Monday, 2 July 2012

The Classics Club: The Lifted Veil

After having read many of the more known works of George Eliot, I felt it was time to read her lesser known ones as well.  For my Classics Club, then, I wanted to read The Lifted Veil, and see how it compared to the other works.

I was surprised, to say the least. This is a story of Latimer, who has the unusual gift (curse?) of foreseeing the future as well as "eavesdropping" on other people's thoughts.  The story borders on science fiction, and it was not how I came to know and regard Eliot's style.

This change is style was what probably took me aback.  I could imagine suspense and a lot of tension in such a tale, especially given the circumstances of Latimer's life.  But what I found instead, were long paragraphs full of adjectives and descriptions - that would be perfect for one of Eliot's usual works - but which took all the interest away from the core story of the Lifted Veil.

Latimer is a younger son, and as such he has no way of escape:  He has to study science, which comes in stark contrast with his poetic sensitivity:
"I had no desire to be this improved man; I was glad of the running water... I did not want to know why it ran; I had perfect confidence that there were good reasons for what was so very beautiful..."

His troubled relationship with his older brother, his condescending father, the phrenologist who discovers the deficiencies in his cranium (...), all these elements could be exploited to showcase the background of why the only route of escape for Latimer could be his psychic gifts.  

Instead, Latimer engages in a very long narration, explaining why he feels uncomfortable in this situation, as he gets to see reality as it is - not as other humans who like to believe what they hope for.  He describes his first visions in great detail, but I could not feel the effect these must have had on his psyche.  The descriptions, his reactions and the understanding that he will forever have a different perception of the world, all this I missed from this novel.  The result was that I did not entirely believe in these visions...

He enjoys a mystery he cannot understand, and the ultimate mystery proves to be his brother's bride-to-be, Bertha.  She will eventually become Latimer's wife, and shortly thereafter, the veil is lifted:  Latimer sees her genuine character:
"I saw that the darkness had hidden no landscape from me, but only a blank prosaic wall:  from that evening on and in the sickening years that followed, I saw all around the narrow room of this woman's soul..."

It all goes downhill from then on.  Bertha's plan of killing him backfires when her maid is resurrected from the dead, only to expose her secret:
"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?"

Bertha and Latimer separate, and he slowly shrinks away from society, lest he regains his gift for uncovering all the poisonous thoughts. The novel ends where it begins:  shortly before Latimer dies.  He has intended this story to explain his life before he vision of his death comes true.  

For me, this novel proved to be a surprise and a tiny disappointment from what I could see the potential was.  What I can take from this novel is Eliot's courage to try her pen in Gothic-style writing, and her interest in "unusual" sciences, like phrenology (at its height at that point), clairvoyance, but also describing in utmost detail a blood transfusion that brings the dead back to life...  More importantly, however, I take the importance to be able to lift the veil and have the courage to face reality around me...  


  1. I had the same impression - that this was an idea with a lot of potential, but that it didn't entirely work out.

    1. True - at least she experimented...




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