By Ethan Reader
Spiritualism, an American import into England in 1852, had attracted many educated and upper-class people in England including George Eliot. Women, however, were the largest population interested in the new field. It seems that George Eliot, or rather Mary Anne Evans as she will be referred to throughout, was not left out of this fascination. An editor’s foreword of the 1985 republishing of The Lifted Veil notes “Reminiscent of the work of Mary Shelley, The Lifted Veil embarrassed its original publishers by its exploration of pseudosciences and its publication was delayed … A chilling tale of moral alienation and despair, this lesser-known novella testifies to Eliot’s lifelong interest in the supernatural” (Eliot 1985 3). The consistency of what academics now refer to as pseudoscience in George Eliot’s The Lifted Veil was not merely a vehicle for propelling a narrative of self-interest and pessimism. Spiritualism in Victorian England was a hotly contested field of study, with the Illustrated London New referring to it at the time as the “epidemic” of table-turning and that it affected “not only the ignorant and the vulgar, but the educated and the refined” (Beer).
The science, or debatably religion, of Spiritualism in its modern form was first made into a worldwide phenomenon when Margaretta and Katie Fox of Hydesville, New York established they could communicate with a disembodied entity, claiming to be the spirit of a murdered peddler, that had begun creating a rapping sound throughout their home in 1848 (Sieber). Their older sister Leah Fish began to take the girls to Auburn, Rochester, and New York, notably, to perform seances for larger crowds, including distinguished guests such as Horace Greeley. By 1852 professional mediums had found their way to England. Specifically, one woman has the honor of calling herself the first professional medium in England, Mrs. Hayden. The London Press however, was not enthusiastic about this, with many articles ridiculing her and her seances (Podmore). However, among other notable, outspoken supporters of Mrs. Hayden’s abilities Robert Chambers of Chambers Journal described a visit with Mrs. Hayden in which he was unable to rationally explain away his experiences stating, “I have seen the alphabet used successfully behind the mediums back, when only visitors were present” (Podmore). Finally, in 1852 going into 1853, these seances became the “epidemic” described by the Illustrated London New when people attending them began to report tables and other furniture moving of their own volition and without the influence of those taking part in the experiments (Podmore).
Mary Anne Evans’s struggles with her identity are explored through Latimer’s abilities. Spiritualism and the feminine being linked immediately by British society as most successful mediums coming to the country were women, with some notable exceptions. Mediumship was, in theory, a practice open to anyone regardless of gender but, women quickly moved to the forefront of the movement as the grasped techniques more quickly and more effectively than men (Owen). This rise in popularity in Spiritualism and women’s apparent natural affinity for it resulted in the validation of women’s voice of authority for the first time in Victorian England, where feminine power was a truly paradoxical idea, and the traditional gender roles of the time leaned towards a different set of ethics (Owen). At the same time that this validation is occurring, Mary Anne Evans was writing under the pseudonym of George Eliot, both to hide her gender and also to hide her position as an unmarried woman living with a married man (Stephen). Her hiding of her identity would change shortly before the publishing of The Lifted Veil.
In June of 1859, Mary Anne revealed that George Eliot, now one of the most popular writers in England after the successes of her novel Adam Bede and her poem The Spanish Gypsy, was in fact not only a woman, but an unmarried one living with a man. According to Stephen, her popularity was significant enough that she and her lover, George Henry Lewes were unscathed socially and still frequently invited to participate in high society (Stephen). Less than a month later, The Lifted Veil was published – a pessimistic look at human self-interest, but also, an experiment of Mary Anne’s as she moved away from the literary realism that had made her so popular. The main character of the novella, Latimer, has the powers of foresight and insight. Both of which are closely associated with the works of spiritualist mediums at the time, though much like Latimer himself, mediumship in England was closely linked with femininity. Much of Latimer’s representation is very in line with Victorian ideas of the effeminate. In fact, self-described as “a shy, sensitive boy” Latimer’s father opted not to send him to public school, rather bringing private tutors in for Latimer’s education, a common practice for the daughters of wealthy households at the time. This continues Evan’s trend of embodying femininity into Latimer as he is ultimately separated from the other boys until the age of 16 and continues to be more fascinated by the nature surrounding him rather than the sciences presented to him.
