The Veiled Lady

by Brooke White

The distracted camera blurs the scene then focuses on the bust of Darcy, who has been watching as we take a turn about the room. In Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice Elizabeth encounters a painted portrait of the man. The 1995 BBC show used a portrait of Colin Firth to inspire Jennifer Ehle. The 2005 film employs sculpture. The sensory experience of a painting versus a sculpture is very different, even for us voyeurs watching the scene play out on a screen. In his sculpted form, Darcy’s features take up space in the way he does as a living man, calling for you to run the back of your fingers across his cheek.

Piano notes trickle like falling droplets as Elizabeth inspects every detail of the home which could have been hers, had she accepted Darcy’s proposal. Then the frame focuses on a marble rendering of a woman’s face obscured by a veil. I’ll never cease to be amazed by this trick– how something so delicate can be found within stone.

We spin with the camera to see where the marble fabric clutches the woman’s nose, her cheeks, her brow, her chin barely perceptible beneath the folds of her veil. Our gaze is Elizabeth’s until, suddenly, it’s not. We’re looking at both of them, the veiled woman tall, graceful, Elizabeth standing before her like a reflection, craning her neck to look at the woman’s face. Is the marble woman shy, virginal, bridal? I want to reach through the screen and pinch the edge of that veil between my thumb and finger, gently lift it, and peek. But I cannot, not even if I was there, in that room. I wonder what she sees through that shroud of rippled stone.

Muffled conversation in the background is smothered by uneasy piano notes loping from one moment to the next, then tip-toeing toward the needy, romantic brass, then strings arrive to the melody and rise in pitch like a racing heartbeat. There is a blur of body parts, the camera much less shy now, as it travels over muscles and taught marble skin, close enough that if these statues were alive, we might detect a pulse in their necks. Elizabeth wanders, looking at nothing in particular until she encounters a nude, lounging woman. We leave Elizabeth to focus on the soft underside of the statue’s foot, then her calf and knee, the tendon at the back of her leg, her hip sloping into her twisted back, wrinkles of skin bunched between her shoulders and neck, vines resting as a crown in her hair.

Joyce Goggin notes that this scene “foregrounds Keira Knightley as the looker, the owner of the gaze.” I delight in anyone speaking seriously about pop culture for a prolonged time, even if I don’t necessarily agree with their take. I hadn’t thought of Elizabeth’s contemplation of the nude, marble women as a meditation on her selfhood, though some scholars say as much. I thought she was longing, lustful, maybe a little lonely. Maybe I’m projecting.

I get to thinking about the story of that veiled woman who was commissioned by William Cavendish, the Duke of Devonshire. The story of his parents’ contentious marriage was loosely adapted into The Duchess (2008) in which Keira Knightly plays Cavendish’s mother, a woman who is banished after she has an affair (despite her husband’s mistress living at their house). Knightly played Cavendish’s mother screaming in that grand house, and she played Lizzie, marveling at the statue which Cavendish commissioned, displayed in the sculpture room of his family’s estate which was masquerading as Mr. Darcy’s home for the sake of the film. The layers of these stories are so entwined I can’t help but think of the truth and fiction in tandem.

William Cavendish never married. The sculptor, Raffaelo Monti, never married. Historians remind me that art spaces in the 1800s were mostly male, with male artists, patrons, and critics discussing the human form, especially with neo-classical art focused on the male nude. Those pale statues were inspired by excavations of Pompeii and sculptures which lost their color in the onslaught of time and ash, many of which celebrated Greek love. “The Veiled Lady” is meant to resemble the vestal virgins of Rome, priestesses who lived together in the house of the vestals, tending to the city’s sacred flame. Chosen as children, they served for thirty years. Afterward, they were permitted to marry, but few did.

