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A Year with Short Novels: On Lifting Veils

The Lifted Veil
by George Eliot
Original Publication, 1859
Public Domain. Available at Google Books.


This article is part of a series which delves into a different short novel each month, revisiting classics and considering neglected masterpieces. To read the series introduction, “The Sweetness of Short Novels,” click here. To suggest a short novel for inclusion in the series, write to ingridnorton[at]live.com.

A character with the preternatural gifts of clairvoyance and premonition. Anguished, overwrought introspection given to nihilism. The twisting lips of a reproachful corpse, reanimated by specious Victorian science.

When George Eliot delivered her manuscript to magazine editor John Blackwood she wrapped it in a cover letter which read, “Herewith the dismal story.”

“Lovers of the painful are thrilled and delighted,” he wrote her after it ran in 1859. For his part, the renowned editor wished the author in “a happier frame of mind.”

The Lifted Veil is not what most readers associate with Eliot. The early gothic tale fits uneasily in her oeuvre. She is famous for what V.S. Pritchett called, in reference to her masterpiece Middlemarch, the “imperturbable spaciousness” of her realistic novels. Books like Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss artfully depict the nuances of day-to-day life among different classes and the subtle texture of character’s hopes and fears. Those novels are renowned for unfolding through an empathetic, knowing point of view. At best, the birds-eye narration ascends to a stunning, panoramic level of wisdom — and at worst becomes didactic, author swooping down to instill compassion in the readers.

The Lifted Veil‘s intensely distilled narrative, hovering somewhere between short story and novel, could not be more different. The story is told by a rueful and at times feverish narrator. Instead of sweeping depictions of different strata of provincial life, The Lifted Veil takes place entirely in a narrow aristocratic world of musty drawing rooms and tightly packed carriages. And most significantly — through clairvoyance and the denouement with a corpse (um, spoilers ahead) — its plot branches off from the distinct and realistic into the fantastic and gothic.

But the most marked difference between The Lifted Veil and the rest of Eliot’s work is its morality, not genre. The major novels are animated by compassion. Sympathy accompanies insight. In The Lifted Veil, on the other hand, ignorance is the only spring of good intentions and kindness; if we knew what lay in each other’s hearts, we would be disgusted. The tale’s narrative experimentation and supernatural devices allow Eliot to delve into a terrifying cynicism about human nature. The work’s two chapters overflow with dark acuity. The short novel first seems notable for its supernatural tropes, but ultimately the claustrophobic, gloomy work clings to the mind because of real and very ugly questions it dredges up.

Latimer is a man haunted by premonitions and an ability to read the thoughts of others. He begins by proclaiming, “The time of my end approaches…For I foresee when I shall die and everything that will happen in my last moments.” From his study, he describes the impending death scene: He will gaze at the ebbing “tongue of blue flame” rising in the fireplace, gasp as his heart contracts, and tug the bell to call for help. But his servants, having a secret affair and engaged in jealous intrigues, won’t hear. As his heart fails, a sense of suffocation will crush him. Before this nasty, unattended death, he intends to relate “the strange story” of his experience.

Latimer’s voice echoing with melodrama and authority, we telescope back to his unhappy and sickly childhood in which his mother dies and his father lavishes all attention on his stronger older brother, Alfred. As for weak, neglected Latimer, a phrenologist notes strange bumps on his head and lays out a course of rigorous private tutoring in the sciences to remedy it.

The sad, isolated boy withers under a suffocating curriculum of biology and physics which conflicts with latent poetic sensibilities. He doesn’t care about the principles of gravity and properties of water involved in a running stream: “I could watch it and listen to it gurgling among the pebbles, and bathing the bright green water-plants…I did not want to know why it ran,” he recalls, channeling perfectly the pent-up, self-centered petulance of his childhood self.

He becomes aware of his psychic gifts in late adolescence. When his father mentions an upcoming visit to Prague, the youth’s mind floods with an intensely detailed vision of a foreign city, vivid down to a patch of rainbow flashing on the pavement.

He hopes it is creative genius stirring in him. But later, restless in his room, his father seems to enter with two women — a middle-aged neighbor accompanied by a willowy young woman with coils of blonde hair and pale gray eyes which are at once “acute, restless, and sarcastic.” His father speaks to him but then dissolves, leaving Latimer facing only a piece of furniture. Agitated, he calls a servant to find his father — who then enters, accompanied by the same two women speaking exactly as before.

