The Lifted Veil by George Eliot — the troubled mind

The cover of The Lifted Veil by George Eliot showing a portrait of a young man.

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.

BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

23 thoughts on “The Lifted Veil by George Eliot — the troubled mind

  • October 16, 2022 at 9:33 pm
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    Well done, you did it and now you never have to open it again!

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    • October 17, 2022 at 9:33 pm
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      It’s already been consigned to the donations bag – I don’t want it in the house any longer than necessary 🙂

      Reply
  • October 10, 2022 at 9:35 pm
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    I do want to try this, despite some of the bewildered or reserved comments I’ve seen here and elsewhere, though I’m aware I’ve still to finish Middlemarch before leaping into another of her works. Thanks for the reminder!

    Reply
  • October 10, 2022 at 6:41 pm
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    I’ve not read Eliot in this mode, so your evaluation is helpful. I suppose we can all be glad she didn’t go off in this rather lurid sort of direction; her talent seems to have been stronger elsewhere!

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    • October 10, 2022 at 9:15 pm
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      Gosh yes, I’m relieved that she went back to the realist mode. Maybe it was the lukewarm response to this novella that persuaded her not to try that approach again

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  • October 10, 2022 at 4:45 pm
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    I have to say, I dug this out from one of my more obscure bookshelves, when you first mentioned it, Karen. I remembered I had attempted this before, because I love George Eliot books. But I need to confess, I failed to finish it again. This is not something I normally do; I usually plod on with most, even when I’m not really enjoying the read. But I found The Lifted Veil so weird. I did skip to the end, and you’re right, It doesn’t fit the main story… well, that’s what I thought. Disappointed. And back to the shelf it goes – at least until I can find someone to give it a go. You have written a brilliant review, I must say. Thanks.

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    • October 10, 2022 at 5:40 pm
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      It took me several attempts to get through it Judith. I got so frustrated by Latimer and his introspection.

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      • October 13, 2022 at 7:53 am
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        |\i don’t feel I should comment, having failed on this book. Except to say I found myself nodding off at one point. Which is disgraceful, I know!

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        • October 13, 2022 at 6:29 pm
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          I gave up trying to read it late at night in bed. I kept losing focus.

  • October 10, 2022 at 8:34 am
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    I’m thinking back to a non fiction book that I read on the life of George Eliot, I vaguely think that she belonged to groups who went to lots of lectures of the era or she met up with people who liked to discuss all things new and exploratory at the time. Perhaps these meetings influenced this book where she reflected her own thoughts about such subjects.

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    • October 10, 2022 at 5:43 pm
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      She did connect with a lot of people who were fascinated by science. Her partner George Henry Lewes was more keen than she was though. He seemed to have been swept along by the whole thing whereas she had reservations about where it would all end

      Reply
  • October 10, 2022 at 3:00 am
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    An interesting review of a quirky, off beat work! I actually have a copy of this (from Melville House’s “art of the novella” series), which I must admit I haven’t been rushing to read (I love Middlemarch & Daniel Deronda, but there’s plenty of Eliot’s work that I don’t really care for).

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    • October 10, 2022 at 5:43 pm
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      I’m a huge fan of Middlemarch too and loved Silas Marner and Mill on The Floss – have yet to read Daniel Deronda though.

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  • October 9, 2022 at 11:25 pm
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    Hmm, it sounds as if there is a good reason why I’ve never heard of this one and never seen it for sale in shops!

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    • October 10, 2022 at 5:45 pm
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      It’s one of those pieces of fiction that’s been “re-evaluated” in recent decades but it’s still not widely known. If you should happen to see it for sale, just walk on by and save your pennies for something more rewarding

      Reply
  • October 9, 2022 at 8:27 pm
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    Middlemarch is one of my all-time fav books. The Lifted Veil is on my to-read list. I’ll get to it soon I hope but I am still working my way through Proust.

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    • October 10, 2022 at 9:45 am
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      Victorian Science Fiction, how good is that! I like that you say it is beautifully written. Definitely a must read.

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      • October 10, 2022 at 5:41 pm
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        You have far more knowledge about SF than I do so will be interesting to see what you make of it

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    • October 10, 2022 at 5:45 pm
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      I suspect after Proust, Lifted Veil might be easy reading!

      Reply
  • October 9, 2022 at 4:44 pm
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    Hmm. It’s hard to know whether I would be simulated or irritated by the book. On the whole, it doesn’t seem as if the time you spent reading it were hours well spent. Perhaps I’ll leave it that you’ve read it so I don’t have to?

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    • October 10, 2022 at 5:46 pm
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      Happy to spare you the effort for sure Margaret. You have far more interesting books lined up to read

      Reply

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