Any reader coming to The Lifted Veil expecting to find the style of Middlemarch or The Mill On The Floss is going to be disappointed. This novella has none of the realism of George Eliot’s full blown novels. Instead we get a lurid tale with a sensationalist ending, a work of fiction that captures the mid Victorian fascination with science and experimentation.
The Lifted Veil begins in dramatic fashion as the narrator, Latimer, foretells the manner and timing of his death. Then it slows down markedly to fill in a lot of detail about his childhood and education in science and modern languages.
At 19 years old, Latimer discovers he has the ability to see into the future and into the minds of people around him.
He’s never visited Prague yet he has a clear vision of the city and its famous Charles Bridge. it’s so vivid that he can even see a “patch of rainbow light on the pavement, transmitted through a coloured lamp in the shape of a star.” On another occasion, he utters the exact same words his brother speaks only a few moments later.
Latimer spends a lot of time trying to understand the meaning of this “gift”. He’s excited initially, wonders if it is a manifestation of the poetic side of his nature. But then doubts and fears creep in. Maybe it’s not a power, but a disease: ” a sort of intermittent delirium, concentrating my energy of brain into unhealthy activity…?”
The visions begin around the time when Latimer meets and becomes enraptured by Bertha, his brother’s intended financé. She’s a tease but Latimer is such an innocent that he can’t see how he is being manipulated. Somehow he believes his passionate feelings are reciprocated by Bertha.
Latimer does become a little disconcerted when one of his clairvoyant episodes shows him life with Bertha as his wife wouldn’t be the bed of roses he imagines. Will this vision come true just like the others he has experienced?
Bewildering Array of Ideas
For a short text, The Lifted Veil is packed with ideas around science and human nature. We get phrenology ( a particular interest of Eliot’s); blood transfusion; double consciousness and the dual brain.
The first two are straightforward but double consciousness and the dual brain are more challenging. The introduction by Helen Small in my Oxford World’s Classics edition was invaluable but I’m still not convinced I fully understand the concept.
The best I can do is to think that when Latimer has his experiences of visions and voices, he can be both a witness and a participant. He’s able somehow to split into two entirely different entitles. His body and consciousness, for example, can register the fact that the fire irons are falling in the room he occupies at that moment, but his mind’s eye is placed somewhere entirely different.
Latimer expresses it in less prosaic terms:
Are you able to imagine this double consciousness at work within me, flowing on like two parallel streams that never mingle their waters and blend into a common hue?
I don’t know if we’re meant to see that Latimer’s divided self is the result of trauma — a consequence of the loss of his mother when he was seven years old. Or do the roots lie in his personality for, even before that event, he was a very sensitive child who trembled at loud noises and was nervous whenever in his father’s presence.?
Eliot seems to suggest that there are risks inherent in the pursuit of scientific knowledge because some aspects of life should remain unknown, a mystery in a sense. If you “lift the veil” and desire to know and to understand everything, you lose that element of mystery in life.
And then the curse of insight – of my double consciousness, came again, and has never left me. I know all their narrow thoughts, their feeble regard, their half-wearied pity.
The Lifted Veil is clearly a novel that takes a lot of unpicking. No doubt it will delight people who love digging beneath the surface of the text and wrestling with the various concepts.
I found it an odd story and very uneven; with a Gothic “horror” ending that didn’t sit easily with the densely written, complex style of the first half. It has a curiosity value as an early example of Eliot’s fictional output, but not one I can say I enjoyed.
The Lifted Veil by George Eliot: Footnotes
The Lifted Veil was published anonymously in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1859, just a few months after the publication of Adam Bede which had been a huge success.
A letter from her publisher John Blackwood makes it evident he wasn’t very enthusiastic about this tale. It was beautifully written but he wanted her to remove a scene involving blood transfusion. Eliot held fast so the story was eventually published intact but without attribution to George Eliot. It met with mixed reactions from readers.
It was eventually published under the author’s name in 1879, in the same volume as Brother Jacob and Silas Marner.
For insight about the science theme in The Lifted Veil, take a look at this essay on the British Association for Victorian Studies website.
The Lifted Veil is one of the books on my Classics Club list and was my Classics Club spin book for October 2022.