Latimer faints. When he comes to, his vexed father explains that the young woman was Bertha Grant, his brother’s the soon-to-be fiancee. From that day on Latimer can hear the thrumming interior monologue of anyone in his proximity. Being able to read the thoughts of strangers is oppressive, but far worse is being able to see into the minds of friends and family:

…when the rational talk, the graceful attentions, the wittily-turned phrases, and the kindly deeds, which used to make the web of their characters, were seen as if thrust asunder by a microscopic vision, that showed all the intermediate frivolities, all the suppressed egoism, all the struggling chaos of puerilities, meanness, vague capricious memories, and indolent make-shift thoughts, from which human words and deeds emerge like leaflets covering a fermenting heap.

His brother’s shallow egotism lies exposed as does his father’s condescending pity for Latimer. His innumerable insecurities and self-centered concerns give Latimer insight into anything that seems close to a noble trait or gesture. The only person whose mind remains a mystery to him is Bertha.

Of course, he falls in love with her.

Eliot locates the entire pleasure of loving in the opacity of the loved. Though Bertha reveals a cruel, mocking streak—lavishing patronizing attention on Latimer in his brother’s presence and then withdrawing when they are alone together, Latimer reads into her callousness “wit at war with latent feeling.” Latimer’s great pleasure lies not in Bertha’s thoughts or traits but in his attempts to guess them, in his lack of certainty about her: “wondering whether what I did and said pleased her…longing to hear a word of affection…giving delicious exaggeration to her smile.”

The Lifted Veil of the title refers to the time when the mystery will be lifted from Bertha, disabusing Latimer of his last “human interest” — his illusions. He has a premonition of this. During the period of his anguished courtship, he visits an art museum where the relentless gaze of a blonde Lucrezia Borgia in a Renaissance painting rivets his attention. Afterward, as he walks in the garden, still struck by the picture, Bertha slips her young, firm arm into his. A vision just as distinct as his youthful image of Prague seizes him — he sees Bertha, years later, older and his wife, entering the family study in a white and green-trimmed ballgown. She looks at him with contempt and vehemently wishes he would kill himself. “I saw into her pitiless soul—sat its barren worldliness, its scorching hate—and felt it clothe round like an air I was obliged to breathe….She was my wife, and we hated each other.”

Struck by the vision, he falls ill for several days. The premonition of a hateful, grown-up Bertha haunts him. But later, when he is with her again, he remains enthralled, thrilling to her touch, wondering after her desires and intentions. Instead of being horrified, as he knows he should be, Latimer is perversely proud of the knowledge that he will become his brother’s successful rival. “The fear of poison is feeble against the sense of thirst,” he reflects.

Eliot’s penetrating insight vaults Latimer’s love beyond overwrought infatuation, making it a parable for the delusions that animate romantic love. “Are you unable to give me your sympathy—you who read this?” Latimer asks as he pursues his doomed love.

Yet you must have known something of the presentiments that spring from an insight at war with passion….You have known the powerlessness of ideas before the might of impulse; and my visions, when once they had passed into memory, were mere ideas—pale shadows that beckoned in vain, while my hand was grasped by the living and the loved.

A reader, recalling a betrayal in a close relationship, may like to think that, armed with an awareness of a lover’s maltreatment, they would have snuffed the initial desire. Oh really? the story taunts. “Our tenderness and self-renunciation seem strong when our egoism has had its day,” Latimer notes bitterly.

The Lifted Veil unmasks those illusions. In the story, seeking knowledge and acting on reason are mere human pretensions. True insight means seeing the bad as well as the good — and in the human heart, cruelty and pettiness easily outweigh compassion. If we could really see the blackest depths of one another we would be horrified, barely able to endure human company, let alone to love.

Not only do our base instincts consistently trump reason and goodness — the story implies something darker. That Latimer is an introvert with poetic traits is significant. Using first person is uncharacteristic of Eliot, but the narrative voice of Latimer, a melancholy outsider narrating his past, straddles subjective first and objective third persons. Latimer’s powers of observation, oversensitivity, and searching insight into those around him are the powers of a writer.

The story suggests that depicting reality involves depicting what is ugliest about human intentions — but we instead use our most sublime faculties of intuition and imagination to confirm our selfish illusions. “The easiest way to deceive a poet is to tell him the truth,” Bertha teases Latimer as they wander the trimly-swept gravel paths of his family’s manor. In the story, reason cowers before instinct, and imagination serves the latter. Latimer’s poetic intelligence is turned from romantic delusions about Bertha to clear-eyed knowledge only by supernatural fiat. The beauty and kindness of others are literally fictions. For all Latimer’s weird clairvoyance, his powers ultimately illustrate a very serious dichotomy: between everyday delusions and distortions of inner life, and the nasty reality of what actually exists – between what we desire and what there is.

