My first read for AV/AA is one I mentioned in a recent post, and it’s a controversial one on the LibraryThing Virago group, strongly dividing opinions; I refer of course to George Eliot’s novella “The Lifted Veil”. Written close on the heels of Eliot’s first novel, the successful “Adam Bede”, “The Lifted Veil” clocks in at less than 70 pages and is almost brief enough to be a short story; but Eliot’s publishers were not happy to put it out, and her next novel “The Mill on the Floss” was more of what we would now consider a typical Eliot book. So what *is* “The Lifted Veil” and why does it cause so much difference of opinion?
The story is narrated by one Latimer, a man of fragile health and sensibilities. Plagued by illness as a child, and doted on by his mother, he is always going to be a disappointment to his father; the latter tends to favour his elder son Alfred, son of his first wife and much more of the traditional hunting-shooting-fishing type. However, Latimer discovers that he has a gift that the rest of his family do not, and one it is better to keep quiet about – that of clairvoyance or second sight. This comes to light when he has a vision of Prague, having never seen it or visited it, and after this the visions keep coming. One in particular concerns a ‘pale, fatal-eyed’ woman he has never met, but who turns out to be betrothed to his brother. And the woman, whose name is Bertha, proves to be the one person whose soul Latimer finds it impossible to see into.
Of course, our young clairvoyant falls headlong into an obsession with Bertha who plays him for all he is worth. And although his brother is engaged to her, Latimer has had a vision of an older version of himself married to Bertha – although the circumstances are not the happiest. So when Alfred meets with an accident, Latimer’s fate is set out for him…
To say more would give away the twists and turns of the plot, so I shan’t – I shall only mention that there is a scene involving a corpse which seems to cause a lot of consternation but which frankly I found quite mild. If you think about “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, “Dracula”, “Frankenstein”, any number of Wilkie Collins books or indeed anything by Poe, then you’ll see that much of the fuss probably comes from the fact that a tale of darkness and gloom of this type is simply not what’s expected from Eliot.
However, as Melusine commented on an earlier post, the kind of science on show here is the sort that was extremely popular at the time. There is mesmerism and phrenology and of course the clairvoyance, and as the excellent afterword by Beryl Gray points out, these ‘sciences’ were all the rage amongst the Victorian populace and Eliot herself was fascinated by them. So her story reflected what was going on around her in the world and is therefore by no means anachronistic. I also thought the book was exceptionally well written and very gripping; Eliot gets inside the head of her somewhat sickly and doomed protagonist really well, making him utterly convincing
However behind all the melodrama is something that’s consistent with the rest of Eliot’s writing and that’s a moral purpose. Neither Latimer nor Bertha are what we would call a ‘good’ or ‘normal’ person, for whatever reason, and so to a certain extent they get what they deserve. Had Latimer not been so prey to his visions and so unhealthily obsessed with Bertha then events might not have turned out as they did. If the veil had not been lifted and he had not been able to see into people’s hearts and minds then his life would have been a very different and perhaps more straightforward one. Bertha, for her part, was a manipulative tease from the start so really can’t expect any better than she gets. And the business with the corpse is also to serve a moral purpose, to allow an accusation to be made to a guilty person in a most dramatic way. Let’s face it, authors like Dickens were not averse to plenty of melodrama and set pieces, so let’s not beat George Eliot up about it!
So in summary, I really enjoyed “The Lifted Veil” a lot – for a short work it packed a big punch and had plenty of food for thought. It also made for a gripping short read and I think it’s been unjustly maligned. My first read for All Virago/All August, and it’s a successful one!