Science and Anxiety in George Eliot’s ‘The Lifted Veil’ (1859)

Sarah McFee is a MA English graduate from Teesside University. Her research focuses primarily on speculative fiction including portrayals of disability in the Victorian Gothic, and representations and constructions of gender and race in Neo-Victorian fiction. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.

Christopher P. Toumey states that within the Victorian era there existed “moral narratives that purport to explain whence comes evil in the guise of science”, and George Eliot’s ‘The Lifted Veil’ can be seen as one example.[1] Queen Victoria’s reign coincided with the Industrial Revolution, a period of dramatic change within industry, technology and science. The emergence of Victorian science fiction revealed “the ambivalence of attitudes towards science, invention, women, scientists, and social change,” with many of the stories being ‘cautionary tales’.[2]

George Eliot met and moved in with George Henry Lewes in 1851. He was a writer and philosopher interested in science, and Eliot began to question both her Christian faith and society’s views of women. Eliot was irritated by novels with unrealistic heroines, which she believed were not acceptable role models for modern women challenging the patriarchal society.[3] She instead wanted to write novels that focused on the truth and challenging ideals. After Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published, Eliot stated that “to me the Development theory and all other explanations of processes by which things came to be, produce a feeble impression compared with the mystery that lies under the processes”.[4] This quotation shows Eliot’s interest in science, but also insinuates that she believed in the importance of some aspects of life remaining ‘mysterious’. The title of her novella ‘The Lifted Veil’ can even be viewed as a warning to those determined to know everything, and what happens when you ‘lift the veil’ of mystery.

Eliot’s novella includes the Victorian science of phrenology, defined as the study of the shape and bumps of the skull to determine an individual’s personality and mental ability, usually utilised on the working classes and criminals. This theory has since been thoroughly discredited but was the beginning of present day psychology as it aimed to “associate particular brain regions to a very specific set of psychological properties”.[5] Eliot herself was friends with Comb, a phrenologist who then introduced her to William Gregory, a Professor of Chemistry who worked on clairvoyant patients.[6] These individuals are a potential influence on events within the novella, as there is a continuous parallel between the supernatural and science. When the main character, Latimer, has his head examined by Dr Letherall, the doctor points to the upper sides of his head and states: “The deficiency is there, sir […] That must be brought out, sir, and this must be laid to sleep.”[7] Letherall’s conclusion is that Latimer must be taught sensible subjects such as history and science instead of reading poetry, which would be seen to remedy his deficiency.[8] This of course does not work, as Latimer has the gift of clairvoyance which he cannot ignore or control. Phrenology cannot explain why Latimer is like he is and cannot help to control his powers:

This strange new power had manifested itself again […] But was it a power? Might it not rather be a disease – a sort of intermittent delirium, concentrating my energy of brain into moments of unhealthy activity. [9]

Latimer can be seen as having a ‘double brain’: his visions provide him with a second view of reality and another possible future. The Victorian theory of the double brain can also be linked to the science of sexology, the study of people’s sexuality through their behaviour and visible characteristics. Some believed there were two halves of the brain: the left side represented masculinity, whiteness and civilisation, whereas the right side was linked to femininity, madness and animalistic tendencies.[10] Latimer is not described as masculine, and is of weak, ill health, spending his time alone within the private sphere. He describes himself as a “shy, sensitive boy” and also as looking feminine: “I was held to have a sort of half-womanish, half-ghostly beauty; for the portrait-painters had often asked me to sit to them”.[11] However, Latimer appears to confound scientific expectations; he is intelligent and civilised, yet displays ‘feminine’ tendencies which lead to episodes of ‘madness’. The text appears to demonstrate that science cannot categorise everyone, and doctors cannot always control and understand each case they study.