In no time at all, we find Elizabeth and Darcy married, mussed, sitting on a stone bench between pillars of fire overlooking their estate. New York Times writer Alessandra Stanley says, “It was perhaps a little embarrassing to learn that the British producers of the latest Pride and Prejudice released a different ending for American audiences: a swoony moonlit scene of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy in dishabille, kissing and cooing in a post-coital clinch.” I was flabbergasted. I hadn’t realized this scene connotes sex.

The international cut of the film ends with Mr. Bennet exclaiming, “If any young men come for Mary or Kitty, send them in, for I am quite at my leisure.” Why cast the story as being about Mr. Bennet and his daughters when it is, first and foremost, about Elizabeth?

The novel ends in the heart of domesticity, with Charlotte and Mr. Collins visiting Pemberley to wait out Lady Catherine’s rage over Elizabeth and Darcy’s union. It’s comedic, full of the small sacrifices and oddities of adjusting to new family dynamics.

The 2005 adaptation is sweeping, dramatic. Thus, the ending required flickering candlelight, shadows, and puckered lips. My eyes slip above their heads to their home in the background. Elizabeth is back at Pemberley, seemingly for the first time since her visit to the sculpture room. I wonder how many days will pass before she wanders to that wing of the mansion and pays a visit to the veiled lady?

A few steps away from the house I’m renting is the Minneapolis Institute of Art; within it is the face I’ve been searching for. Well, almost. The statue in Darcy’s home, that kneeling woman with a bowl of fire is “A Veiled Vestal Virgin” c. 1846 sculpted by Raffaelo Monti. A decade after he sculpted the veiled virgin, Monti sculpted “The Veiled Lady” marble, 1860 whose head resembles that of her predecessor, though she is just that— a head and neck with no body, displayed on a pedestal.

The Veiled Lady by Raffaelo Monti. Marble, c. 1860. Photo courtesy of the author.

She wears a crown of floppy flowers and leaves over a delicate, gauzy veil. The fabric clings to the bridge of her nose, her cheekbones, her full lower lip. When I step closer, her mouth hints at a smile, but then I move and the light above us illuminates a line falling from her tear duct. I can’t tell whether this tear is intentional or if I’m seeing things that aren’t there. The plane of her cheek is broad, and I imagine it would fit nicely in my palm. Her hair is coiled in a bun snuggling the back of her neck.

The sign beneath her states that her head and shoulders were polished smooth to reflect light, while the veil was left unpolished so it would resemble the texture of fabric. I tower above her. I circle. I crouch. I record the moment on my phone. I want the video to be smooth, so I slide one leg behind the other and it’s as if I am dancing with her in the gallery.

True, she has no body, though the shadow her pedestal casts on the wall appears like a figure approaching from a distance, sinking through time and space toward me.

The friend who accompanied me on this visit asks about the lady’s veil. I’m grateful for what I’m sure is her way of letting me share my obsession. I tell my friend that some say the veil represents chastity, but I like the veil best as a symbol for hidden passion, something which cannot be fully revealed.

A few hours after our trip to the museum, I find myself at a party where I talk about the veiled lady as I mill about the deck, the kitchen, and beside the bonfire. I say that since the lady is very expensive, and because there was a camera mounted to the wall and a security guard in the next room over, I did not press my lips to her face. Instead, I blew her a kiss.

A friend asks, “So you fell in love today?”

I fan myself dramatically and admit, “Yes, I think I did.”

It has always been easier for me to deflect anything that starts to feel too real with a joke. I shared my conspiracy theories about the leading lady in Pride and Prejudice being gay, about the veiled vestal virgins being gay, about the sculptor and the man who commissioned “The Veiled Lady” being gay, and felt the veil of hidden desires slip from my face.



Brooke White is a Michigander with a penchant for long conversations. Her work has appeared in Midwestern Gothic, Entropy, Iron Horse Literary Review, March Xness, and others. She’s a University of Minnesota MFA alum at work on a book of literary nonfiction about desire, transformations, and fairy tales. @brkthewriter

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