuality; this, combined with the element of anonymity, produced a mystification of the wearer. Under the veil, a woman was at once an individual and a type of all women. Her identity was utterly negotiable. This is clearly seen in Dickens’ various references to women’s veils in Bleak House.
The veil is used throughout Bleak House to indicate mystery, dread, and privacy; furthermore, Deborah Epstein Nord argues that Bleak House‘s veils indicates social stigma–Lady Dedlock’s fall and Esther’s illegitimacy. These certainly factor into the veil’s importance, which is the larger issue of obscured feminine identity and, consequently, authenticity in an urban landscape: the female’s veil in Bleak House “points to a woman playing a role underneath the veil; that is, she dissimulates” (Salotto 338). Lady Dedlock, Esther, and Hortense each seeks, through concealment, a unique expression of self or control over personal situations. The use of the veil not only shrouds their identities, but enables them to achieve their wills and allows the reader recognize, ultimately, their “true” selves.
It is significant to note that the two places most closely associated with obfuscation, Chancery and Chesney Wold, are referred to as “veiled.” During the summer, Chancery’s inaction is signified by “some great veil of rust or gigantic cobweb [. . . .]” (Dickens 315). The locus of judicial strife, and very likely the place where Esther’s paternity is hidden amongst documents, is envisioned through the pall of litigants’ anxiety and clerks’ boredom. In contrast, as Guppy approaches Chesney Wold it is shrouded as “[m]ists hide in the avenues, veil the points of view, and move in funeral-wise across the riding grounds” (456). This anticipates Guppy’s confrontation with Lady Dedlock regarding the mystery of Esther Summerson; this is also the chapter in which Lady Dedlock discovers that she is the mother of a living child. Chesney Wold, covered in mist, is as much the location of brooding, misconception, and falsehood as Chancery.
Lady Dedlock veils herself three times in the novel: while looking for Nemo’s home, while asking about the ill Esther’s condition, and as she leaves the Dedlock residence for good. She is metaphorically veiled throughout the novel as she performs rather than reveals identity. Lady Dedlock navigates the area between the binary opposition of in fashion / not in fashion, which reflects the social dualism of normative / deviant behaviors (Calefato 79). If Lady Dedlock is “in fashion,” then she accepts and reinforces her membership amongst the elite which sets her apart from, and above, the majority of Victorian society and its problems; she is “as far from and ignorant of Jo as she can possibly be” (Frazee 230). In contrast are those unmentionable people and practices which negate or complicate normative social existence–ironically, this includes Lady Dedlock’s own history. Her fashionable self, which is “bored to death,” masks her inner self; her performance is that of a lady of quality. She is, rather than an authentic woman, a disinterested mannequin. Lady Dedlock is a spectacle observed by Tulkinghorn and the “fashionable intelligence, whose prying eyes follow Lady Dedlock’s every move, both in England and on the Continent, making escape for her impossible in this world” (235).
Lady Dedlock conceals herself by wearing a “habitual air of proud indifference about her like a veil [. . . .]” (Dickens 566). This affected disdain is directed not only towards those about her, but also towards “the way she is seen, which itself camouflages the care she takes to seem haughtily indifferent” (Newman 74). Lady Dedlock’s performance of aristocratic superiority and apathy, especially in the face of Tulkinghorn’s and Guppy’s maneuverings, effectively disguises her “her inner history, which Dickens could not write for a Victorian audience, [Lady Dedlock] is alienated from her true self and unable to acknowledge her deepest feelings” (Zwerdling 433). A exemplar of fashion worthy of the Galaxy Gallery of British Beauty, Lady Dedlock‘s mannered presence is seldom undercut–even while she walks the darkened streets with Jo, or worriedly enquires after Esther in St. Albans,
She only drops the public façade twice, and these are when she confronts her past: when meeting Esther in the countryside and after “she veils and dresses quickly [and] flutters away in the shrill frosty wind” on her final ramble (Dickens 816). Her “public air of propriety is never shattered until she is found dead at the graveyard with the ‘long dank hair’ of the fallen woman” (Ingham 94). Here, the dead woman is dressed in a working woman’s clothes, her face covered–Lady Dedlock’s self is only fully realized when stripped of her fashionable dress and her hair let down as a veil. Despite being told that her mother and Jenny have switched clothes, and echoing Jo’s uncertainty about the three veiled women, Esther is confused about the identity of the woman before her. In a move that mirrors her self-revelation after being struck by illness, Esther “thrust the long dank hair aside, and turned the face” to see her mother (Dickens 869). The mask of bourgeois respectability has been discarded.
