Monday October 19th, 2009

The Goth Side of a Realist Master


The Lifted Veil by George Eliot
Melville House, 128 pp., $9.00

In Being Human, the ne plus ultra of the now countless occult-themed TV shows glutting our airwaves, anyone can achieve vampiric immortality by imbibing a vampire’s blood at the precise moment of death. (“Let her drink from you!” one “supernatural” memorably begs of another as they stand over the hemorrhaging near-corpse of a mortal friend.) This trope of blood as transferable life force and magical interface between dimensions has enjoyed regular cultural resurgences ever since Bram Stoker’s Dracula, without whose eponymous Count the likes of Twilight’s Edward Cullen might never have quickened the hearts of tween girls everywhere. But one unacknowledged early contributor to the mythology is an author better known for morally uplifting realism than for an interest in the death-reversing utility of fresh blood: George Eliot.

Near the end of The Lifted Veil, her 1859 novella about a man cursed with psychic powers, a maid is briefly brought back to life by a transfusion from a doctor’s vein to an artery in her neck. Of the spectacle, which anticipates the scene of Lucy’s revivification by Arthur’s blood in Dracula, Eliot’s narrator, Latimer, observes:

I could see the wondrous slow return of life; the breast began to heave, the inspirations became stronger, the eyelids quivered, and the soul seemed to have returned beneath them. The artificial respiration was withdrawn: still the breathing continued, and there was a movement of the lips.

Such an overtly Gothic flourish was met with disapproval from Eliot’s publisher, John Blackwood. Already reluctant to publish The Lifted Veil, viewing it as distasteful and lowbrow compared to Eliot’s recently published and acclaimed first novel, Adam Bede, he tried to persuade her that this particular scene, at least, should be cut. But Eliot stood her ground, and the story was published, unexpurgated but anonymously, in the July 1859 edition of Blackwood’s Magazine.

You can understand Blackwood’s concern: The Lifted Veil is an anomaly in Eliot’s distinguished oeuvre. The Poe-like eeriness of the story (the only work by Eliot narrated in the first person) is signaled on the very first page when our protagonist, Latimer, announces that he has foreseen the moment of his death, which will take place in a month. In the meantime, he wishes “to use my last hours of ease and strength in telling the strange story of my experience.” So Eliot boldly writes in the voice of a character who also happens to be a literally omniscient narrator—or so he believes. The question of whether or not Latimer’s avowed omniscience is reliable is the intrigue that makes us read on: Why is he convinced that he knows what’s going to happen to him, and will his predictions be borne out? In other words, will The Lifted Veil offer the familiar pleasure of a schlocky horror story, or a reading experience considerably more challenging, or perhaps both?

Latimer, a figure straight from the Romantic genre—aristocratic, physically delicate, with a “poet’s sensibility,” in permanent mourning for the loss of his doting mother, who died when he was eight—has suffered an undefined “severe illness, ” whose legacy is the apparent ability to read minds and see into the future. He is tormented by the vision of human nature conferred by his powers, which

became an intense pain and grief when it seemed to be opening to me the souls of those who were in a close relation to me—when the rational talk, 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 makeshift thoughts, from which human words and deeds emerge like leaflets covering a fermenting heap.

One all-important person’s mind remains inexplicably closed to Latimer’s penetrating second sight. Bertha Grant, a beautiful young woman with whom he is smitten, but who becomes engaged to his older brother, is Latimer’s “oasis of mystery in the dreary desert of knowledge,” and her inscrutability only fuels his fantasy of a reciprocal passion. “Bertha was,” he reflects, “the only being who remained for me in the mysterious seclusion of soul that renders such youthful delusion possible.” His “prevision,” however, does permit a glimpse of their shared future, upon which the tale’s plot will turn: somehow he will marry Bertha, but they will end up loathing each other. This sets up a Faustian conundrum: would your heart’s desire still be your heart’s desire if you knew the misery it would ultimately bring? For Latimer, the unhesitating answer is yes, and thanks to his brother’s tragic but convenient end, while out horse riding, he finds himself helplessly repeating “an old story, that men sell themselves to the tempter, and sign a bond with their blood, because it is only to take effect at a distant day.”

