Beyond the Veil: A Look On Female Interiority in Enlightenment Age Literature

Dee Richards
8 min readAug 22, 2022

“Over the mysteries of female life, there is drawn a veil best left undisturbed.” — John Brooke, Little Women (film, 1994)

The experience of a woman is one of interiority — an inward focus of character — even in modern times. During the production of what is termed “Literature of the Enlightenment”, often understood to extend between 1685 and 1815, there are evident changes in the impacts of philosophy, science, and communications. Coming under the microscope at this time, unlike ever before, was the topic of female interiority. After the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, literacy increased incrementally to include more people from differing stages of wealth and educational backgrounds. In England between the 1640’s and 1750’s, literacy rates rose in men by nearly 30%, demonstrating a clear interest in more and varied topics. Among the topics of curiosity were all manner of texts which shed light on a previously unexplored, or misunderstood, theme: The “mysteries of female life” became a focus not only for writers, but were wildly successful among readers as well. While women’s lives were a topic of great curiosity in literature of the Enlightenment, the spaces women occupied were still beholden to, and abused by, patriarchal systems, which sought to invade even the most sacred spaces of feminine existence.

In the age of Enlightenment, interpersonal letter-writing became popular, largely due to the expansion of literacy; it also became a sort of side-alley that affluent women could use to exchange their innermost thoughts to one another, without fear of disgrace. The epistolary novel, a novel composed of letters between fictional (and sometimes real) people, broke open this space for women, showcasing a craving to understand the intricacies of female life. In doing so, however, it also became a spectacle for the patriarchal gaze. Women’s interiority depended greatly upon hiding and secrecy, which can be seen in various texts published at the time: Jonathan Swift’s “The Lady’s Dressing Room”, Eliza Haywood’s “Fantomina”, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s “Turkish Embassy Letters”, and Anne Finch’s “A Nocturnal Reverie.”

Focusing on “The Lady’s Dressing Room” by Jonathan Swift, we are given a male metaphor to the account of female interiority. This unflattering image portrays Celia, a supposed debutante who has vacated her personal parlor, to be invaded by the stealthy narrator Strephon. Much to his dismay, Strephon takes in, bit by bit, the interior of Celia’s dressing room. “And first a dirty smock appeared, / Beneath the armpits well besmeared… Now listen while he next produces / The various combs for various uses, / Filled up with dirt so closely fixed, / No brush could force a way betwixt; / A paste of composition rare, / Sweat, dandruff, powder, lead, and hair;” these lines serve as a sort of garbage list of the horrors Strephon discovers, leading up to the most offensive: A used chamber-pot. While this work is quite humorous in its displays of ugliness, it speaks toward Celia’s interiority, which has been violated, and functions as a mirror to the perceived “mess” that is female private life.

Upon each discovery, a new sickness grows within Strephon, not only at his previously adored Celia, but at the entirety of womankind beyond the examined room. At every breach of Celia’s privacy, disgust grows at the output of a woman’s body, which is to say the human body, but is somehow available here for scrutiny due to the expectations placed upon female presentation. If Strephon had been discovered in her parlor, she would most likely have felt violated, her issues of personal privacy having now been uncovered. Additionally, her exposure at this time may have grave consequences to her social life, her marriage prospects, and her self-esteem. Her hidden self, on display, is a determined infringement upon her worth as an individual, amplifying an ongoing problem of female representation: The mother/whore dichotomy. This dichotomy is a system of patriarchal control over the lives of women, expressed as a repetitious image of original sin. This image cannot be shed without becoming something more than human: An undefiled picture of grace and perfection such as Jesus’s mother, Mary. In revealing her as human, Swift casts Celia as contaminated; the closest resemblance to a woman defiled being, in the male gaze, a whore.

The text of “Fantomina; or, Love in a Maze” by Eliza Haywood paints a very distinct picture of the mother/whore dichotomy in the image of the playhouse, visited within the first moments of the story by the mysterious main character. The work begins, “A young lady of distinguished birth, beauty, wit, and spirit, happened to be in a box one night at the playhouse; where… she perceived several gentlemen extremely pleased themselves with entertaining a woman who sat in a corner of the pit and, by her air and manner of receiving them, might easily be known to be one of those who come there for no other purpose, than to create acquaintance with as many as seem desirous of it.” This passage places the wealthy ladies physically above the sex workers below, but still commanding much of the male attention. While there is very little physical description that would place the sex workers as distinct from those in the boxes above, there is a male distinction between the two in their approach to sexuality.

