Layers of Containment in George Eliot’s “The Lifted Veil”

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.”[1] 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.”[2] 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,[3] 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.”[4] 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.”[5] 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.”[6] 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.”[7] 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.

screenshot-2016-10-06-11-24-49Figure 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.”[8] 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. . . .”[9] 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.


[1] Mark Turner, “Periodical Time in the Nineteenth Century,” 187.

[2] George Eliot, “The Lifted Veil,” 24.

[3] Eliot, 31.

[4] Eliot, 28.

[5] Eliot, 29.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Eliot, 30.

[8] Eliot’s Letters, V, 380, quoted in B. M. Gray, “Pseudoscience and George Eliot’s ‘The Lifted Veil,’” 408.

[9] 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.


6 Comments Add yours

  1. As modern readers, it is easy for us to forget that we are such a time-obsessed culture, but in the Victorian era time was still a developing form with industrialization. When you first mention that Eliot contains separate modes of time within the standard, accepted modes of time, the first thought for me as a reader was that she slowed time down in a society focused on a fast-paced lifestyle. Then I realized that I did not have a clear conception of the structure of time for the Victorian reader. So I like the way you contextualize this in the second paragraph and emphasize the periodical as a medium for time.

    I also enjoy the mention of realistic versus unrealistic, because in terms of the defined sense of time and the clairvoyant/unraveled time, one becomes realistic because it fits the normal mode while the other is unrealistic. Time becomes a mode for whether or not a reader sees a work of fiction as realistic. It makes me wonder the function of Eliot’s experimental time, since you write that she contains this time within a more stable sense of time that readers would be used to. She hid her experimental time while at the same time chose to include it. This goes back to our discussion on her anonymity; perhaps she was afraid to place her name on a work or be known as someone who wrote such outlandish concepts of time. It certainly is surprising when Latimer tells us that he has seen his own death and when he starts to have visions of the future; we don’t expect to see that in much Victorian literature, and it is almost hard to believe that it is happening. For a reader, then, this initial shock is hidden within the comforts of more realistic concepts of time. I like your conclusions on this question of why she contained her experimentation while holding onto the work as a part of her canon. There may be something in that it stands out in a subtle, hidden way that represents her as a writer willing to take a challenge but knowledgeable enough in craft to present it to a reader in a carefully constructed way.


  2. I think the contrast you make between unraveled time and domestic time is interesting. I noticed the same thing as I was reading. Specifically, shortly after Latimer has his first episode of “unraveled” time, the reader is introduced to Bertha. It seems that Bertha is central to many of his episodes of unraveled time in that he experiences the most episodes of unraveled time when his relationship with her is at its strongest. I find it interesting, however, that this is also when Latimer experiences the most “quantified time”. Page 29 is when the reader is introduced to Bertha, which is when you have marked unraveled and quantified time as being almost equal. I wonder, then, what the significance of this might be since we know Bertha is to become his wife later in the text. It almost seems as though we are being called to associate quantified time with domestic time.

    You also marked quantified time and domestic time as both having high numbers on page 35, which is shortly after Latimer has the vision that Bertha will become his wife (page 34). Quantified time is also marked as being extremely prevalent on pages 39 and 40 with almost no unraveled time. This, again, I find interesting because on page 40, Latimer and Bertha get married. It seems as though there is a war between quantified and unraveled time, and when we think of quantified time as domestic time, this makes a great deal of sense. Unraveled time would have been seen as time wasted and not able to be measured when domestic time must be accounted for. Therefore, a war is at place between Bertha and Latimer. She seeks to quantify time while he seeks to unravel it.

    On page 43, you have no unraveled time marked, which is when Latimer’s vision of Bertha by the fire in the library comes to fruition. From that point on, unraveled time seems to disappear from the story. Perhaps this means Bertha is successful in quantifying Latimer’s time and that somehow his vision coming to fruition marks the end of unraveled time, which is only recovered in his death on the last page.


  3. I wanted to first off say that I thought this was a really cool use of a quantitative reading, and I like how you managed to so neatly entwine it with a more traditional textual analysis. I thought that was a well-done approach. I feel like I could have read a whole other paper about how and why you decided to characterize each mention of time, because I remember you saying that was a somewhat difficult thing to do.

    Like Angie, considering how Victorians viewed time really helped to open this text up a lot to me. Your reading also made me re-consider the ending with a little more clarity. I think Eliot does the same thing with science at the end that she does with time: With all these expanding notions about science, she pulls in a doctor to have this odd sort of theory with blood and bringing the dead back to life. I don’t think we’re really supposed to believe that this — or the time traveling and visions — are something that could actually be achieved, but there is that tenuous connection anchored in reality that I think is interesting.

    We have so many blurred lines then between reality and fantasy that are blurred in instant to instant and on this larger thematic level too that it reminded me a bit of some of the descriptions we’ve read about the sensational novels of the 1860s, and that they were anchored in fears and anxieties of the time even though what was actually happening in them was completely over the top. I wonder if any of the events or themes in The Lifted Veil were representative of Victorian’s fears and concerns about what they were discovering in time and science. I know we’ve seen more exploring rather than straightforward anxieties, but I do think it is interesting to consider if time has become so vast, does it truly make one feel as if every action performed is meaningless, like Latimer seems to feel? What sorts of ethics need to be considered with the possibilities opened by science?

