Veiling Ladies and Narrative Masquerade in the Blithedale Romance

Veiling Ladies and Narrative Masquerade in the Blithedale Romance
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  !"  !"#$"%&'( *"+#$,-%' .'/&'+ 01 !,2 3 4 56-&%7 8130  Veiling Ladies and Narrative Masquerade in   e Blithedale Romance  Margaret Jay Jessee She represents a threat while being constructed as a defense against that threat. Efrat Tseëlon,  e Masque of Femininity  Nathaniel Hawthorne often wrote brief notes in his journal of story ideas he might develop, and one of these notes certainly could describe  e Blithedale Romance  : “To allegorize life with a masquerade, and represent mankind generally as masquers” (  American Notebooks   8:122).  As several critics note, the main characters in  e Blithedale Romance   all  wear some form of a disguise to conceal something more actual under-neath. 1  Priscilla’s veil literally hides her identity even while she is made a spectacle on stage. As Samuel Chase Coale argues, “Blithedale becomes a mere veil or disguise for Hollingsworth’s schemes” (113). Old Moodie’s eye patch represents his disguise, covering his past, and Westervelt’s false teeth “a  ff  ect” Coverdale “very oddly,” making him feel as if Westervelt’s “beauty . . . might be removable like a mask” (3:95). Coverdale’s name connotes a disguise, and he spends much of the novel hiding from others so that he can observe them without being observed himself. In fact, Coverdale functions as Hawthorne’s mask. Edgar Dryden acknowledges that the novel is as close to an autobiography as any of Hawthorne’s works but sums up the complex relationship between Hawthorne as author and Coverdale as narrator quite nicely: While Coverdale is certainly an extension of Hawthorne, he “is also a veil or disguise Hawthorne wears and as such is both a manifestation of Hawthorne and, at the same time, a distortion that alters that manifesta- tion” (106). Dryden’s description evokes an image of masking where the mask hides the person through a disguise yet acts as a continuity of the self, what A. David Napier, in his  Masks, Transformation, and Paradox  , describes as common in Western notions of masking: “We are licensed, that is, to accept disguises as legitimate manifestations of personality while tacitly maintaining their fictitious character” (xxiv).   !"#$"!%&' $")#$*+!& +&,%&) !# Napier links masking with illusion and representation. Masking is like art; it functions similarly to fiction: “  e recognition of illu-sion is the single prerequisite for understanding something that seems self-contradictory—in other words, for recognizing paradox, . . . that something may appear to be something else” (3). As I hope to demonstrate, Coverdale’s account is itself a paradox, purporting to be both real while fictional, to reveal through its methods of concealment. Masking is often figured in and by Coverdale’s depiction of the women characters, Priscilla and Zenobia. Zenobia’s masking is particularly paradoxical and more ambiguous than the other characters’, perhaps accounting for the diversity of her critical reception. Zenobia’s critical descriptions range from an organically realistic woman, to a vacuous allegory, to an embodiment of evil, to a stage director and performer. 2  Elizabeth Dill also notes Zenobia’s widely varied and varying critical descriptions and argues convincingly that “because Zenobia is . . . a radical fulfillment of the sentimental ideology at work in Blithedale, she makes the utopia of Blithedale possible to imagine, if not to realize,” and that “a close look at Zenobia’s  suicide, in fact, reveals that she is perhaps one of the most bravely sentimental of all nineteenth-century America  n literary figures” (67). Dill resolves the opposing critical camps on Zenobia as either the “villain or victim,” by revealing her as a sentimental character, and I would add to her reading my argument that Zenobia functions as a representation of a sentimental character, in part, as a result of the text’s positioning Zenobia in an extremely tenuous binary against the more obviously sentimental Priscilla.  is binary between the dark-haired temptress  who, like the flower she wears, is “exotic,” a “rare beauty” (3:15) against the mesmerist, the “pale” (3:50) and “shadowy snow-maiden” (3:33),  who is perhaps more ephemeral than human, fails to sustain its ap- parent opposition consistently. Readers view Zenobia and Priscilla as Coverdale experiences them, creating the sense of ambiguity as the clear binaries they are placed into—experienced/innocent, dark/pale, temptress/childlike—are thrown into question by Coverdale’s narrative masquerade. As a first-person narrator and Hawthorne’s mask, one that is both a “manifestation” and a “distortion,” Coverdale mediates, shaping Zenobia’s description of masking based on his desire for her and his fear of her.  is mediation is itself a type of masking; any clear  !"#$#%& $()#"* (%) %(++(,#!" -(*./"+()" !$ distinction between the narrative as depiction of reality and reality is always suspect as is the clear distinction between the veil and the lady beneath it, between the mask and the masked. Rather than a rehearsal of the already thorough body of criticism concerning the role of “the real” in Hawthorne’s works, this essay seeks to explain the way gender on the thematic level works to reveal the illusion of narration as a masked reality on the formal, structural level. 3  Both the figure of femininity and the narrative form are constructed as a disguise in order to cover what is potentially an absence. Both are constructed as a defense against the threat that they merely disguise an absence, and both paradoxically evoke anxiety about that very threat. Importantly, both gender masking and the narrative form situate binaries that ultimately fail to sustain their opposition. Coverdale, functioning as Hawthorne’s mask, crafts a narrative that is best described as an attempt to disguise reality; in an attempt to reveal a true reality, he mediates the space between the actual and the mimetic through his narrative masquerade. By tracking the trope of masks and masquerade through the text, I will show that as the dark, seductive woman merges with the fair, innocent girl, the representation of gender masquerade and the formal narrative masking begins to merge as well. Close attention to the novel’s formal and structural masking—revealed in and by its characterization of masquerading women—results in a reading of gender as a way to frame the novel’s complex representation of authorship and narrative. Coverdale’s Narrative Conflation of Zenobia and Priscilla  Coverdale’s narrative describes Zenobia and the Veiled Lady, or Priscilla, as opposites, but there are key moments in the text in which that opposition is thrown into question through Coverdale’s depiction. Coverdale opens his narrative with a description of the Veiled Lady  whose performance he has just witnessed and explains that these women performers “of the mesmeric line” represent either “the birth of a new science, or the revival of an old humbug” (3:5).  