The Lifted Veil
George Eliot
Novels
2:07 h
Level 9
The Lifted Veil is a novella by George Eliot, first published in 1859. Quite unlike the realistic fiction for which Eliot is best known, The Lifted Veil explores themes of extrasensory perception, the essence of physical life, possible life after death, and the power of fate. The unreliable narrator, Latimer, believes that he is cursed with an otherworldly ability to see into the future and the thoughts of other people. His unwanted "gift" seems to stem from a severe childhood illness he suffered while attending school in Geneva. The novella is a significant part of the Victorian tradition of horror fiction, which includes such other examples as Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), and Bram Stoker's Dracula.

The Lifted Veil

by
George Eliot


Give me no light, great Heaven, but such as turns
To energy of human fellowship;
No powers beyond the growing heritage
That makes completer manhood.

Chapter I

The time of my end approaches. I have lately been subject toattacks of angina pectoris; and in the ordinary course of things,my physician tells me, I may fairly hope that my life will not be protractedmany months. Unless, then, I am cursed with an exceptional physicalconstitution, as I am cursed with an exceptional mental character, Ishall not much longer groan under the wearisome burthen of this earthlyexistence. If it were to be otherwise — if I were to liveon to the age most men desire and provide for — I should for oncehave known whether the miseries of delusive expectation can outweighthe miseries of true provision. For I foresee when I shall die,and everything that will happen in my last moments.

Just a month from this day, on September 20, 1850, I shall be sittingin this chair, in this study, at ten o’clock at night, longingto die, weary of incessant insight and foresight, without delusionsand without hope. Just as I am watching a tongue of blue flamerising in the fire, and my lamp is burning low, the horrible contractionwill begin at my chest. I shall only have time to reach the bell,and pull it violently, before the sense of suffocation will come. No one will answer my bell. I know why. My two servantsare lovers, and will have quarrelled. My housekeeper will haverushed out of the house in a fury, two hours before, hoping that Perrywill believe she has gone to drown herself. Perry is alarmed atlast, and is gone out after her. The little scullery-maid is asleepon a bench: she never answers the bell; it does not wake her. The sense of suffocation increases: my lamp goes out with a horriblestench: I make a great effort, and snatch at the bell again. Ilong for life, and there is no help. I thirsted for the unknown:the thirst is gone. O God, let me stay with the known, and beweary of it: I am content. Agony of pain and suffocation — andall the while the earth, the fields, the pebbly brook at the bottomof the rookery, the fresh scent after the rain, the light of the morningthrough my chamber-window, the warmth of the hearth after the frostyair — will darkness close over them for ever?

Darkness — darkness — no pain — nothing but darkness:but I am passing on and on through the darkness: my thought stays inthe darkness, but always with a sense of moving onward …

Before that time comes, I wish to use my last hours of ease and strengthin telling the strange story of my experience. I have never fullyunbosomed myself to any human being; I have never been encouraged totrust much in the sympathy of my fellow-men. But we have all achance of meeting with some pity, some tenderness, some charity, whenwe are dead: it is the living only who cannot be forgiven — theliving only from whom men’s indulgence and reverence are heldoff, like the rain by the hard east wind. While the heart beats,bruise it — it is your only opportunity; while the eye can stillturn towards you with moist, timid entreaty, freeze it with an icy unansweringgaze; while the ear, that delicate messenger to the inmost sanctuaryof the soul, can still take in the tones of kindness, put it off withhard civility, or sneering compliment, or envious affectation of indifference;while the creative brain can still throb with the sense of injustice,with the yearning for brotherly recognition — make haste — oppressit with your ill-considered judgements, your trivial comparisons, yourcareless misrepresentations. The heart will by and by be still — “ubisaeva indignatio ulterius cor lacerare nequit”; the eye will ceaseto entreat; the ear will be deaf; the brain will have ceased from allwants as well as from all work. Then your charitable speechesmay find vent; then you may remember and pity the toil and the struggleand the failure; then you may give due honour to the work achieved;then you may find extenuation for errors, and may consent to bury them.

That is a trivial schoolboy text; why do I dwell on it? Ithas little reference to me, for I shall leave no works behind me formen to honour. I have no near relatives who will make up, by weepingover my grave, for the wounds they inflicted on me when I was amongthem. It is only the story of my life that will perhaps win alittle more sympathy from strangers when I am dead, than I ever believedit would obtain from my friends while I was living.

