Friday, December 31, 2010

The Lifted Veil

Between writing Adam Bede and The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot wrote a short story, The Lifted Veil, that is quite different from anything else of hers that I have read thus far.

In The Lifted Veil, Eliot dabbles in the supernatural. Known for her devotion to realism, I can't help but wonder what motivated Eliot to write this story in which a rather sickly and not very likeable young man, Latimer, is suddenly struck with the ability to access the thoughts and motivations of other people and to perceive future events, including the time and circumstances of his own death.

The story is very grim--it opens with Latimer anticipating the death he had seen in a vision off and on for years, and as death approaches he tells his life story, which is one of loneliness, heartbreak, and betrayal. He tells of his mother's early death, which robbed him of the only unconditional love he ever experienced, his father's disdain, his brother's contempt, and his wife's attempts to murder him after she stops loving him. The key to this last twist is that he knows when he woos and marries her that she will turn against him eventually, but he still wants her and takes her as his wife with his eyes wide open.

Absent from this story is Eliot's eloquence as well as her realism. Perhaps it is the first person narrative, which means that we are locked into Latimer's point of view and so do not have a sympathetic narrator who can soften or explain Latimer's situation, circumstances, actions, and motivations. Instead, he is left to fend for himself, and I was quite relieved when I finished the story and could wash my hands of him.

On the other hand, I really enjoyed reading Jenny Uglow's discussion of the story in her bio of Eliot--actually, I confess to enjoying the discussion more than the story itself. Here is my favorite passage:

In this Faustian story the hero chooses what he wants now, even though he knows the price will be later misery; for his visions are not of some absolutely determined future, but the future set in motion by the choices he makes. Eliot elaborates the moral by suggesting that what piques our desire most is the unknown; we prefer to live in suspense. Like readers of a novel, even if we know the end we try to forget it and concentrate on the intervening uncertainties of the plot...Foresight is irrelevant. It is not what we can foresee which is important, but how we live the intervening hours in the light of that knowledge.

I loved the notion that this is a Faustian story and looking at it in this way helped me see how it did fit in with other Eliot stories and themes. In some ways, Dr. Lydgate of Eliot's later novel Middlemarch is akin to Latimer in that he chooses to marry Rosamund despite knowing her severe limitations and even glimpsing, in those rare moments when he is truly honest with himself, the misery that marrying her will bring. All he can focus on is that he wants her.

I also loved the idea that "it is not what we can foresee which is important, but how we live the intervening hours in the light of that knowledge." Latimer dies unloved by the reader because he does nothing productive with his knowledge of what is on the other side of the veil. I can't help but think the gift of fore-knowledge was completely squandered on Latimer, and perhaps that was Eliot's point. It is better not to know. Knowing the hour and circumstances of one's death robs a person of the ability to focus on living, fully and in the moment.

I feel that The Lifted Veil was an experiment; as if Eliot wanted to see if she could deal with the themes that shaped her fiction on a supernatural canvas as well as the more comfortable realistic canvas. Given that I don't think she ventured this way again, I have to conclude the results were not satisfactory to her...but that will take another bio or letters to ferret out. All in good time, now I'm looking forward to a first-time reading of The Mill on the Floss.


  1. I don't know how useful this is, but I see this story as an influence-clearing project. She's shedding Nathaniel Hawthorne. Adam Bede contains some nods to Hawthorne, but this story seems much more explicit - see "The Birthmark," for example.

    Like you, I call it an experiment. Except I call it a success - her derivative attachment to Hawthorne was purged.

  2. Thanks for the comment, AR. Was GE strongly influenced by Nathaniel Hawthorne? I'll have to read up on that, as well as read The Birthmark. This is why I like reading an author's work--you really can track their development, and their experiments, which is fascinating.

  3. That's my understanding (here's an example). The links between Adam Bede and The Scarlet Letter have been particularly well explored. I can see Hawthorne's hand in Silas Marner, too - the fable-like quality, the gold hair of the little girl substituting for "real" gold.

    Another relevant Hawthorne story, one of his best, says me, is "The Minister's Black Veil."

    Much of what I find interesting about all this is that so much of what I find valuable in George Eliot has no relationship whatsoever to Hawthorne. But Eliot, capaciously creative, genuinely original, was able to absorb whatever she found most useful in Hawthorne and discard the rest, the part that was not really her. I agree completely - it's fascinating.