is particular lady’s performance comes with a legend that this young lady was once part of a wealthy, respected family but who became “enshrouded within the misty drapery of the veil” (3:6). Supposedly, her veil separates her from reality, from the actual world of materiality, time, and space. Coverdale describes this as “her pretensions” while claiming that they might be   !"#$"!%&' $")#$*+!& +&,%&) !% either “miraculous or otherwise” (3:6).  ough he remains unconvinced of the veil’s metaphysical powers, Coverdale’s description reveals the veil’s ability to paradoxically conceal the woman while she is on display, an entirely hidden spectacle. Coverdale’s description of Zenobia’s “public name” in this same opening chapter is as “a sort of mask in which she comes before the world, retaining all the privileges of privacy—a contrivance, in short, like the white drapery of the Veiled Lady, only a little more transparent” (3:8). Just a “little more transparent,” which is to say not really more transparent, Zenobia’s pseudonym allows her the same paradox the veil allows: She is also an entirely hidden spectacle, at once on display and concealed. Further, the legend of the lady from “a family and fortune” who became “enshrouded within the misty drapery of the veil” that accompa-nies the Veiled Lady could be used to describe Zenobia.  ough sisters, Zenobia’s uncle adopted her, and she “grew up in a  ffl uence, with native graces clustering luxuriantly about her” (3:189) while Priscilla was born after Old Moodie’s fall from prestige. Zenobia was once a member of a wealthy family, but her actual heritage was obscured and, because her uncle died leaving her no money, she is now, like the Veiled Lady, “enshrouded” in the veil that is her pseudonym. While readers at this point in the narrative are not yet aware of her familial past, Coverdale,  writing his narrative years after the fact, does know Zenobia’s family history as he constructs this description. From the opening of his narrative, Coverdale conflates important aspects of their character and history. In fact, Coverdale claims that Zenobia’s “sphere” has the power to transform him into “something like a mesmerical clairvoyant” (3:47).In Coverdale’s description of the second performance of the Veiled Lady he witnesses, he claims that she is “graceful, free, and unembar-rassed, like that of a person accustomed to be the spectacle of thousands” (3:201), which could also describe Zenobia, who, Coverdale claims, is “made for a stump-oratress,” and it is a “wronging to the rest of mankind to retain her as the spectacle of only a few” at Blithedale because she is meant for the stage (3:44). But Coverdale immediately contradicts his claim about the Veiled Lady’s comfort on the stage with the possibility that instead she is “a blindfold prisoner within the sphere with which this dark earthly magician had surrounded her” (3:201). Interestingly, Coverdale’s description of that magician as prison guard recalls not only  !"#$#%& $()#"* (%) %(++(,#!" -(*./"+()" !&  Westervelt’s relationship with Priscilla, but Hollingsworth’s relationship  with Zenobia. And Zenobia claims that because Coverdale “could not be quite [Hollingsworth’s] slave” Hollingsworth throws him away and takes Zenobia “into [his] plan” until he “fling[s]” her aside, as well (3:218). In these cases, Coverdale describes the Veiled Lady’s performance, but that description recalls Zenobia’s actual situation.  ese moments of conflation throw into question various distinc-tions that are seemingly oppositional on the surface.  is positioning reoccurs in an interesting way when Coverdale, recovering from his illness, sees Priscilla holding a letter “against her bosom,” and he is “forc- ibly struck” by “her air, though not her figure, and the expression of her face, but not its features” that “had a resemblance” to “one of the most gifted women of the age,” Margaret Fuller (3:51). As critics have noted, Margaret Fuller would certainly be more accurately compared to Zenobia, a fellow intellectual feminist reformer. 4    e pale, nervous Priscilla could hardly remind Coverdale of Margaret Fuller; yet, Priscilla is somehow metaphysically channeling the feminist reformer by holding the letter, something that Coverdale attempts to mask by dismissing the resemblance as “just a coincidence—nothing more” (3:52). By managing to evoke Margaret Fuller, Priscilla is indirectly evoking Zenobia. Part of the conflation of what appears to be a strict binary between the two women is the result of Coverdale’s positioning Priscilla and Zenobia as both human and non-human, or fictional, at once. Coverdale compares Priscilla to plants while noting there are still “indications that the girl ha[s] human blood in her veins” (3:50–1). He suggests she “has the gift of hearing those ‘airy tongues that syllable men’s names’—which Milton tells about” with her “sudden transformations” from her real- istic girlish beauty to a mystical strange medium (3:60). Priscilla’s odd behavior appears to be her ability to sense things beyond what is possible for the average human. When Zenobia takes Hollingsworth’s hand “in both her own” and “press[es] it to her bosom” (3:124), Coverdale claims that Priscilla “could not possibly have been aware of the gesture . . . through the medium of her eyes, at least” but nevertheless “the life” seems to “pass out of her, and even the substance of her figure” grows “thin and gray,” which Coverdale claims makes him imagine her as a mere “shadow, fading gradually into the dimness of the wood” (3:125).  While Coverdale’s description of the Veiled Lady’s performance is filled
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