GEORGE ELIOT'S 'THE LIFTED VEIL': A SEQUENTIAL AND CONTEXTUAL READING by Franco Marucci, Reviewed by Mason Tattersall
 


GEORGE ELIOT'S 'THE LIFTED VEIL': A SEQUENTIAL AND CONTEXTUAL READING
By Franco Marucci
(Routledge, 2022) 238 pp.
Reviewed by Mason Tattersall on 2022-09-30.

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This book is a welcome addition to scholarship on George Eliot's novella The Lifted Veil (1859). Once a neglected and even dismissed text, it has aroused considerable interest in recent decades. Yet while complementing the growing critical literature on this novella, Franco Marucci does so without mining the work of other scholars in great depth. This seems to have been a methodological choice. Marucci's approach is decidedly textual, and this book is literarily rather than biographically or historically contextual. Rather than linking LV to Eliot's life (though he sometimes touches on it) or to the history of her period, he links it to other works of fiction.

Eliot's "oeuvre," Marucci argues, "is a compact macrotext, where themes, motifs, patterns, and cultural and personal archetypes recur... according to the metaphor of the 'web'" as theorized by Eliot herself, and "her previous production... looks forward to LV and her subsequent fiction radiates from it" as the "lynchpin" of her oeuvre (7). It would take significant evidence to prove that a text once dismissed as an insignificant outlier is, in fact, the most significant text in Eliot's corpus. Though I agree that LV is extremely important, and I find a lot in Marucci's account that is compelling, I am not entirely persuaded that LV is in fact the key to all mythologies in Eliot's work.

In an introduction of just 9 pages, Marucci briskly summarizes the reception history of LV: early views, banishment from the canon of Eliot's serious works, then re-admission via "the huge body of recent essays" (4), which he schematizes into into eight "main approaches" before outlining his own approach (7-9).

Reading LV from beginning to end and placing it--though not extensively-- within Eliot's "oeuvre and against the background of Victorian mid-century fiction" (7), Marucci argues that it "represents, formally, a case of continuity-discontinuity in [Eliot's] oeuvre" and that it "intersects with various contemporary genres and subgenres" (8). Previous critics, he contends, miss the point "that it encrypts the experience of a failed religious conversion" (9). Though I think this reading of the story is correct, Marucci fails to recognize previous applications of it. In an excellent article that he does not cite, Brenda McKay pursues it with great subtlety ("Victorian Anthropology," George Eliot - George Henry Lewes Studies 42/43 [Sept 2002]:69-92).

Nevertheless, Marucci goes some way toward placing LV within the context of Eliot's life and the fiction of the period. Besides arguing that she had LV in mind "long before" she began writing it (18), he links its theme and characters to Eliot's life and earlier novels as well to the works of Hawthorne, which he fruitfully considers in several chapters.

Examining the novella itself, he finds it "the riskiest challenge of [Eliot's] art and aesthetics" because it is a story that "should be read and understood against the diegetic grain and its face value" (52), which helps to explain both its early rejection and later celebration as a crucial part of Eliot's corpus.

Central to Marucci's interpretation of the story is Latimer, its unreliable narrator, who is gifted--or cursed-- with the ability to see into the future and the thoughts of other people. Acknowledging several times that Latimer is an unreliable narrator but without exploring its consequences, Marucci considers several different interpretations of the story's meaning. Rather than arguing for one interpretation against others, Marucci spins a vast interpretive web by threading LV to Eliot's earlier and later works as well as to the works of others.

According to Marucci, LV parallels the Gospels and Latimer "is a Christ-like figure." This point is strained. Besides weakly noting that "both narratives encompass birth, early life, growth, and early death of a central figure," he implausibly takes the many and obvious dissimilarities between Christ and Latimer as "ingenious variations," "reversals," and so on (108). Implying that he doubts the cogency of his own argument, he states: "if this encryption is not fanciful, it is surprising that it has been overlooked or entirely ignored by critics..." (109).

Marucci's argument about Latimer's experience in Prague, however, is better supported. Given its Jewish and messianic connections, Marucci notes that "historians and scholars of Judaism have furnished an alternative version of the myth of Prague" (118). Since Latimer's powers are confirmed in this city, Marucci argues that Latimer is presented with a potentially prophetic epiphany, which he misses. Here again, however, Marucci overlooks McKay's work on this topic, though he cites some other scholarship on it.