In contrast to her mother‘s icy pride and the “acquired expression of her fashionable state” (Dickens 58), Esther wraps herself in humility as she searches for identity throughout the novel. The veil itself, either as accessory or as metaphor for her excessive self-deprecation, masks the authentic Esther by becoming the focus of attention. Beth Newman, who reads Esther’s character from a psychoanalytical framework, believes that:
those aspects of Esther’s voice and character that have long
exasperated readers and critics arise in her being ‘obliged’,
through some unspecified agency, to put her subjectivity on
display against what she insists are her inclinations: the very form of her narrative, that is, expresses the paradox of
conspicuous inconspicuousness” (76).
Yet it must be asked if this “conspicuous inconspicuousness” is Esther’s own mask. The overt, excessive humility deflects attention away from what Esther truly thinks and feels, for she is selective about what she reveals (for example, she is vague about her relationship with Allan Woodcourt). The identity Esther presents to the world is the one that her Aunt Barbary constructed for her. She tells the child, “[y]our mother, Esther, is your disgrace, as you were hers [. . . .] Submission, self-denial, diligent work, are the preparations for a life begun with such a shadow on it” (Dickens 65). This seals Esther’s attitude towards the world–she is “set apart” from all others, and she earn a place in the world and love, both romantic and familial.
When Esther’s features change because of her illness, the daily reminder that she is “her mother’s disgrace” is removed. When Esther first confronts her new face, and thus, a new identity, she must shift before her a veil of hair, “suggesting the veils Esther raises and lowers throughout the novel, as she tries to read the way the way the world reads her new face” (Schor 106). The loss of her ‘old face,’ her beauty, and her resemblance to Lady Dedlock, results in the passing of that identity: her “transformation both registers her tie to her mother and enables her to begin to exorcise her mother’s ghost” (Nord 106). The resemblance remains, but it has altered enough to, later in the novel, render Guppy speechless. Esther’s changed visage indicates a changed person who must renegotiate her place in the world. Hiding her new face, and a newly emergent self, Esther begins to wear veils regularly, both in town and country.
When Esther is called to the Dedlock Arms pub, she walks wearing a veil, which serves two functions. Esther says that “not knowing what might be the matter, and being easily apprehensive now, I thought it best to go to this place by myself” (Dickens 575). A disguise might help her meet this unknown situation. Secondly, she is hesitant to display her new face–the scarring might help exorcise her mother, but it could potentially drive others away. Even though she meets Richard, she is reluctant to reveal herself. Esther recalls that she “put [her] veil up, but not quite” (575). Esther’s scarring is only vaguely described, so it can only be supposed that she is waiting for a reaction from Richard. When he fails to take notice of her changed features and treats her as always, she “put [her] veil up altogether” (576). Similarly, in Deal, Esther is reluctant to show herself when she hears Allan Woodcourt’s approach: “it would have been a great relief to me to have gone away without making myself known, but I was determined not to do so” (679). Like her experience with Richard Esther only raises the veil partially; actually, Esther isn’t sure if she is puts the veil half up or half down. She says it doesn’t matter but putting the veil down rather than up indicates a desire to hide. Like Richard, Woodcourt treats her well, and soon she is “so comfortable with myself [. . .], as not to mind the veil, and to be able to put it aside” (680). She must be comfortable with herself indeed, for this is, in fact, the last time that Esther notes wearing or discarding a veil in Bleak House. She is at ease and confident in her new self.
In contrast to both Esther and Lady Dedlock is Hortense, the lady’s maid. Her identity is, for the most part, secure throughout the novel. She is, perhaps, indicative of Lady Dedlock’s shadow self–“powerful high and passionate.” If so, she “embodies Lady Dedlock’s debased passions [. . .]” (Nord 243). Proud and angry at being displaced by the young and pretty Rosa, Hortense resents Lady Dedlock. This becomes a violent hatred as she is forced to walk to Chesney Wold in the rain, and it triggers Hortense’s desire for revenge (Nicholls 42). Rather than masking her emotions, Hortense acts them out; Esther notes the woman’s underlying hostility when she recalls that Hortense reminded her of “some woman from the streets of Paris in the Reign of Terror” (Dickens 373). Hortense “will do all in her power to bring humiliation to her former mistress” (Nicholls 42). This, apparently, might be achieved through a position as Esther’s lady’s maid. In applying to Esther, Hortense plays, and poorly so, at servility: “Mademoiselle, I have an inexpressible desire to find service with a young lady who is good, accomplished, and beautiful as an angel. Ah, could I have the honour of being your domestic?” (Dickens 373). This attitude contradicts Hortense’s public displays of pride and her sense of station. It must be asked why she would seek a position with an untitled woman, the illegitimate offspring of her former mistress, if not to somehow harm Lady Dedlock. It is somehow fitting to later learn she is a murderer. However, Hortense’s distinct differentness–her foreign manner and speaking voice, isn’t enough to prevent Jo from confusing her with Lady Dedlock and Esther in the most significant veiling episode in the novel, which also exemplifies expectations of public feminine behavior. This suggests that women who perform a role, rather than act as themselves or as reflections of their true selves, become “of a type” rather than unique figures.