A year after their marriage (they are brought together by a family tragedy), Bertha ceases to be “an oasis of mystery” to him. Walking into the private sitting room of his increasingly estranged wife, he can sense her thoughts:

I saw that the darkness had hidden no landscape from me, but only a blank prosaic wall: from that evening forth and in the sickening years that followed, I saw all round the narrow room of this woman’s soul….

He realizes Bertha views him as “a miserable ghost-seer,” cowardly and pliable, who frustratingly resists her manipulations. As the story of the marriage continues, Eliot diverts some of her tale’s potency in the gothic pseudo-science of its climax. Latimer’s nerves become increasingly strained while Bertha’s hatred intensifies. She does indeed burst into Latimer’s study in a white dress, wishing he would kill himself. But his psychic gifts are dissipating. Bertha grows bolder in her meanness, taking on a new maid and withdrawing from him. Temporarily free from reading thoughts, Latimer attaches little significance to her secretive dealings with the maid. Then the maid grows fatally ill and Bertha seems oddly afraid of her servant.

At the urging of a childhood friend, now a doctor, Latimer agrees to an experiment on the woman’s fresh corpse. Bertha bursts in on her husband and the doctor just as the maid returns, menacingly, to life:

The dead woman’s eyes were wide open, and met [Bertha’s] in full recognition—the recognition of hate. With a sudden strong effort, the hand that Bertha had thought for ever still was pointed towards her, and the haggard face moved. The gasping eager voice said—

“You mean to poison your husband . . . the poison is in the black cabinet . . . I got it for you . . . you laughed at me, and told lies about me behind my back, to make me disgusting . . . because you were jealous . . . are you sorry now?”

The lips continued to murmur, but the sounds were no longer distinct…The wretched woman’s heart-strings had been set to hatred and vengeance; the spirit of life had swept the chords for an instant, and was gone again for ever.

Already sensitized to Bertha’s deep hatred, Latimer’s first reaction isn’t terror at his wife’s homicidal plans. Rather, the scene only confirms Latimer’s morbid conclusions about humanity: “Is this what it is to live again,” he reflects, aghast, “to wake up with our unstilled thirst upon us, with our unuttered curses rising to our lips, with our muscles ready to act our their half-committed sins?”

Since that night, he explains, he and Bertha have lived apart. Wandering strange cities in subsequent years, Latimer’s heart occasionally overflows with fellow-feeling for those around him. But then he shrinks from them, afraid to reawaken his ability to read their petty and malicious thoughts will come back. The story closes as the heart-attack foretold in the first pages occurs.

The Lifted Veil is a triumph of substance more than of style. As a character, Latimer is a bit of a wet blanket. If his psychic powers make him passive because he lacks the ability to hope and doubt, the absencs of narrative suspense (we know how he will die from the first page) makes the reader passive, too. The conventional waxing and waning of Latimer’s powers makes a reader’s disbelief, if generally suspended, buckle.

Latimer and Bertha, painted in broad strokes, are prototypes for a more finely-wrought coupling. In Middlemarch the idealistic, sensitive doctor Tertius Lydgate will marry vindictive Rosamind Vincy (another cruel, willowy woman with coils of blonde hair), a deeply unhappy union founded on their mutual misestimates of one another. While in The Lifted Veil the drama inheres in humankind’s general propensity to delude itself, a more mature Eliot will find tragedy in the particular way the mismatched delusions of two people diverge and cause pain for both.

How forgivable The Lifted Veil‘s flaws are depends on how strongly a reader responds to Latimer’s dark and eloquent insights. The gothic motifs and narrative experimentation provide striking means for Eliot to explore the shadowy recesses of human intelligence and expectation. “Brevity is justified at once to those who readily understand, and to those who will never understand,” Latimer remarks, hastening to finish his tale. One is either on board with Eliot as she interrogates these dark spaces or one is not.

Recalling how his own pre-vision could not divert him from living out the hopes of his wretched infatuation, Latimer bitterly remarks that we learn only by experience. But experience is not what we want. In The Lifted Veil, Eliot unflinchingly renders a world where people constantly cling to false hope and illusions. The short novel’s haunting legacy is an image of men and women pulling the veil of ignorance over themselves again and again.

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Ingrid Norton has written for publications including DissentThe Chronicle of Higher Education, andSoundcheck Magazine.