    Overall, it’s been interesting to consider how keeping one foot in reality and the other in fiction helps us to explore the minds of the audiences who would have been reading them.


  4. Jordan Osterman says:

    As a left-brained thinker, I really appreciated in your work, Chelcy, the quantitative approach you took to time in “The Lifted Veil;” having distinct categories of quantified, ambiguous and unraveled time was a great grounding for the exploration of a story with very fluid representations of time. As a modern observer looking to contextualize this chaotic jumping ahead and back in time throughout the story, I thought it was very fitting you created order out of that with counting and categorizing the “types of time” Eliot uses. This was a great way to address the point that Mark Turner made in “Periodical Time in the Nineteenth Century” that “there are different ‘kinds’ of time” due to the speeding up of the Victorian world thanks to things like the telegraph, and also a slowing down of time thanks to the better contextual sense of human history provided by emerging science.

    I was also fascinated by your notion that “unlike our modern understanding of time as a fixed, global, and standardized unit, conceptions of time were still in development for Eliot’s readers.” While I found myself very much recognizing and agreeing with the latter part of that idea, I can’t help but think that – despite the fact we do have more standardized time across the globe today than there were in the 19th century – we still experience very different kinds of time that are far from fixed, particularly with and from media. While periodicals both reflected and helped form Victorian time, we now have an even greater range of “time formation” from our written media: social media (second-by-second definitions of time), Internet journalism (constantly changing), newspapers (daily and weekly) and magazines (monthly). While none of us have the gift/curse of foresight like the doomed protagonist of “The Lifted Veil,” I think we are all in the midst of the same chaotic time formation that he and other Victorian-era residents were experiencing.


  5. Andrea Stewart says:

    Chelcy, I really love the point you’re making about time here. As you noted, Victorians were obsessed with the notion of time and how it could be quantified, regulated, and presented. I think what Eliot captures really nicely in her novella is this sense of what you label as “unraveled time,” a version of time that presents a direct threat to the Victorian need “to control the means of organizing time “in order to “have the power to control [their] lives,” as expressed on page 186 in Mark Turner’s article “Periodical Time in the 19th Century.” Eliot’s unraveled time gives the Victorian reader a sense that time cannot simply be seen as a neat, continuous, and countable flow, but rather argues for the impression of time’s simultaneity. For example, the two passages that you explore of Latimer’s visions contain three kinds of time which exist concurrently: past, present, and future.

    This sense of existing in a time that is “before,” “after,” and “now” is Eliot’s attempt to disrupt the Victorian reader’s existing notions about control – no individual has it, least of Latimer who’s present moment is continually interrupted by his visions of both past (the ancient city of Prague) and future (his introduction to and eventual marriage with Bertha). The Victorian reader might similarly be drawn back and forth into the past and future, in the present moment of actually reading the story in the periodical.

    Given that in Kaari’s post we see Mary Braddon explores this same kind of simultaneous time in “Aurora Floyd” through the passage on page 147 where Archibald Floyd thinks of his past marriage and his dead wife as well as the future happiness of his daughter’s upcoming marriage in the present moment of a horse race, this idea of simultaneously existing time must have been a popular idea to explore for Victorian authors. Whereas Braddon takes it a step further and directly addresses the reader by appealing to them to think of a time when they, too, have embarked on this non-linear thought process, Eliot plays it rather safely, and as you note, Chelcy, has her passage “quickly move out of its dreamy, unraveled time and back into real time, movement, and familiar spaces.” The reader is teased with another way of thinking about time if they so choose, but is also safely returned to their established norms of time’s linear, continuous flow if they do not. Either way, both authors are putting out an appeal to reading audiences to think critically about their existing notions of time and how past, present, and future can concurrently interact with each other. A really great and thought-provoking post, Chelcy!


  6. Rachel Busse says:

    Chelcy, this is such an interesting post, and I especially love what that you took a quantitative approach. There’s something so valuable in actually being able to track the entirety of a story in a single image—the shifts and patters throughout the story are really illuminated in a way that it might take a few hours to figure out and track if just reading through. In using this sort of approach, you’ve done quite a lot of legwork for your readers, and I for one definitely appreciate it!
    I’m struck with how you describe unraveled time—a departure from realistic or normal time that often ends in a sudden jolt. Unraveled time has a dreamlike quality to it that we can’t stay in forever. In Latimer’s case, this is often associated with the supernatural or paranormal, but today I think an analogy can be made between this unraveled time and our own sense of a flow state. Flow state happens in those moments where we get so engrossed in a task—be it reading, writing, even entering data or cleaning something—that time seems to suddenly pass by rapidly. For many of us that are book lovers, this flow state comes pretty quickly when reading, as we suddenly find ourselves transported almost out of time entirely. When considering this in context of the Victorian era and before, it seems relevant to note that before clocks and watches and even church bells and such made quantified time readily available, identifying how much time had gone by in general would have been difficult, whether in flow state or not. I have to wonder if this would have made getting into that flow easier or harder. On one hand, it seems like it would be easier to reach that state of productivity if not distracted by our constant ability to watch the minutes tick by; on the other hand, it might create the compulsions to measure time in other ways (the time it takes to cook a meal, scrub the floor, write a letter, etc.) I suppose I am simply wondering if a hyper-awareness of time passing is a fully modern thing, or if the motion of the sun in the sky/other ways of measuring time pre-clocks might have been anxiety inducing as well.


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