The Lifted Veil and Silly Novels by Lady Novelists by George Eliot – #NovNov

The second book I’ve read for this month’s Novellas in November is one of the Penguin Little Black Classics series. It contains a novella by one of my favourite Victorian authors, George Eliot – The Lifted Veil – as well as an essay, Silly Novels by Lady Novelists, also written by Eliot.

The Lifted Veil was written very early in Eliot’s career and published in 1859, the same year as her first novel Adam Bede. It’s a controversial story which seems to get very mixed reviews and now that I’ve read it, although I found it quite enjoyable, I can understand why. It’s not her usual sort of book at all; I’ve seen it described as science fiction, Gothic fiction and horror, none of which are genres you would normally associate with Eliot!

Our narrator, Latimer, is a young man who suffers from an illness which seems to leave him with an unusual and unwelcome gift – the ability to see into the future and into the minds of other people. It begins with a vision of Prague, a city he has never visited or seen in a picture, and it is so incredibly detailed – ‘right down to a patch of rainbow light on the pavement, transmitted through a coloured lamp in the shape of a star’ – that Latimer is both excited and alarmed. Other episodes of clairvoyance follow, including dreamlike sightings of a tall, blond-haired young woman dressed in green. This turns out to be Bertha, his brother Alfred’s fiancée…but Latimer has seen a future version of himself married to Bertha. Will this come true – and if so, will the marriage be as unhappy as the vision seems to suggest?

I can’t say much more about the plot without spoiling the story, but I found The Lifted Veil an interesting and intriguing read. For such a short piece of writing, it contains many different topics and themes: the contemporary scientific ideas of Eliot’s time, ranging from mesmerism and phrenology to blood transfusions; fate and whether it can be changed; the possibility of life after death; and the question of what we can see when the ‘veil is lifted’. I should warn you that there is a scene involving a dead body – as I said, this is not a typical Eliot book – although it’s quite tame if you’ve read a lot of Edgar Allan Poe, as I have!

The novella takes up just over half of this 110 page book. The essay from 1856 that follows, Silly Novels by Lady Novelists, is unrelated and seems to be a bit of a random choice to fill the remaining pages in the book. Still, I thought it was fascinating to read Eliot’s thoughts on her fellow female authors. In case you can’t tell from the title, Eliot has a very low opinion of books she describes as ‘the frothy, the prosy, the pious or the pedantic’, and an even lower opinion of the women who write them:

It is clear that they write in elegant boudoirs, with violet-coloured ink and a ruby pen; that they must be entirely indifferent to publishers’ accounts, and inexperienced in every form of poverty except poverty of brains. It is true that we are constantly struck with the want of verisimilitude in their representations of the high society in which they seem to live; but then they betray no closer acquaintance with any other form of life. If their peers and peeresses are improbable, their literary men, tradespeople, and cottagers are impossible; and their intellect seems to have the peculiar impartiality of reproducing both what they have seen and heard, and what they have not seen and heard, with equal unfaithfulness.

Although I did feel a bit sorry for the lady novelists mentioned in the essay, including the authors of Laura Gay, The Old Grey Church and Rank and Beauty (three of the novels which come in for particular criticism from Eliot), I can also see why Eliot would have felt frustrated by female writers who were perpetuating stereotypes of Victorian fiction such as the perfect, virtuous heroine, and making it difficult for more literary authors like herself to be taken seriously. Of course, her male pseudonym would help to distance her work from the type of novels she despised and I’m sure Eliot would be pleased to know that her own novels have stood the test of time while the ‘silly novels’ and their authors have largely been forgotten.

So, two very different short reads in one book! Have you read either of them? I would love to hear what you thought.

20 thoughts on “The Lifted Veil and Silly Novels by Lady Novelists by George Eliot – #NovNov

  1. BookerTalk says:

    I read the essay many moons ago – can’t remember much of the detail now beyond the fact she was scathing of some of the output by women novelists.
    She wrote other essays which I found difficult to penetrate at times!

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    I’ve read The Lifted Veil and I liked it a lot, despite the bad reviews! As you say, compared to Poe…. I have the essay as one of my Penguin Great Ideas volumes and intend to get to it eventually. I tend to stand with her as regards silly novels….

    • Helen says:

      I think the bad reviews are probably mainly from readers who didn’t expect a book like this from Eliot – or who don’t like Poe! I’m sure you’ll enjoy the silly novels essay.

    • Helen says:

      I think you would find the essay entertaining. I don’t mind the odd silly novel either, but the ones Eliot writes about sound a bit too silly even for me!

  3. Alyson Woodhouse says:

    I read Silly Novels a year or so ago, and found it quite entertaining. Eliot could certainly be scatheing and opinionated, and her distaste for such fiction was obvious. I’ll need to read the Lifted Veil though, as it sounds a world away from her realist novels.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, The Lifted Veil is completely different from everything else I’ve read by Eliot! I would definitely recommend giving it a try, especially as it’s so short.

  4. Jane says:

    I haven’t read either of these, is it the entire novella in this edition? I’m never quite sure what the Little Black Classics are to be honest!

    • Helen says:

      Yes, the whole novella is in this book, followed by the essay. The Little Black Classics just seem to be very short classics, with about 100 pages or fewer. This is the first one I’ve read, but I have an Edith Wharton one on my shelf too.

  5. whatmeread says:

    It seems that quite a few authors of that time period started out writing in the gothic/horror genre. Perhaps it was so common then that it was easy to get published. I was startled to find, for example, that Elizabeth Gaskell wrote quite a bit of it early and late in her career.

  6. Calmgrove says:

    You’ve sold this well, and now I think I shall acquire this volume! Not only for the essay but also I seem to be reading a few novels featuring Prague these days, though I’ve never visited — Sarah Perry, Philip Pullman, Neil Gaiman, Bruce Chatwin.

  7. cirtnecce says:

    I am not much of a Elliot fan (I know! Sacrilegious! ) But I am very intrigued by these two short pieces and your review gives an tempting flavor. I will look them up! Excellent review as always!

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