All three women are united and conflated in Jo’s mind. Initially, Lady Dedlock, disguised as a servant, approaches Jo on the street and asks the boy to show her Nemo’s residence and grave. That a lady of quality would disguise herself on such an errand isn’t a surprise; not only does it prevent immediate identification, but it renders her, or so she hopes, invisible. The veil, along with the servant’s dress, confuses her public presence: Lady Dedlock’s “air and step [. . .] through the muddied streets, which she treads with an unaccustomed foot” indicate her status (and contrasts with Hortense’s barefoot walk towards Chesney Wold). (Dickens 276). Lady Dedlock does not linger on the streets; she has purpose in her stride and looks straight ahead as she walks. This accords with contemporary advice to women, for to do otherwise was to invite unwanted masculine attention.
Her purpose and her disguise disturb Jo, who “star[es] moodily at the veil” (276). The obscurity disconcerts him, and he almost appears to consider the lady banshee-like, a harbinger of doom (which accounts for Jo’s later terror). He is suspicious when he is unable to identify his addressee. Jo knows the woman is not what she seems: she looks a servant, but he recognizes a lady when one speaks, and his suspicions are reinforced when she pulls off a glove and reveals her rings. The juxtaposition–a lady, in servant dress, and obscured by a veil, conflates social positions with anonymity, and Jo has no clear signifying anchor.
Although his initial suspicion subsides, Jo’s association of the veiled woman with anxiety is reintroduced when a suspicious constable questions him about his small fortune. Through “dirty tears,” he relates the story of how “a lady in a wale as sed she was a servant” paid for his services as a guide (321). Although the constable’s disbelief is likely related to an expectation of Jo’s criminal behavior (the blend of poverty and moral decline known as pauperism), it might also be that he suspects the story because what kind of lady would dress herself in an inferior’s clothes and mask herself to walk the dark streets? Although figuring identity in the city was difficult, the expectation would be that an individual would dress above his or her station rather than beneath it. 
Jo’s anxiety is exacerbated when he visits Tulkinghorn’s office. There are more uses and variations of the term “veil” here than anywhere else in the book. Mostly, it is used by Jo who focuses chiefly on clothing as an identifying characteristic: he repeats “there’s the wale, the bonnet, and the gownd” four times in ten sentences. Despite evidence that Hortense is not the first veiled lady–Jo notes that her voice is “not a bit” like the first lady’s, and her hands are distinctly different–the boy is “perplexed [. . .] without being shaken at all in his certainty [Jo says] ‘it is her and it an’t her'” (369). Despite physical and auditory evidence to the contrary, the clothing, especially the veil, takes priority over the body it clothes, consequently, Jo cannot separate the two women. He can acknowledge difference but not explain or confirm it.
That the veil is key to his confusion is emphasized when Jo meets the veiled Esther; upon noticing her in Jenny’s cottage; she recalls that “the boy staggered up instantly, and stared at me with a remarkable expression of surprise and terror” (485). At this point, it’s much more than a case of conflated women: here, Jo clearly identifies the veiled figure with death–his own. He cries that the veiled woman has “come to get me to go along with her to the berryin’ ground. I won’t go to the berryin’ ground [. . . .] She might go a-berryin’ me” (485). Jo acknowledges Jenny’s assurances that Esther is not who he thinks she is, but he finds this difficult to comprehend. He asks of Esther: “If she ain’t the t’other one, she ain’t the forrenner. Is there three of ’em then?” (488). Jo’s disbelief is complicated by his insistence, after Esther has raised her veil, on identifying her with Lady Dedlock: “she looks to me like t’other one. It ain’t the bonnet, nor yet it ain’t the gownd, but she looks to me like t’other one” (486). Jo realizes that Esther’s clothes are unlike the servants’ dress worn by Lady Dedlock and Hortense, but the veil, apparently, is somehow the same. This confusion “he recalls with touching contrition on his deathbed: ‘I went and giv a illness to the lady as wos and yit as warn’t t’other lady [. . . .]” (Welsh 70). Even after he has grown to know Esther, Jo can only define her in association to the veiled woman,
What is curious is that Jo notes a similarity between Esther and Lady Dedlock, which, Nord asserts, is significant as it suggests the women’s shared traits (242). However, Jo never saw Lady Dedlock unveiled. He might base his recognition on factors such as height, weight, and shape, but Hortense, we know, was the same height, weight, and shape as Lady Dedlock. Of course, Lady Dedlock and Esther are similar in that both use both metaphoric and real veils to mask their inner selves. Jo, however, has no way of knowing this. Although Jo can differentiate Hortense from the other two women (as he‘s seen her hands and heard her voice), it appears he remains doubtful. For Jo, Lady Dedlock, Hortense, and Esther are slight variations of same woman (Nord says they are “interchangeable” [242-3]) who asked him to lead her to “the berryin’ ground.” It must be asked what was the women’s similarity, and why, in Jo’s mind, it’s difficult to perceive them as three distinct women. The answer, clearly, is the veil’s presence.
