by Chelcy Walker
Mark Turner’s article “Periodical Time in the Nineteenth Century” foregrounds his discussion of media time by highlighting one of the challenges that readers and writers of periodicals faced, namely that “time [was] a significant problem of nineteenth-century industrialized, urban modernity.” Time, in both realistic and paranormal forms, is a significant theme in George Eliot’s novella “The Lifted Veil,”—the text is nearly obsessed with time, including over two hundred references to time within its short twenty-five pages. She experiments with time travel, clairvoyance, and Gothicism—significant departures from the genres and themes of her other works. When we explore a few of these time-focused passages as well as the text as a whole, it becomes clear that Eliot situates her experimentation with time carefully between elements of realism, leading us to consider how she may have attempted to “contain” these experiments within more culturally acceptable representations of time. In this essay I will look at two ways that Eliot “contains” her experimentation in the text, and then consider the broader implications of containment as a way to understand “The Lifted Veil” within her broader canon.
Unlike our modern understanding of time as a fixed, global, and standardized unit, conceptions of time were still in development for Eliot’s readers. Industrialization, scientific discovery, mass media culture, and innovations in communication were all at work in shifting how time was represented and constructed, and these changes were especially apparent in periodical culture, an essentially “timed” medium. “The Lifted Veil” appears in the eighty-sixth issue of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, in a monthly issue published in July of 1859, and centered on each page is a stark date stamp: “July, 1859.” So for Eliot, experimenting with paranormal time within a fixed-time periodical context created its own set of clashes, by putting these experimental narratives of time onto date-stamped pages and thus creating unique dissonances. But she is far from swinging to one end of a “real time” versus “paranormal time” continuum. She carefully surrounds and balances these passages of clairvoyance with distinctly realist elements, and we will look closely at two of these examples. In both, we see a gradual drift into an “unraveled” form of time, to borrow her narrator’s own description of his destiny, followed by an abrupt awakening and return to realist elements.
Latimer’s first clairvoyant episode directly follows a conversation with his father, when his mind transports to ancient Prague and sees in detail the structures, landscapes, and people. He is suddenly awoken by a loud noise: “A stunning clang of metal suddenly thrilled through me.” His servant Pierre knocks over a fire-iron while bringing his evening draught, and Latimer returns to the present, and back to his nightly routine. Readers are abruptly confronted with a everyday scene directly following this “unraveled” moment of time, bringing the clairvoyance to a screeching halt and back to a comfortable domestic scene—carefully containing the un-realism within realism again.
His second departure from normal time ends with a similar jolt. He again drifts into a new scene and envisions a conversation with his father and a neighbor, when the scene suddenly disappears again, and he first becomes conscious of his surroundings by noticing the “Chinese painted folding-screen that stood before the door.” To further shake the effects of his clairvoyant episode, he “grasped the bell convulsively,” trying to rid himself of the “dizzy sense of unreality…like one trying to free himself from nightmare.” Immediately after he awakes, he goes into his room and methodically puts on cologne, taking a special pleasure in the pacing and time of this domestic act, “drawing a new delight from the scent because I had procured it by slow details of labour, and by no strange sudden madness.” The passage quickly moves out of its dreamy, unraveled time and back into real time, movement, and familiar spaces. Again, with both of these passages bookmarked by real time, special emphasis is placed on returning out of a disjointed, unreal time and back into reality.
But as we look at the scope of the entire text in terms of time, we see a model emerge that resembles containment as well. Eliot grounds her readers in a sense of real time at the end of the novella, so that “unraveled time” becomes safely situated and contained earlier in the text and readers are left with a more realist sense of time at the conclusion. If we look at all references to time and place them into three categories: quantified time, ambiguous or unquantified time, and unraveled or paranormal time, we see in Figure 1 that unraveled time rises and falls toward the middle of the text, but then goes out of focus toward the end as we follow the narrative of Bertha and her maid. Unraveled time is seemingly “contained” within the two more acceptable representations of time, giving Eliot room to challenge and play, while leaving readers with a more stable set of terms toward the end.
Figure 1. Representations of time by page in “The Lifted Veil.”
Not only are the individual clairvoyant episodes contained within their surrounding text through the use of realistic time, but almost all of the experimental language and passages are contained toward the middle of the piece, safeguarded by realistic time and events toward the end.
These layers of containment raise interesting new questions about Eliot’s relationship to “The Lifted Veil” as a whole, and whether or not scholars can view Eliot as “containing” her experimentation with science fiction to this one text. Eliot never returned to this genre of writing again, but by no means did she disown the piece; in fact over time, she considered it one of the central works of her canon. In 1873, almost fourteen years after its initial publication, John Blackwood requested to reprint the story in a series of other Blackwood stories, and Eliot refused, saying, “I think it will not be judicious to reprint it at present. I care for the idea which it embodies and which justifies its painfulness. . . .There are many things in it which I would willingly say over again, and I shall never put them in any other form.” Rather than an inconsequential departure into a different genre, Eliot’s own attachment to the text appears to indicate that the text represented an important part of how she wanted to be remembered. Scholars have puzzled with how exactly to position “The Lifted Veil” within Eliot’s oeuvre, with many preferring to consider it a “bizarre aberration” that raises “embarrassment rather than interest, as if there were a general wish either that it had not been written at all or that it had been written by someone more appropriate—Poe, perhaps. . . .” Her reticence to experiment again with this style can be viewed as a kind of containment as well, but because Eliot considered the text an important representation of herself, could we see this containment as protectiveness rather than an attempt to conceal an embarrassment? Could we consider other ways of reading “The Lifted Veil” that could help us reconcile containment with Eliot’s own connection to this text? Certainly there is more work to be done in understanding this text within Eliot’s own broader canon, and new ways of reading “containment” could open up the possibility of seeing “The Lifted Veil” as something other than a tangential work.
 Mark Turner, “Periodical Time in the Nineteenth Century,” 187.
 George Eliot, “The Lifted Veil,” 24.
 Eliot, 31.
 Eliot, 28.
 Eliot, 29.
 Eliot, 30.
 Eliot’s Letters, V, 380, quoted in B. M. Gray, “Pseudoscience and George Eliot’s ‘The Lifted Veil,’” 408.
 Gray, 408–9.
Eliot, George. “The Lifted Veil.” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine 86 ,
(July 1859): 24–48.
Gray, B. M. “Pseudoscience and George Eliot’s ‘The Lifted
Veil,’” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 36, no. 4 (1982): 407–23.
Turner, Mark. “Periodical Time in the Nineteenth Century.” Media
History 8, no. 2 (2002): 183–196.