The doctor loses control and is overwhelmed by his scientific experiments. In the final scene of ‘The Lifted Veil’, Latimer’s friend Meunier (who is a doctor) wants to perform a blood transfusion on a dead female servant from Latimer’s household. Kate Flint states that the character of Meunier is based on a Victorian doctor named Sequard who experimented with blood transfusions on dying animals in 1846.[12] The ethics of the experiment come under question when the doctor tells Latimer not to tell anyone about it: “I can’t do without another hand, but it would perhaps not be well to call in a medical assistant from among your provincial doctors. A disagreeable foolish version of the thing might get abroad.”[13] Instead he asks Latimer to help. The act itself can be viewed as an example of ‘patriarchal control’ as the dying woman is helpless to object. She is also of a vulnerable working class as she is a servant. Flint states that blood transfusions were most commonly carried out on women and “it was recommended too, that men rather than women supply the vital fluid, since they were less liable to faint”.[14] The irony is of course that Latimer faints earlier on in the novella when he first meets his wife, Bertha.[15]

Ultimately, Meunier’s experiment goes wrong and the woman comes back from the dead, but as a monstrous creature: “The dead woman’s eyes were wide open […] the recognition of hate […] the haggard face moved”.[16] The doctor ends up completely confounded as his experiment has not gone as planned. Latimer states that “even Meunier looked paralysed; life for that moment ceased to be a scientific problem for him”.[17] This scene exposes a fear over the reliability of scientists and whether they have too much power. John Kucich supports this and states that “growing convictions about the dangerous amorality of scientists […] helped shatter the Victorians’ faith in the self-evidence of scientific authority”.[18] The novella highlights that though science is capable of performing fantastic yet dangerous acts, the professionals do not always know exactly what they are doing or have full control over the end result.

To conclude, many Gothic novellas expose that it is not science that should be feared, but what the scientists themselves do with the power that they have. These novellas are a warning to those who want to know too much, and can also be relevant to the scientific experiments of today. It is wrong to be ignorant, but perhaps worse to desire to know everything.

Notes

[1] Christopher P. Toumey, “The Moral Character of Mad Scientists: A Cultural Critique of Science,” Science, Technology and Human Values 17:4 (1992) 411.

[2] Paul Fayter, “Strange New Worlds of Space and Time: Late Victorian Science and Science Fiction,” Victorian Science in Context, ed. Bernard Lightman (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1997) 257.

[3] George Eliot, “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists (1856),” cited in Hilary Fraser, “The Victorian Novel and Religion,” A Companion to the Victorian Novel, ed. Patrick Brantlinger and William B. Thesing (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002) 104.

[4] Gordon Haight, “The George Eliot Letters (1954-6),” cited in Kate Flint, “Blood, Bodies, and The Lifted Veil,” Nineteenth-Century Literature 51:4 (1997) 472.

[5] William R. Uttal, The New Phrenology. The Limits of Localizing Cognitive Processes in the Brain (Massachusetts: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2001) 102-103.

[6] Flint 461.

[7] George Eliot, The Lifted Veil (USA: Oxford University Press, 2009) 6.

[8] Eliot 6.

[9] Eliot 12.

[10] Anne Stiles, “Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ and the Double Brain,” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 46:4 (2006) 884-5.

[11] Eliot 6 and 14.

[12] Flint 464.

[13] Eliot 39.

[14] Flint 469.

[15] Eliot 12.

[16] Eliot 41-42.

[17] Eliot 42.

[18] John Kucich, “Intellectual Debate in the Victorian Novel: Religion and Science,” The Cambridge Companion to the Victorian Novel Second Edition, ed. Deirdre David (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012) 126.

Sarah McFee has written other posts for this blog on:

ANGELS AND DEVILS IN THE HOUSE: THE EVOLUTION OF WOMEN IN GOTHIC VAMPIRE FICTION – BRAM STOKER’S MINA HARKER

MARK TWAIN’S ‘THOSE EXTRAORDINARY TWINS’: CHALLENGING CONSTRUCTIONS OF ABNORMALITY, CONJOINMENT AND DISABILITY

SINS OF THE FATHER: EMBRACING THE PAST IN NEO-VICTORIAN FICTION

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