Is Latimer’s marriage evidence, then, that his psychic ability is genuine, or is he merely deluded, a tortured soul whose predictions are no more than self-fulfilling prophecies, his mind-reading paranoid projection? A possible hint to how we should interpret his clairvoyance is the description of his father, a “land-owner” but “at root and stem a banker” and a gambler on the stock market, specifically mining speculations. Though the story is set in 1850, a time of massive economic expansion (and the year Lehman Brothers was formed), it was written and published in 1859, in the wake of the Great Crash of 1857—the biggest economic disaster of the century, which was caused, then as in 2008, by reckless investing and inaccurate financial forecasts. The thematic juxtaposition of supernatural phenomena and economic speculation implies that both rely upon attempts to know the unknowable—attempts that can only be vain. (By the same token, pop culture’s current fascination with the paranormal can likely be attributed, in part, to this recession’s sweeping away of certainty and security.)

Ideas surrounding conjecture, distortion and knowing would have preoccupied Eliot at this time for another good reason: curiosity regarding her identity had reached fever pitch following February 1859’s hugely successful publication of Adam Bede. Fame wanted to come knocking—but it was impeded by Marian Evans’ attempt to hide behind her male pseudonym. The charade reached its breaking point when a middle-aged man named Joseph Liggins claimed to be the author of her books, prompting Evans to decide, by the time of July’s publication of The Lifted Veil, to lift her own veil.

In the course of constructing novels like Adam Bede and The Mill on the Floss—which she set aside to write The Lifted Veil—Eliot, not unlike a psychic, envisaged the future of her characters and gazed unflinchingly at their inner frailties, motivations, and flaws. In the case of The Mill on the Floss, her most autobiographical novel, this process would have been particularly demanding, given how much of her own anguished destiny she gave to intelligent, impulsive Maggie Tulliver, who is disowned by her beloved brother, just as Eliot was when she set up home with George Henry Lewes.  It’s not much of a leap to imagine that Latimer’s experience of clairvoyance—“an intense pain and grief when it seemed to be opening to me the souls of those who were in a close relation to me”—mirrors feelings that Eliot grappled with in the course of her painstaking literary creation, her “microscopic vision.” As Latimer discovers, too much insight—real or imagined, in life or in literature—is a heavy cross to bear:

So absolute is our soul’s need of something hidden and uncertain for the maintenance of that doubt and hope and effort which are the breath of its life, that if the whole future were laid bare to us beyond to-day, the interest of all mankind would be bent on the hours that lie between, we should pant after the uncertainties of our one morning and our one afternoon; we should rush fiercely to the Exchange for our last possibility of speculation, of success, of disappointment . . .

Believing himself robbed of that “soul’s need,” by the story’s final pages Latimer is almost completely isolated from the rest of humanity and languishing in his anticipated unhappy marriage when, during the controversial blood transfusion scene, his wife’s maid comes back to life just long enough to viciously blurt out that Bertha had enlisted her in a plan to murder him—a revelation he had notably failed to predict. “Great God!” he remarks. “Is this what it is to live again…to wake up with our unstilled thirst upon us, with our unuttered curses rising to our lips, with our muscles ready to act out their half-committed sins?” Thankfully, The Lifted Veil ultimately says, another person’s blood will not make us “live again,” the future cannot be foreseen, and, since total knowledge equals total alienation, we should cherish our “sweet illusions,” which after all “are half of them conscious illusions, like effects of colour that we know to be made up of tinsel, broken glass, and rags.”

Emma Garman is a writer living in New York. She can be visited online at

Mentioned in this review:

The Lifted Veil
Adam Bede
The Mill on the Floss