- Poison, Sensation, and Secrets in The Lifted Veil
George Eliot's realist novels regularly deal with dysfunctional families and marital conflict,1 often linking personal and familial problems with secrecy and deception. The Lifted Veil, a dark horror story published in 1859 in Blackwood's, initially appears to be inconsistent with the rest of Eliot's oeuvre. Yet, as critical attention to the novella has shown,2 The Lifted Veil reflects many themes in Eliot's fiction, including a concern with domestic secrets. In Eliot's only full-length piece written from a first-person perspective, her narrator, Latimer, reveals the secrets of his marriage to Bertha and exposes the domestic anxieties present throughout the text. These anxieties finally erupt when Bertha's maid, Mrs. Archer, is reanimated long enough to disclose the plot to poison Latimer:
"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?"(65)
Although Mrs. Archer's accusation is revelatory, poison is present in The Lifted Veil long before this "exposure." Written when poisoning crimes were becoming increasingly sensationalized in the press, The Lifted Veil participates in the cultural debates about poison; therefore, a critical analysis of poison's function in the text is important for understanding Eliot's engagement with Victorian crime narratives. The domestic nature of most poisoning crimes and poison's long connection with secrecy caused it to become a Victorian symbol of domestic violence and deception. Secret poisoning was a locus of anxiety, particularly when associated with women and domesticity. A consideration of poison's significance in the Victorian imagination provides insight into the text's cultural influences and into The Lifted Veil's anticipation of the sensational genre that followed its publication. The novella's treatment of Bertha also reflects sensational journalism's construction of poisoning women as deceptive, dangerous, and subversive. A focus on Bertha and her association with poison therefore illuminates how the revelation of secrets, through Latimer's narration, dismantles the subversive power of the poisoning woman and protects the sanctity of the domestic sphere.
Critical attention has passed over the significance of poison in The Lifted Veil, despite its pervasive presence.3 The recent interpretive trend has been to [End Page 203] identify blood transfusion as the novella's most sensational scene. Beryl Gray posits that "the climax" of the story is the "revivification experiment involving the transfusion of blood direct from the experimenter into the neck vein of the corpse" (407). Kate Flint calls the blood transfusion the novella's most "fascinating scene" (461); however, she also argues that the blood transfusion would not have seemed impossible or bizarre to a mid-nineteenth century audience. If, as Flint claims, Victorians would not have seen the blood transfusion as a horrifying experiment of pseudo-science, then the real tension in the story is the exposure of poisoning the transfusion makes possible. There is also evidence that Eliot did not consider the blood transfusion the highlight of her work. Upon hearing the news that a French painter had translated the revivification onto canvas, she remarked, "Perhaps that hits the dominant French taste more than anything else of mine" (The George Eliot Letters 7: 163)4. Shifting the critical attention away from the blood transfusion allows us to focus on poison in the text, examining how its powerful force must be neutralized to preserve the illusion of a safe domestic sphere.
In a cover story for the Illustrated Times in 1856, the author argues that "there are fashions in crime as in everything else" (1) and that the current fad is poisoning. With scientific advances that made poison both inexpensive and easy to administer, poisoning deaths increased during the nineteenth century, leading newspapers to declare a poisoning "epidemic." Between 1839 and 1849, the Times reported 151 men and women accused of attempted murder or murder by poisoning. Of these years, the last, 1849, was reported to be the most active, with 13 accused poisoners on trial. These numbers are not large compared...