My childhood perhaps seems happier to me than it really was, by contrastwith all the after-years. For then the curtain of the future wasas impenetrable to me as to other children: I had all their delightin the present hour, their sweet indefinite hopes for the morrow; andI had a tender mother: even now, after the dreary lapse of long years,a slight trace of sensation accompanies the remembrance of her caressas she held me on her knee — her arms round my little body, hercheek pressed on mine. I had a complaint of the eyes that mademe blind for a little while, and she kept me on her knee from morningtill night. That unequalled love soon vanished out of my life,and even to my childish consciousness it was as if that life had becomemore chill I rode my little white pony with the groom by my side asbefore, but there were no loving eyes looking at me as I mounted, noglad arms opened to me when I came back. Perhaps I missed my mother’slove more than most children of seven or eight would have done, to whomthe other pleasures of life remained as before; for I was certainlya very sensitive child. I remember still the mingled trepidationand delicious excitement with which I was affected by the tramping ofthe horses on the pavement in the echoing stables, by the loud resonanceof the groom’s voices, by the booming bark of the dogs as my father’scarriage thundered under the archway of the courtyard, by the din ofthe gong as it gave notice of luncheon and dinner. The measuredtramp of soldiery which I sometimes heard — for my father’shouse lay near a county town where there were large barracks — mademe sob and tremble; and yet when they were gone past, I longed for themto come back again.

I fancy my father thought me an odd child, and had little fondnessfor me; though he was very careful in fulfilling what he regarded asa parent’s duties. But he was already past the middle oflife, and I was not his only son. My mother had been his secondwife, and he was five-and-forty when he married her. He was afirm, unbending, intensely orderly man, in root and stem a banker, butwith a flourishing graft of the active landholder, aspiring to countyinfluence: one of those people who are always like themselves from dayto day, who are uninfluenced by the weather, and neither know melancholynor high spirits. I held him in great awe, and appeared more timidand sensitive in his presence than at other times; a circumstance which,perhaps, helped to confirm him in the intention to educate me on a differentplan from the prescriptive one with which he had complied in the caseof my elder brother, already a tall youth at Eton. My brotherwas to be his representative and successor; he must go to Eton and Oxford,for the sake of making connexions, of course: my father was not a manto underrate the bearing of Latin satirists or Greek dramatists on theattainment of an aristocratic position. But, intrinsically, hehad slight esteem for “those dead but sceptred spirits”;having qualified himself for forming an independent opinion by readingPotter’s Æschylus, and dipping into Francis’sHorace. To this negative view he added a positive one,derived from a recent connexion with mining speculations; namely, thata scientific education was the really useful training for a youngerson. Moreover, it was clear that a shy, sensitive boy like mewas not fit to encounter the rough experience of a public school. Mr. Letherall had said so very decidedly. Mr. Letherall was alarge man in spectacles, who one day took my small head between hislarge hands, and pressed it here and there in an exploratory, auspiciousmanner — then placed each of his great thumbs on my temples, andpushed me a little way from him, and stared at me with glittering spectacles. The contemplation appeared to displease him, for he frowned sternly,and said to my father, drawing his thumbs across my eyebrows —

“The deficiency is there, sir — there; and here,”he added, touching the upper sides of my head, “here is the excess. That must be brought out, sir, and this must be laid to sleep.”

I was in a state of tremor, partly at the vague idea that I was theobject of reprobation, partly in the agitation of my first hatred — hatredof this big, spectacled man, who pulled my head about as if he wantedto buy and cheapen it.

I am not aware how much Mr. Letherall had to do with the system afterwardsadopted towards me, but it was presently clear that private tutors,natural history, science, and the modern languages, were the appliancesby which the defects of my organization were to be remedied. Iwas very stupid about machines, so I was to be greatly occupied withthem; I had no memory for classification, so it was particularly necessarythat I should study systematic zoology and botany; I was hungry forhuman deeds and humane motions, so I was to be plentifully crammed withthe mechanical powers, the elementary bodies, and the phenomena of electricityand magnetism. A better-constituted boy would certainly have profitedunder my intelligent tutors, with their scientific apparatus; and would,doubtless, have found the phenomena of electricity and magnetism asfascinating as I was, every Thursday, assured they were. As itwas, I could have paired off, for ignorance of whatever was taught me,with the worst Latin scholar that was ever turned out of a classicalacademy. I read Plutarch, and Shakespeare, and Don Quixote bythe sly, and supplied myself in that way with wandering thoughts, whilemy tutor was assuring me that “an improved man, as distinguishedfrom an ignorant one, was a man who knew the reason why water ran downhill.” I had no desire to be this improved man; I was glad of the running water;I could watch it and listen to it gurgling among the pebbles, and bathingthe bright green water-plants, by the hour together. I did notwant to know why it ran; I had perfect confidence that therewere good reasons for what was so very beautiful.