The veil functions at a very basic level to obscure individuality. To Jo, these women are reduced to such a superficial signifier; his ability to identify them only in relation to their mask. Without the aid of facial features, the first veiled woman, whom he stares at “moodily,” has no identity. It is as though she is a sister to the spirit who peered into Nemo’s unveiled window as he died (Dickens 188). This first meeting, and the conflicting emotions it raises (anxiety, suspicion, and some excitement from the gold) defines all of Jo’s other associations with veiled women. At once they both are and are not women–they are a woman, and a specific type at that: the one who wants to visit “the berryin’ ground,” a type of banshee.
In Bleak House, the veil is largely used to emphasize confused identity: the “veil as metaphor [. . .] hides the face and the production of the “I.” It covers the attempt to read the face or the “I.” Bleak House un-makes its inscription of woman by focusing on the trope of veiling” (Salotto 338). Although he cannot know personal histories, only Jo, albeit unconsciously so, notes the series of masquerades for what they are. Bleak House’s women lack an “I” of their own. Although it is tempting to cast Dickens as a feminist reformer, this is unlikely. What might be suggested is his awareness of the personal repercussions of an individual’s denial of identity. By performing according to specific expectations, those of “the fashionable intelligence” for Lady Dedlock, of Aunt Barbary for Esther, and of those who might help her gain a position for Hortense, these women mask their true selves. Like the cobwebbed Chancery or the misty grounds at Chesney Wold, their veils obfuscate reality and indicate their isolation from “normal” bourgeois life. These women’s existences are guided by social norms that require them to deny their inner selves, and this ultimately leads to misery: Tulkinghorn dies, Dedlock is heartbroken, and, until she learns the truth, Esther is bereft of family and history, and she’s had only Aunt Barbary’s bitter words to define herself. Like “telescopic philanthropy,” the rigid performance of conformity, although its intentions might be good, is as capable of destruction as wanton individuality. This, if anything, is signified by Jo’s terror of the faceless, veiled woman: she might simply want to walk unnoticed on the streets, but she also represents “the berryin’ ground.”
 Lynda Nead ‘s Victorian Babylon features details from letters to The Times’ 1862 written about the threat of offence which middle class women faced on London streets. A number of these letter-writers suggested that women’s flamboyant dress attracted unwanted male attention. (63-5).
 As Peter Quenell notes in Victorian Panorama, his overview of nineteenth century life, women’s dress mirrored an idea of “helpless and unprotected womanhood. Never before had woman enveloped her charms in so much pomp, circumstance, and elaboration as during the Victorian epoch [. . . .]” (93). Hoops, petticoats, and corsets disguised and armored the female form. Notably, it wasn’t the revelation of flesh which concerned The Time’s letter writers; the assorted laces, ruffles, flowers, furbelows, bright colors, and so on, which decorated women’s dress were sometimes believed to provoke inappropriate masculine attention (Nead 63-5).
 Georg Simmel posited that there are three aspects to fashion: “the ephemeral dimension; self-confirmation of a social group; and the dialectic between individual and society” (Calefato 74). The interplay between trendiness, class position, and individuality result in clothing choices (or the lack of such choices) and, therefore, the display of identity.
 Of the 29 instances of “veil” or its variants in the text, it is used only these two times to indicate atmosphere/
 Mary Poovey, in Making a Social Body, explains the Victorian notion of pauperism as “a moral and physical designation, which encomapssed all of the components eventually relegated to the social domain: criminal tendencies, bodily health, environtmental conditions, education, and religion” (11). Jo, of course, suffers from each of these with the exception of criminal behavior.
 Blanchard Jerrold noted that “in England all classes, except the agricultural, dress alike–with a difference” (36). The difference was one of quality; even the poor wore ragged variations of upper-class dress.
 In the Penguin edition of Bleak House, “veil”, “wale” or “veiled” appears up seven times in three pages, either in the narrator’s description of Hortense or Jo’s insistence on the similarity to what the lady wore. The repetition of “veil” compounds its importance as both a positive and negative identifying factor.
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