"The Lifted Veil" - George Eliot's Prague melodrama

07-09-2003

George Eliot - the pseudonym of the great 19th century English novelist, Marian Evans - is best known for her novels of rural England, so you may be wondering why I mention her here on Radio Prague. The answer is quite simple. One of her most dramatic narratives, The Lifted Veil, has a direct link with the ancient city of Prague. In 1858, at a time when few English people visited this part of Central Europe, Eliot, then in her late 30s, spent a few days in the city on her way to Dresden. Prague made an instant impression, as she wrote in her journal of the time:

"The most interesting things we saw were the old Jewish burial ground and the Old Synagogue. We saw a lovely dark-eyed Jewish child here, which we were glad to kiss in all its dirt. Then came the sombre old synagogue with its smoky groins, and lamp forever burning. An intelligent Jew was our cicerone and read us some Hebrew out of the precious old book of the law."

Like so many visitors to Prague - Eliot was instantly gripped by the city's sense of timelessness and mystery, heightening an interest she already had in clairvoyance and alchemy. The visit also marked the beginning of an interest in Judaism, an interest that stayed with her for the rest of her life and culminated in Eliot's extraordinary masterpiece published nearly twenty years later - Daniel Deronda.

But back to The Lifted Veil: Eliot wrote the story not long after her return to London, more or less as a distraction, at a time when she was working on The Mill on the Floss. It wasn't a particularly happy time. She was stuck in a rather stifling suburban house in Wimbledon, and had recently received unwanted public attention, having previously managed to remain anonymous behind her "nom de plume". This might explain the rather Gothic, dark nature of the story.

This is the only work that Eliot wrote in the first person. The narrator is a highly strung and sensitive man called Latimer, cursed, as he puts it, with the ability to read the minds of the people around him. He first discovers this unnerving gift when his father informs him that they are to visit Prague. In his mind Latimer sees a perfect vision of the city - a city he has never visited.

"My father was called away before he had finished his sentence, and he left my mind resting on the word Prague, with a strange sense that a new and wondrous scene was breaking upon me: a city under the broad sunshine, that seemed to me as if it were summer sunshine of a long-past century arrested in its course - unrefreshed for ages by dews of night, or the gushing rain-cloud; scorching the dusty, weary, time-eaten grandeur of a people doomed to live on in the stale repetition of memories, like deposed and superannuated kings in their regal gold inwoven tatters. The city looked so thirsty that the broad river seemed to me a sheet of metal; and the blackened statues, as I passed under their blank gaze, along the unending bridge, with their ancient garments and their saintly crowns, seemed to me the real inhabitants and owners of this place, while the busy, trivial men and women, hurrying to and fro, were a swarm of ephemeral visitants, infesting it for a day."

Later in the story, when the party arrives in Prague, Latimer's deepest dread is confirmed. The Prague in his vision was not just a figment of his imagination, but a precise and real image of the city. In this extract you'll notice that Eliot lifts part of the description almost word for word from her diary:

"But, as I stood under the blackened, groined arches of that old synagogue, made dimly visible by the seven thin candles in the sacred lamp, while our Jewish cicerone reached down the Book of the Law, and read to us in its ancient tongue - I felt a shuddering impression that this strange building, with its shrunken lights, this surviving withered remnant of medieval Judaism, was of a piece with my vision. Those darkened dusty Christian saints, with their loftier arches and their larger candles, needed the consolatory scorn with which they might point to a more shriveled death-in-life than their own.

As I expected, when we left the Jews' quarter the elders of our party wished to return to the hotel. But now, instead of rejoicing in this, as I had done beforehand, I felt a sudden overpowering impulse to go on at once to the bridge, and put an end to the suspense I had been wishing to protract. I declared, with unusual decision, that I would get out of the carriage and walk on alone; they might return without me. My father, thinking this merely a sample of my usual "poetic nonsense", objected that I should only do myself harm by walking in the heat; but when I persisted, he said angrily that I might follow my own absurd devices, but that Schmidt (our courier) must go with me. I assented to this, and set off with Schmidt towards the bridge. I had no sooner passed from under the archway of the grand old gate leading on to the bridge, than a trembling seized me and I turned cold under the midday sun; yet I went on; I was in search of something - a small detail which I remembered with special intensity as part of my vision. There it was - the patch of rainbow light on the pavement, transmitted through a lamp in the shape of a star."

Despite his gift of clairvoyance, there is one figure in the story, whose mind Latimer is unable to read, that is the beautiful, but cold blond, Bertha. Latimer's fascination with Bertha leads him to marry her, although with his gift of clairvoyance, he knows the marriage is doomed. In the Gothic denouement of the story, a scene worthy of Edgar Allan Poe, Bertha's maid lies on her deathbed. In the moments after her death Latimer's physician friend Charles Meunier conducts an experiment, a blood transfusion that for a moment resuscitates her. The dead servant reveals Bertha's dark secret.

"For the next twenty minutes I forgot everything but Meunier and the experiment in which he was so absorbed that I think his senses would have been closed against all sounds or sights which had no relation to it. It was my task at first to keep up the artificial respiration in the body after the transfusion had been effected, but presently Meunier relieved me, and I could see the wondrous slow return of life; the breast began to heave, the inspirations became stronger, the eyelids quivered, and the soul seemed to have returned beneath them. The artificial respiration was withdrawn: still the breathing continued, and there was a movement of the lips.

Just then I heard the handle of the door moving: I suppose Bertha had heard from the women that they had been dismissed: probably a vague fear had arisen in her mind, for she entered with a look of alarm. She came to the foot of the bed and gave a stifled cry.

The dead woman's eyes were wide open, and met hers in a full recognition of hate. With a sudden strong effort, the hand that Bertha had thought for ever still was pointed towards her, and the haggard face moved. The gasping eager voice said:

'You mean to poison your husband... the poison is in the black cabinet... I got it for you... you laughed at me, and told lies about me behind my back, to make me disgusting... because you were jealous... are you sorry... now?'

The lips continued to murmur, but the sounds were no longer distinct. Soon there was no sound - only a slight movement: the flame had leaped out, and was being extinguished the faster."

And that's that - George Eliot's Gothic novella from Prague, The Lifted Veil. Beyond the atmosphere of the city, the story has little to do with the real life of Prague at the time. Eliot was probably unfamiliar with what was going on in Czech literature - in fact, virtually no Czech writing had been translated into English. And that's something of a shame. Eliot was an exact contemporary of the writer described by Kundera as the mother of the Czech novel, Bozena Nemcova, and if they had met, I think the two writers would have found a huge amount to talk about.

 

Books for this programme supplied by Shakespeare and Sons.

07-09-2003