Meegan Kennedy, “‘A True Prophet’? Speculation in Victorian Sensory Physiology and George Eliot’s ‘The Lifted Veil’” (pp. 369–403)
George Eliot’s novella “The Lifted Veil” (1859) is often considered an outlier in Eliot’s realist corpus, perhaps due to its focus on controversial theories of mind (phrenology, animal magnetism) and physical medicine (blood transfusion, human experiment, reanimation). The story draws on a tradition of Gothic medicine long recognized in the romantic novel but less acknowledged in histories of clinical medicine. As this essay shows, however, mid-Victorian clinicians and researchers accepted speculative cases of hyperaesthesia, prevision, and telepathy as a path for skeptical neurological inquiry. The textbooks of physicians like John Hughes Bennett, William Carpenter, John Elliotson, Henry Holland, and Forbes Winslow codified a range of sensational phenomena, circulating cases like Latimer’s and considering both natural and supernatural explanations for them. The events in “The Lifted Veil” are thus more realistic than they may appear; and the story extends rather than interrupts the trace of science in Eliot’s early fiction. In Latimer’s story, Eliot plays with the boundaries of Victorian physiology, neurology, and cardiology and expands our view of what both Victorian science and realism accommodate. “The Lifted Veil” performs and invites the same dual movement that mid-Victorian scientists were developing, a two-step of speculation and skepticism. As in Eliot’s other work, the analogy with scientific inquiry grounds the story’s moral, aesthetic, and epistemological concerns about human knowledge. Finally, these oddities of Victorian nerve physiology paradoxically allow Eliot to make a familiar realist argument, for this sensational story celebrates ordinary life as rare and valuable.