It is after meeting Bertha, Latimer’s brother’s fiancé, that Evans makes her least veiled criticism of Victorian society, through Bertha and Latimer’s relationship she explores the unhealthy obsessiveness of romantic society. The pursuit of women, not for who they are. This is presented to us through Latimer’s inability to have insight into what Bertha thinks or feels, thus he becomes obsessive in his love of Bertha. Although, as shown by their marriage’s failure, Latimer had not loved Bertha, rather he loved the mystery of her, as shown by his feelings upon revelation in this passage,
were front to front with each other and judged each other. The terrible moment of complete illumination had come to me, and I saw that the darkness had hidden no landscape from me, but only a blank prosaic wall: from that evening forth, through the sickening years which followed, I saw all round the narrow room of this woman’s soul—saw petty artifice and mere negation where I had delighted to believe in coy sensibilities and in wit at war (Eliot 530).
Bertha’s feelings revealed Latimer allows their casually growing distance to become a vast ocean of separateness. It’s turned from a simple game or “wit at war” to him and he’s realized that she wasn’t what he’d assumed her to be, in part because he’d never made an effort to understand her without this power of insight. It reflects back onto the Victorian period of England because of the formality that surrounds marriage, with its disregard of love, women’s choices and their own autonomy. Bertha herself, attempts to be honest about who she is with Latimer well before their engagement, going so far as to explain her view of marriage as ““What! your wisdom thinks I must love the man I’m going to marry? The most unpleasant thing in the world. I should quarrel with him; I should be jealous of him; our menage would be conducted in a very ill-bred manner. A little quiet contempt contributes greatly to the elegance of life.” (Eliot 526). Latimer debates this warning, as he had his warning in his vision, clouded by his obsession over Bertha. With these interactions and the inevitably poor result of their marriage Evans is imparting her own ideas of what this style of marrying results in. Tragedy, unhappiness, and because of how property law worked at the time, the loss of women’s independent identities. They either pretend to be what their husbands want, or they lose everything, and these Victorian husbands feign surprise and disbelief when confronted with the reality of their marriage as Latimer does.
Ultimately, The Lifted Veil, is not a book in a vacuum. It is intrinsically linked with Mary Anne Evans own life, beliefs, and struggles with who she is. Although it is always dangerous to make biographical claims for a writer’s art, in comparison to her other pieces, it stands out as unique, embarrassing to the editor, and as Evans’s announcement that she is a woman. She fought with editors to publish this book and to stop being George Eliot, to stop hiding her disinterest with conventional norms such as marriage and to embrace her own creative interests. While her contemporary authors like Charlotte Bronte and Louisa May Alcott got to move on from their pen names, Currer Bell and A.M. Barnard, the name George Eliot sticks to Evans as her popular name. Similarly, despite having the gift of foresight, Latimer never changes the direction of life he’s been shown, Evans was unable to change how she would be remembered either, though The Lifted Veil certainly tried to change her narrative.
Beer, Gillian. The Victorian Supernatural. Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Eliot, George. “The Lifted Veil.” British Literature II: Romantic Era to the Twentieth Century and Beyond. University of North Georgia, 2018.
Eliot, George. The Lifted Veil. Penguin Books, 1985.
Owen, Alex. The Darkened Room: Women, Power, and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England. University of Chicago Press, 2004.
Podmore, Frank. Modern Spiritualism: A History and a Criticism, vol. 2. Methuen and Company, 1902.
Sieber, Robert. “The Fox Sisters in Action: A Clergyman’s Account.” New York History, vol. 55, no. 3, 1974.
Stephen, Leslie. George Eliot. Macmillan and Company, 1903.