There is no need to dwell on this part of my life. I have saidenough to indicate that my nature was of the sensitive, unpracticalorder, and that it grew up in an uncongenial medium, which could neverfoster it into happy, healthy development. When I was sixteenI was sent to Geneva to complete my course of education; and the changewas a very happy one to me, for the first sight of the Alps, with thesetting sun on them, as we descended the Jura, seemed to me like anentrance into heaven; and the three years of my life there were spentin a perpetual sense of exaltation, as if from a draught of deliciouswine, at the presence of Nature in all her awful loveliness. Youwill think, perhaps, that I must have been a poet, from this early sensibilityto Nature. But my lot was not so happy as that. A poet poursforth his song and believes in the listening ear and answeringsoul, to which his song will be floated sooner or later. But thepoet’s sensibility without his voice — the poet’s sensibilitythat finds no vent but in silent tears on the sunny bank, when the noondaylight sparkles on the water, or in an inward shudder at the sound ofharsh human tones, the sight of a cold human eye — this dumb passionbrings with it a fatal solitude of soul in the society of one’sfellow-men. My least solitary moments were those in which I pushedoff in my boat, at evening, towards the centre of the lake; it seemedto me that the sky, and the glowing mountain-tops, and the wide bluewater, surrounded me with a cherishing love such as no human face hadshed on me since my mother’s love had vanished out of my life. I used to do as Jean Jacques did — lie down in my boat and let itglide where it would, while I looked up at the departing glow leavingone mountain-top after the other, as if the prophet’s chariotof fire were passing over them on its way to the home of light. Then, when the white summits were all sad and corpse-like, I had topush homeward, for I was under careful surveillance, and was allowedno late wanderings. This disposition of mine was not favourableto the formation of intimate friendships among the numerous youths ofmy own age who are always to be found studying at Geneva. YetI made one such friendship; and, singularly enough, it was witha youth whose intellectual tendencies were the very reverse of my own. I shall call him Charles Meunier; his real surname — an Englishone, for he was of English extraction — having since become celebrated. He was an orphan, who lived on a miserable pittance while he pursuedthe medical studies for which he had a special genius. Strange!that with my vague mind, susceptible and unobservant, hating inquiryand given up to contemplation, I should have been drawn towards a youthwhose strongest passion was science. But the bond was not an intellectualone; it came from a source that can happily blend the stupid with thebrilliant, the dreamy with the practical: it came from community offeeling. Charles was poor and ugly, derided by Genevese gamins,and not acceptable in drawing-rooms. I saw that he was isolated,as I was, though from a different cause, and, stimulated by a sympatheticresentment, I made timid advances towards him. It is enough tosay that there sprang up as much comradeship between us as our differenthabits would allow; and in Charles’s rare holidays we went upthe Salève together, or took the boat to Vevay, while I listeneddreamily to the monologues in which he unfolded his bold conceptionsof future experiment and discovery. I mingled them confusedlyin my thought with glimpses of blue water and delicate floating cloud,with the notes of birds and the distant glitter of the glacier. He knew quite well that my mind was half absent, yet he liked to talkto me in this way; for don’t we talk of our hopes and our projectseven to dogs and birds, when they love us? I have mentioned thisone friendship because of its connexion with a strange and terriblescene which I shall have to narrate in my subsequent life.

This happier life at Geneva was put an end to by a severe illness,which is partly a blank to me, partly a time of dimly-remembered suffering,with the presence of my father by my bed from time to time. Thencame the languid monotony of convalescence, the days gradually breakinginto variety and distinctness as my strength enabled me to take longerand longer drives. On one of these more vividly remembered days,my father said to me, as he sat beside my sofa —

“When you are quite well enough to travel, Latimer, I shalltake you home with me. The journey will amuse you and do you good,for I shall go through the Tyrol and Austria, and you will see manynew places. Our neighbours, the Filmores, are come; Alfred willjoin us at Basle, and we shall all go together to Vienna, and back byPrague” …

My father was called away before he had finished his sentence, andhe left my mind resting on the word Prague, with a strange sensethat a new and wondrous scene was breaking upon me: a city under thebroad sunshine, that seemed to me as if it were the summer sunshineof a long-past century arrested in its course — unrefreshed forages by dews of night, or the rushing rain-cloud; scorching the dusty,weary, time-eaten grandeur of a people doomed to live on in the stalerepetition of memories, like deposed and superannuated kings in theirregal gold-inwoven tatters. The city looked so thirsty that thebroad river seemed to me a sheet of metal; and the blackened statues,as I passed under their blank gaze, along the unending bridge, withtheir ancient garments and their saintly crowns, seemed to me the realinhabitants and owners of this place, while the busy, trivial men andwomen, hurrying to and fro, were a swarm of ephemeral visitants infestingit for a day. It is such grim, stony beings as these, I thought,who are the fathers of ancient faded children, in those tanned time-fretteddwellings that crowd the steep before me; who pay their court in theworn and crumbling pomp of the palace which stretches its monotonouslength on the height; who worship wearily in the stifling air of thechurches, urged by no fear or hope, but compelled by their doom to beever old and undying, to live on in the rigidity of habit, as they liveon in perpetual midday, without the repose of night or the new birthof morning.