The Lifted Veil

George Eliot

Published 1859


What is it about?

An old man consumed with bitterness and self pity, recounts the memory of how he met his partner.

How long is it?

100+ pages

Is it easy to read?

Partly. The style is Victorian horror and so the language is quite high English, but still very readable.  

Is it any good? 

Yes, a slightly different type of book though this week showing what the alternative looks like to living a life without the core values I promote. Most of the protagonists in our books so far have been good examples or at least had some redeeming qualities, Latimer is different.  

How will it inspire me?

The book is about how important it is to never identify as a victim.

Latimer is the son of a successful banker and an old man when we meet him. He is living off his father’s inheritance and has lived an entirely idle life. Although having no accomplishments to speak of Latimer attempts to tell ‘the story of my life that will perhaps win a little more sympathy from strangers when I am dead, than I ever believed it would obtain from my friends while I was living.’ He is completely consumed with self pity, believing himself to be fated with misfortune, even though his circumstances are all of his own making. He commits probably the biggest sin a man can, which is to take no responsibility for his own life.  

The story that he chooses to recount is of how he came to meet his wife Bertha. However he also relates how he is stricken with a mysterious illness which gives him the ability to read people’s minds, as well as see pieces of the future. Although this could be an attempt to win more pity, by claiming to be clairvoyant when really he just assumes what everyone else thinks about him. Claiming to know the future, also plays into his belief that he was destined to end up the way he is and had no control over it.

However there is one person whose mind he claims he cannot read, his brother’s partner Bertha. As the title suggests, there is a veil hiding her thoughts from him, so he projects on to her an unattainable ideal. She is something he knows he can’t have so he places her on a pedestal above himself and begins to obsess over her. His masochism is evident when he begins to delight in her mock tormenting of him and uses that as an excuse to plunge himself deeper into misery. However even when the two are wed he loses all interest in her, he has a beautiful wife and lives a privileged existence but shows no gratitude for any of it. He instead spends the rest of his life lamenting that she hasn’t lived up to his expectation of her.       

Latimer is a terrible warning of how badly you can screw up your life. He has no purpose and no guiding motivation, choosing instead to amuse himself with idle pleasures. He has no belief in himself, arguing that he was made for pity and sickness. He never learns anything of utility, so never improves himself and the only thing he ever persists in is the justification of his own misery. The story is a cautionary tale of how giving into bitterness, resentfulness and despair will not yield a good life.  

I felt the need to include this as after reading it again was amazed at how relevant to the modern era it is. It seems to be a condition that a lot of men fall into, (I myself was guilty of it when I was younger) believing that there are imagined phantoms preventing you from achieving the things you want and being ungrateful for the things you have. Many young men instead of taking control and bettering themselves seek power through victimhood and being offended by things. That is not an intelligent path to go down, which is what the book shows. Your life is your life, it’s the one thing you have control over, this is a lesson that Latimer doesn’t learn even in his old age.  

Choice lines:

-There is no need to dwell on this part of my life. I have said enough to indicate that my nature was of the sensitive, unpractical order, and that it grew up in an uncongenial medium, which could never foster it into happy, healthy development.

-The fluctuations of hope and fear, confined to this one channel, made each day in her [Bertha] presence a delicious torment. There was one deliberate act of hers which especially helped to intoxicate me.

-My self-consciousness was heightened to that pitch of intensity in which our own emotions take the form of a drama which urges itself imperatively on our contemplation, and we begin to weep, less under the sense of our suffering than at the thought of it.  I felt a sort of pitying anguish over the pathos of my own lot: the lot of a being finely organized for pain, but with hardly any fibres that responded to pleasure—to whom the idea of future evil robbed the present of its joy, and for whom the idea of future good did not still the uneasiness of a present yearning or a present dread.  I went dumbly through that stage of the poet’s suffering, in which he feels the delicious pang of utterance, and makes an image of his sorrows.

-It is to such as you [Latimer’s brother] that the good of this world falls: ready dullness, healthy selfishness, good-tempered conceit-these are the keys to happiness.

-And she made me believe that she loved me.  Without ever quitting her tone of badinage and playful superiority, she intoxicated me with the sense that I was necessary to her, that she was never at ease, unless I was near her, submitting to her playful tyranny.  It costs a woman so little effort to beset us in this way!  A half-repressed word, a moment’s unexpected silence, even an easy fit of petulance on our account, will serve us as hashish for a long while.  Out of the subtlest web of scarcely perceptible signs, she set me weaving the fancy that she had always unconsciously loved me better than Alfred

-I had still the human interest of wondering whether what I did and said pleased her, of longing to hear a word of affection, of giving a delicious exaggeration of meaning to her smile.

-I was too completely swayed by the sense that I was in the grasp of unknown forces, to believe in my power of self-release.  Towards my own destiny I had become entirely passive; for my one ardent desire had spent itself, and impulse no longer predominated over knowledge. 

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