In failing to achieve the prophetic epiphany that Prague could have given him, Marucci suggests, Latimer also misses the chance to discover and acknowledge his own Jewish ancestry. Linking this point to Eliot's own life, Marucci argues that she came to suspect her own Jewish ancestry (speculating that it could have been on her mother's side). Eliot's letters, he notes, reveal a shift from an earlier neutrality and/or antisemitism in her youth to a later philosemitism. While others have attributed this shift to the growing humanism she developed through broad and deep reading, to her relationship with Lewes, and to her contact with Jewish intellectuals. Marucci insists that Eliot's deep philosemitism must have sprung from something more personal.

Yet while Eliot may indeed have suspected her own Jewish ancestry, the evidence Marucci presents is not conclusive, and some of it seems deeply problematic. Though "the major scholarly biographies," he notes, "do not take a definite stance about the hypothesis of GE's Jewish extraction, speculations on GE's Semitic facial traits were first broached by Kaufmann [in 1877], who observed that 'Science was bringing to light infallible marks by which the physical peculiarity of the Jewish race should be made clearly manifest'" (123). Marucci then explains the would-be Jewishness of Eliot's physiognomy as seen in the very few images we have of her.

Invoking nineteenth century studies of racial physiognomy--which were based upon and steeped in racist ideas--and noting also "the strongly marked type of race in their features" in Eliot's novel Romola (123-4), Marucci asserts that "we are thus authorized to employ" the "use of this pragmatic test" (emphasis added) of the "craniometrical examinations of the Jews and other facts (and prejudices) about the 'physical characteristics of the Jews'" (123). Plucking the second quotation from what he calls is "an interesting article by Klaus Hoedl from 2000" (123), Marucci applies it to the scene in LV wherein a phrenologist examines the young Latimer. Assuming that Eliot's phrenologist is conducting the test mentioned above, Marucci argues that we "are authorized" to use it on the pictures we have of Eliot herself (123). But we are not characters in a nineteenth century novel, and Marucci fails to note that a lot of serious scholarship has exposed the racist assumptions behind "pragmatic test(s)" of racial identity. such as this.

To buttress his argument, Marucci notes that Eliot's characters--especially females-- "look at themselves in mirrors," and then infers that "[s]he may as well have looked at herself and have realized that her somatic and facial features showed Jewish traits"-- "such as the hooked nose" (124 and n). The generous reading here is that Marucci is suggesting that, because Eliot believed in these ideas about racial physiognomy, we can then put ourselves into her shoes, so to speak, and "read" images of her as she might have read her own reflection; if this is the case, then re-wording would help, but a further discussion of the problems with this practice--again, grounded in racist ideas--would still be, in my opinion as a historian of nineteenth century science, absolutely necessary.

On the other hand, Marucci is particularly good on what he calls "the mesmeric theme" in LV. Suggestively arguing that LV stages a sort of mesmeric battle between Latimer and Bertha, he shows how her manipulation of him reverses the relation between the typically active male mesmerizer and the typically passive female mesmeree (141).

Marucci sheds further light on the novella by linking it to the fiction of Hawthorne and Poe as well as to Eliot's own later novels, especially Daniel Deronda, wherein--as others have also noted-- the title character achieves the religious epiphany that Latimer misses.

Given its sequential and contextual readings of LV, I recommend this book to anyone seeking a deeper understanding of Eliot's work and its relations to other mid-century fiction, both English and American. But Marucci stops short of sufficiently exploring the work of other scholars, the details of Eliot's life, her non-fiction essays, and broader historical contexts.

Another weakness lies in the very web-like nature of the interpretive connections Marucci draws. Looking for "the Latimer figure" in every other book, he often claims that X or Y "is a Latimer" rather than noting that they share elements. The threads get still thinner when, by the transitive property of equality, Latimer = Character-A, and since Character-A = Character-B, the latter too must also = Latimer. As Latimers accumulate, each individual connective thread feels less significant.

Finally, a literary historian would expect from this book a deeper engagement with broader historical contexts and with the critical literature on Eliot, as well as a more convincing deployment of evidence. The bibliography includes only scholarship on Eliot, omitting other studies that Marucci mentions, and the index is just an alphabetical list of names, which makes it far less useful than it could have been. Rather than reprinting the readily-available text of LV itself, which Marucci does, he could have substantially improved the scholarly apparatus of this book.

Nevertheless, this book makes a worthwhile contribution to the field of Eliot studies. In leading us through the text of LV, Marucci also defines its place in the corpus of her work and illuminates its connection to other fiction of the period.

Mason Tattersall is History Senior Instructor at Oregon State University. In a recent article he argues that the central theme of Eliot's Lifted Veil is a failed apotheosis (Tattersall, "Science" Journal of Austrian Studies 54.4 [2021] 99-118).


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