ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes, and Reviews,
Vol. 28, No. 1, 51–53, 2015
Copyright © Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
ISSN: 0895-769X print / 1940-3364 online
RODNEY STENNING EDGECOMBE
University of Cape Town
Enriching Allusions in George Eliot’s The Lifted Veil
Recent annotators1 of “The Lifted Veil” have related its title to the images that Shelley and
Tennyson deploy to evoke the mysterious nature of “reality,” inaccessible as it is to casual onlookers. Shelley talks about lifting the painted veil that cloaks an objective set of data. But there is a sense in which the veil is the badge of prophetic vision, affected by Moses in Exodus and— fraudulently—by Mokanna in Moore’s Lalla Rookh. To lift this veil is to lift one that is draped over the prophesier. Both have relevance to George Eliot’s story, which is as much about the clairvoyant’s own penetrative faculty itself as about the visions “out there” that it discerns. While she does not altogether discredit these, she takes pains partly to demythologize them, and she suggests that they arise from the morbid mentality of an invalid: “I had read of the subtilising or exalting influence of some diseases on the mental powers. Did not Novalis feel his inspiration intensified under the progress of consumption” (10). To focus on this aspect of her title, then, we need to invoke “The Veiled Prophet of Khorassan” one of the poetic novelle that comprise Lalla Rookh, which she would almost certainly have read at the Franklin sisters’ school: “Miss Rebecca encouraged the girls to read widely. Under her guidance Mary Anne made her first acquaintance with many English authors. Shakespeare, Milton . . . Moore and Byron are a few that we know she read” (Haight 13).
When we encounter Mokanna, the protagonist of the first novella, we learn that:
O’er his features hung
The Veil, the silver Veil, which he had flung
In mercy there, to hide from mortal sight
His dazzling brow, till man could bear its light.
For, far less luminous, his votaries said,
Were ev’n the gleams, miraculously shed
O’er MOUSSA’s cheek, when down the Mount he trod,
All glowing from the presence of his God! (263)
That is the popular mythology, but Mokanna is, in fact, a fraud, and the veil conceals a face of such hideousness that its disclosure—for contemporary readers, at least—misfires into comedy: “He rais’d his veil—the Maid turn’d slowly round,/Look’d at him—shriek’d—and sunk upon the ground” (270).
One could argue, therefore, that, by taking the veiled prophet of Khorassan as its point of departure, “The Lifted Veil” itself lifts the veil on prophecy and clairvoyance—traditionally glamorous and covetable gifts—to reveal them in all their alienating, poisonous banality—not fraudulent as 51 52 ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes, and Reviews such, but profoundly disappointing even so. In Daniel Deronda, Leonora Halm-Eberstein also displaces the nurturing mother of her son’s imagination with a discomfiting icon of lovelessness and is likewise invested with a Mooreque voile prophétique: “A veiled figure with enigmatic speech had thrust away that image which, in spite of uncertainty, his clinging thought had gradually modelled and made the possessor of his tenderness and duteous longing” (681). And, of course, in between “The Lifted Veil” and Daniel Deronda, Dickens would avail himself of the same metaphor in Our
Mutual Friend: “Reflects Veneering; forty, wavy-haired, dark, tending to corpulence, sly, mysterious, filmy—a kind of sufficiently well-looking veiled-prophet, not prophesying” (10). Here the social fraud’s surname registers not only as a furniture carcase laminated with deceptively costly woods but also as an essential absence veneered with a facing of flesh. He has, as it were, ingested his veil and become “filmy” in person, an ectoplasmic approximation to humanity that his mirrored reflection (a version of Plato’s cave parable) serves only to compound. As soon as we acknowledge, therefore, that the veil can also be read as a badge of prophecy, we are in a position to understand the apparent paradox that puzzles Sally Shuttleworth in her notes to the story: “George Eliot’s original working title was “The Hidden Veil,” which seems almost a contradiction in terms” (Shuttleworth 84). In a sense, “hidden” would have functioned as a transferred epithet, reminding us of the veil that hides the radiance of authentic prophecy—“And the children of Israel saw the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face shone: and Moses put the vail upon his face again, until he went in to speak with him” (Ex. 34.35)—and it would also have pointed to the concealment of that office within the husk of an ordinary valetudinarian.
Victor Hugo also lurks in background of “The Lifted Veil.” George Eliot’s primary task at The
Westminster Review was to provide “belles lettres” articles, and her biographer tells us that the “quarter for July 1856 offered Marian little besides Volume IV of Modern Painters and Victor Hugo’s
Contemplations” (Haight 184). That “little” is a rather churlish noun, for Les Contemplations ranks among the profound masterpieces of the nineteenth century, and it contains a poem that probably helped Eliot toward her title. Entitled “Hélas! tout est sépulcre” [It’s all a tomb] (220–21), it bears a startling resemblance to Shelley’s sonnet, “The Lifted Veil” (cited by Small and Shuttleworth).
Even though, given Hugo’s francocentricity, the likelihood of Shelley’s having influenced the poem in turn seems somewhat remote, it is worth recording that both writers avail themselves of the despairing, totalizing gestures of Ecclesiastes, Hugo’s “tout est sépulcre” a version of “all is vanity” and Shelley’s conclusion—“a Spirit that strove/For truth, and like the Preacher found it not” (608)—coupling itself even more directly with the biblical text. Both poems also situate themselves dans l’abime, Shelley invoking a “chasm, sightless and drear” (608) and Hugo’s visitant spirit-eagle asking “si cette ombre où l’on souffre/Pourrait jamais compler ce puits, et si ce gouffre/Pourrait contenir cette nuit!” [could so much darkness ever fit/In that abyss?—yet could so vast a pit/Ever be filled up by that night?] (220–21). Since these images of nullity are discovered by prophet-figures, they bear on the demythologizing, deglamorizing project of Eliot’s short story, which turns prescience into spiritual poison. Most important of all is the fact that Hugo also uses a veil to demarcate the world of the speaker from that of his prophetic visitant, which comes to earth to enrich its consciousness—“J’ai voulu soulever un coin du vaste voile/J’ai voulu voir de près ton ciel et ton étoile” [“I wished to lift a fold of the great veil,/To see your sky and star in more detail”] (222–23).