The veil. A politically loaded symbol. It carries all sorts of old semiotic baggage, of course. Weddings. Widowhood. Ladies in Conan Doyle who want to hide their identities (thus it has a trajectory into the figure of Madame Vastra via Victoriana). In genre TV these days, a woman wearing a veil is likely to be a tragic or vengeful figure, hiding a facial scar of some kind. (See ‘Silence in the Library’ / ‘Forest of the Dead’.)
The veil is thus something that implies a particular set of social situations for women. The connection appears to be the concept of separation. The veil is a boundary between the woman and society. It creates a space in which she can hide her unsightliness, either disfiguring grief or grievous disfigurement, from those who don’t want to have to see it. The wedding veil is lifted as the woman is taken possession of in the marriage ceremony; thus it is there to emphasize her acceptability by temporarily putting it in doubt. It is, of course, the symbolic tearing of the hymen. The man takes possession and breaks through the barrier. All very nasty. Not to mention anatomically inaccurate.
Vastra’s veil takes on enormous significance in ‘Deep Breath’. Indeed, the whole episode is full of talk about faces, with them being stolen, exchanged, worn, hidden, changed… with them contemplated in mirrors.
Vastra is married to Jenny (by Silurian law perhaps?), and yet this marriage hardly seems to have anything to do with Vastra’s veil (unsurprising, given that it is black rather than white), since Vastra and Jenny’s relationship fails to fit easily into any patriarchal schema. There is no sense in which Jenny owns Vastra. Indeed, the power relationship appears to go the other way (with implied consent).
There is a sense in which Vastra could be said to be mourning. She is an isolated figure in some ways, cut off from her lost people. But this is hardly emphasised at all. She doesn’t seem tragic, and her complete lack of vengefulness is so complete as to be worrying (to me anyway).
As mentioned, she reiterates – in some ways – the figure of the veiled lady from Victorian popular fiction, via her place in the regurgitated Victoria trope pyramid. But she inverts this, to some degree, by being the detective. Her veil isn’t to hide her secrets from the investigator, rather it is to hide the secrets of the investigator from the client – as long as is necessary.
There is another significance to the veil in our culture at this time: the immensely freighted issue of the hijab… or perhaps I should say, the immensely freighted issue of Western ideas about the hijab. I’ve likened the Silurians to the Palestinians before now, which would obviously chime… especially when you remember that Vastra has plonked herself down at the hub of the British Empire as a kind of refugee, and the British Empire was mucking around with the area that became Palestine from the 1830s onwards (though Victoriana places Vastra well before the disastrous British interventions of the early 20th century). …