This male approach toward female sexuality is an important theme in “Fantomina”, since the mysterious title character adopts a disguise of the sex workers she observes and captures the interest of the utterly unremarkable Beauplasir. Through this boundary-crossing identity, Fantomina is momentarily freed of the constraints expected of her by the mother/whore dichotomy, which dictates the sexual behavior of women. But later, though she desires sex with Beauplasir, she hesitates for fear of the judgment that would be rendered by these expectations. The internalized patriarchal system catches her in a double-bind, punishing her again when Beauplasir becomes angry at her from withholding the intimacy she truly does desire. In contrast, the interior of the playhouse from a feminine perspective makes no difference between those above and those below, aside from “air and manner,” which Celia easily bypasses as Fantomina. Fantomina’s greatest triumph through the large part of the text lies in her mystery; her identity is not revealed until she is at her most vulnerable, upon the birth of the child Beauplasir sired. Once again, such expository texts do more to violate the women they examine than to allow for their own avenues of interiority.

In the most physically vulnerable “Turkish Embassy Letters” by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, the rich visual language crafts a location of female bodily freedom. In this work, we enter a distinct image of the natural female exterior in a vivid description of an all-female Turkish bathhouse, or bagnio, but still find elements of women’s interiority suffering from internalized patriarchal systems. The letter casts the image of interiority, while still remaining constrained. Lady Mary pens a frank description of her supposed experiences inside the bagnio, wherein she describes herself in the scene: “I was in my traveling habit, which is a riding dress, and certainly appeared very extraordinary to them (the bagnio patrons). Yet there was not one of them that showed the least surprise or impertinent curiosity, but received me with all the obliging civility possible.” This discussion stands in direct opposition to Swift’s exposure of woman to man as vile, and paints the accommodating nature of the exposed female form as a reflection of the near perfect state of female interiority.

In this setting, there is nudity without the taint of sexual expectation, hidden from the masculine world by the marble walls and stone towers of the bagnio. This freedom thereby blurs the roles between mothers and whores, mistresses and slaves. “The sofas… on which sat the ladies; … their slaves behind them, but without any distinction of rank by their dress, all being in the state of nature, that is, in plain English, stark naked, without any beauty or defect concealed.” While this beatific image of acceptance in its most natural state gives comfort to the female reader, the interiority is again violated by internalized patriarchal standards. Lady Mary is inclined to think of a male painter to whom she wishes she could reveal the secret beauty she beholds. But the more gross violation exists in the examination of Lady Mary’s corset: “I saw they believed I was locked up in that machine, and that it was not in my own power to open it, which contrivance they attributed to my husband.” Upon revealing her corset, it was accepted by the entire establishment of women that Lady Mary was locked in a machine of her husband’s design. This may be arguably true about corsets, but more importantly it demonstrates an unspoken, and universally understood, patriarchal geography internalized by the female mind, as well as the fear and entrapment associated with that male dominance. Men’s influence on the women’s sense of interiority is violated even in a space wholly devoid of men.

In Anne Finch’s “A Nocturnal Reverie”, we visit the mysterious locale of night as a space, not a time or concept. Finch gives dimension to night “when every louder wind / Is to its distant cavern safe confined”, creating a sense of secure walls of wind, and “when passing clouds give place, / Or thinly veil the heavens’ mysterious face” creates a ceiling. These elements describe a place where the narrator feels safe, in the freedom associated with darkness and subtlety. Much like Fantomina’s character, secrecy and interiority are the safest places for women. Finch describes the interior of night as a place that exists not in reality, but within herself.

Finch’s night, in its perfection, is the image of sanctified interiority, a place where a woman’s natural state is calm and beautiful. “In perfect charms, and perfect virtue bright: / When odors, which declined repelling day, through temperate air uninterrupted stray.” In this line, we can see a very clear opposition toward Swift’s admonition of Celia as foul, possibly indicating that the vacancy of the male gaze allows for feminine natural perfection. However, Finch concedes that this interiority, this space of pure freedom, will inevitably be violated: “Their shortlived jubilee the creatures keep, / Which but endures, whilst tyrant man does sleep.” Finch gives the final key to true interiority in the lines: “O’er all below a solemn quiet grown, / Joys in the inferior world, and think it like her own.” Perfection beyond the reach of day, in a space of the mind, free of patriarchal systems of oppression, the narrator is both the mother and the whore, or neither at her will. She exists within natural perfection, but always aware of the oncoming invasion of penetrative daylight.

These texts, and their publication, show an increased interest in women’s lives and interiority, within the bounds of Enlightenment literature. Still, these spaces were beholden to, and abused by, patriarchal systems seeking only to invade the most sacred areas of womanhood. Of all these texts, only one is a place of peace, acceptance, and release beyond the male ability of penetration: That of our own mind. Our sacred spaces have been systematically violated and turned against us to perpetuate a dichotomy between our own sense of internal perfection and patriarchal society’s expectations. Finch’s words echo the fact that our interiority, our mind, is the most powerful place we have.

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Dee Richards

Dee has a BA in English with honors from UC Irvine; 3 awards in CNF; 8 fiction and CNF pubs to date; writer for The Key Reporter Mag; getting a Masters in CNF.