Goodreads: The Lifted Veil
Horror was my familiar.
Published the same year as her first novel, Adam Bede, this overlooked work displays the gifts for which George Eliot would become famous—gritty realism, psychological insight, and idealistic moralizing. It is unique from all her other writing, however, in that it represents the only time she ever used a first-person narrator, and it is the only time she wrote about the supernatural.
The tale of a man who is incapacitated by visions of the future and the cacophony of overheard thoughts, and yet who can’t help trying to subvert his vividly glimpsed destiny, it is easy to read The Lifted Veil as being autobiographically revealing—of Eliot’s sensitivity to public opinion and her awareness that her days concealed behind a pseudonym were doomed to a tragic unveiling (as indeed came to pass soon after this novella’s publication). But it is easier still to read the story as the exciting and genuine precursor of a moody new form, as well as an absorbing early masterpiece of suspense.
The Art of The Novella Series
Too short to be a novel, too long to be a short story, the novella is generally unrecognized by academics and publishers. Nonetheless, it is a form beloved and practiced by literature’s greatest writers. In the Art Of The Novella series, Melville House celebrates this renegade art form and its practitioners with titles that are, in many instances, presented in book form for the first time.
I’ve always admired George Eliot’s ability to write stories that are very different in tone and subject matter and yet be a master of them all, so I was intrigued to discover she had written a novella that veers away from her reputation for realism to explore the supernatural. While psychic powers and unexplained events are not something most readers would associate with Eliot, they were big topics of her time (and, really, still are), so it is interesting to see her weigh in on the discussion and offer her own artistic rendering of such occurrences. Ultimately, however, I found The Lifted Veil too over-the-top and meandering and was largely disappointed by an author whose work I generally love.
The premise of the story is that a young man, after an illness, sudden acquires the ability to “see the future” in quick bursts of scenes, as well as the ability to discern all the thoughts and feelings of those around him, save for the woman his brother is courting. This is intriguing, but it is worth noting that Eliot’s focus is not on the plot, not on how these new powers might become important or lead to some exciting event, but rather on the interiority of the protagonist. The book is largely about how he feels about these powers, what it’s like to anticipate having a sudden burst of insight, the anxiousness of seeing whether it will come true, as well as the downsides of knowing what everyone is thinking—the conclusion is that it’s tiring, in large part because apparently the protagonist does not know a single person who true thoughts are generally kind or agreeable. He begins to avoid people to escape being bombarded with their thoughts and to avoid being thought mentally unstable lest he give some hint of his supernatural powers.
This is thought-provoking on one level, the idea that seeing the future or essentially reading minds would be a terrible and exhausting personal burden more than anything else, but I also felt as though the story did not really go anywhere. Many of the plot events were predictable, even for those of us without fortune telling powers, and there did not seem to be any real developments in the interiority of the protagonist either. The Lifted Veil felt fairly flat and seemed to end in a place quite similar to where it began.
Much of it was also overwrought, though not the supernatural parts. I can believe in seeing flashes of the future or feeling others’ emotions or even briefly reanimating the dead, great Gothic staples. However, the characters themselves, usually a strong point of Eliot’s work, feel like caricatures. The protagonist has a “poetic” nature, going so far as to suggest he can only look at one or two paintings in a single day (say, in a museum) because he is simply so moved by them that looking at more is exhausting and overcomes him. This is ridiculous, and I feel confident in saying that only a nineteenth-century author would have come up with something like this.
His brother’s fiancée, on whom the protagonist fixates, is on the opposite end of the spectrum, an evil and conniving young woman who seems manipulative and disagreeable just for the sake of it. She has not a single redeeming quality, except appearing charming to people who do not actually know her. She seems to exist to be a villain.
George Eliot’s publishers initially rejected The Lifted Veil, and while this has led various readers and scholars to play devil’s advocate and look for its strengths and reasons today’s readers should find it interesting, it didn’t work for me. I recommend Eliot’s other books without hesitation, but this was somehow both flat and over-the-top, and I don’t feel that I got much out of it.