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Friday, January 22, 2010

The George Eliot you didn't know...


A small second hand bookshop, stuffed with battered Stephen King novels in the middle of the Trinibagonian capital, Port of Spain, was the last place that I expected to find a stash of Virago Modern Classics. But there they were, at the back of the store, so far from where they originated and such a salvation for me in my dilemma. My problem was that I was facing a 10 hour flight accross the atlantic, out of the burning caribbean and into snowy Europe, and I could not face it without a book or two. I chose three and read one that very afternoon. With the powerful heat of the day on my face and the city heaving into action around me, I read The Lifted Veil by George Eliot.

It was a shock to find a George Eliot title that I have not heard of, and even more of a shock to find it dealing with themes and exploring concerns which that brilliant novelist is not known for. Where Eliot is usually realistic, stark and concerned with the everyday, The Lifted Veil is a novella of horror, suspense and the supernatural. The tale is told by the central character, the sensitive Latimer whom we see progressing falteringly from adolecence to manhood. Latimer is burdened by a condition which plagues his relationships with others and ability to make his own destiny and that condition is that Latimer is both a clairvoyant and a mind reader. These abilities make latimer profoundly miserable, he fears the life that he is able to forsee and is at the same time drawn, inexorably to it. He is a figure of passive aggression whose ability to see the petty and vain thoughts of others renders him misanthropic himself.

Narration by an intelligent but flawed Latimer calls to mind the anxious ramblings of Victor Frankenstein and the hazy, gilded evocation of nineteenth century Europe as well as the final, hideous setpiece in which Latimer discovers that which he did not forsee, all recall Mary Shelley’s classic. In this novella, George Eliot is dipping her toe into the waters of the supernatural and the so-called pseudoscienes that so preoccupied the Victorians. The “veil” is a reference to the lack of knowledge about fate and about others which is the usual human condition. Latimer, by contrast, inhabits a world, or thinks that he inhabits a world, in which that veil is lifted, in which his knowledge of the world around him exposes him morally and emotionally. This premise is a vehicle for a rather wonderful exploration of the self and a treatment of alienation and the tawdry thoughts that can motivate human behaviour. George Eliot interuppted writing Mill on the Floss to pen this dark yarn, and in its candid potrayal of charcter, it is typical of its author’s work. A fine discovery and one for the recommendations list.

10 comments:

  1. Hi Hannah - I've just found your blog! A fellow Virago-ite. I didn't enjoy The lifted veil at all so it's good to know someone else got more out of it.

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  2. Dear Verity - thank you for reading - I am new to this blog game and so just learning at the moment. I did enjoy the lifted veil - although I was quite suprised by it. I am very impressed by your vmc consumption!

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  3. Hannah, welcome to the book blogging world! I've always found it very friendly and sustaining. George Eliot is on my mind, too. Not read this one, but I'm planning a re-read of The Mill on the Floss.

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  4. Hello Hannah, look forward to reading more from you, and love your yellow background. It's very cheering on a grey day like this.

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  5. Dear Vintage Reading and Desperate Reader - thank you for your comments and welcome. i am pleased that the yellow background has gone down well - it cheers me as well.

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  6. Hello! Welcome to the Blogosphere. Lucky you finding such treasures in unlikely places! It seems that a lot of 19th c authors had a sideline in supernatural stories - I've recently discovered Elizabeth Gaskell and Edith Wharton were dab hands at this too. I'll be looking out for this one at the library. And lucky you finding Red Pottage - very hard to find!

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  7. I read The Lifted Veil for uni a couple of years ago and all I remember (despite also writing on it) is that Latimer really annoyed and frustrated me. Your review has piqued my interest again so I think I'll give it a re-read soon. And I love Virago!

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  8. This sounds like a fascinating book-glad to see you have started a blog and I look forward to reading all you will write and thank you for visiting my blog-

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  9. Well, I'll be--a George Eliot I haven't heard of! This just went on my 'to find' list. Excellent review too, Hannah! I really like your blog, and very much look forward to spending more time browsing about. Have a wonderful day, and thanks for the visit! Cheers! Chris

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  10. > a rather wonderful exploration of the self and a treatment of alienation and the tawdry thoughts that can motivate human behaviour.

    Well said! In many ways, The Lifted Veil is a huge departure from the work Eliot set out to do, but in her exploration of self and motivation, it is entirely consistent. Nice first post!

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