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‘Making audible to one a roar of sound where others find perfect stillness’: Soundscape in George Eliot’s The Lifted Veil and the physiological acoustics

« Making audible to one a roar of sound where others find perfect stillness » : le paysage sonore dans The Lifted Veil de George Eliot au prisme de l’acoustique physiologique
Lilia Miroshnychenko


L’article s’interroge sur la façon dont les concepts en matière d’acoustique physiologique rappelés et développés par Hermann von Helmholtz, physicien allemand dont la figure gagna en popularité à partir du milieu du xixe siècle, pourraient trouver une pertinence dans les premiers textes de George Eliot. La théorie de la résonance sous-tend le paysage sonore de The Lifted Veil (1859), redéfinissant la fonction du son dans le texte de plusieurs manières : comme dispositif littéraire, définition des personnages, instrument narratif et à bien d’autres titres. Cette théorie est en définitive un composant essentiel de l’impératif moral de sympathie prôné par l’auteure victorienne.

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1While it is the consensus view that Victorian writers and artists were attracted by the contemporaneous scientific discoveries and the new technologies, the question in what way this attraction influenced their works has given impetus to a constantly growing body of scholarship providing the possible answers. Collectively, they also represent a consolidated attempt to provide for a somewhat renewed vision of the Victorian period, in particular, in its connection to the aesthetics of the twentieth century modernist artists whose emphasis on technologies was conceptual.

  • 1 A seminal work, concerned with the complex ways in which science and technologies are assimilated i (...)

2Recent studies on George Eliot testify to the inspirational, fertilising power of the exact sciences for her fictional project.1 They empowered the Victorian writer with the new instruments in fictionalising the reality.

3My analysis of the impact of sciences and technologies of sound on George Eliot’s treatment of sound in The Lifted Veil picks up John M. Picker’s argument on the consequences of the technological discoveries of the nineteenth century on the literary discourse in his 2003 book, Victorian Soundscapes. ‘[E]xamin[ing] the close relationship between Victorian sciences and technologies of sound, on the one hand, and literary and cultural representations of sound, voice, and hearing, on another’ (Picker 7), he identifies the affinity between the literary and the technological in Victorian literature, in particular, in the works of Charles Dickens, Alfred Tennyson, and George Eliot, thus emphasising the importance of hearing in each particular version of the affinity. Moreover, these authors represent the voices of the age commonly regarded as the ‘age of auscultation’.

4Acknowledging Eliot’s ‘growing interest in epistemologies of sound’, Picker claims that while it ‘recurs throughout her writing’, ‘in the later stages of her work’ it ‘takes on special meaning’ (Picker 84). This special meaning comes as a consequence of Eliot’s fascination with the books by Hermann von Helmholtz, a German physicist, the author of the resonant theory. Victorians developed the interest in his ideas since the midst of the century, as Picker explains. In the 1850s and 1860s, John Tyndall delivered lectures on sound at the Royal Institution, bringing these pioneer ideas to Britain. Some time later, from the early 1870s, James Sully published a series of articles in The Fortnightly Review and The Westminster Review, popularising the continental discovery. Yet Picker does not suggest a strictly Helmholtzian basis for Eliot’s treatment of sound, and in this, one needs to note, he is in tune with the mainstream of the existing critical narrative. For while it is agreed that the Helmholtzian resonant theory had influenced Eliot’s fiction after the 1860s, there is nonetheless hardly any consensus on the extent of it. Nor is such affinity delineated in the author’s early writing.

5In this article, I want to interrogate in what way the research in acoustics summed up and further developed by Helmholtz in his 1863 book defines the function of sound in Eliot’s early text. But prior to that I will outline the dual function of sound in the text—as a means of constructing the key character and narrative strategy.

Sound as a Literary Device and Means of Characterisation

  • 2 The George Eliot Letters. Ed. Gordon S. Haight, 9 vols. New Haven: Yale UP, 1954-78. iii. 41.

6George Eliot has gained her reputation as one of the prominent Victorian novelists through the creation of long-length prose filled with social mores. Her first novel, Adam Bede, completed in 1858, was a huge critical success. In the early months of 1859 she wrote her short work, The Lifted Veil. It was first published in Blackwood’s Magazine in June of that year, which is seven years before Felix Holt (1866), and thirteen before Middlemarch (1872). Yet it stands somewhat apart; in Eliot’s own definition, The Lifted Veil was ‘a slight story of autre kind’.2 George Henry Lewes found the story ‘very striking and original’. The first critical responses ‘were, predictably, mixed’, and soon ‘[t]he story was in the main neglected, on occasion frankly disparaged’ for well over a hundred years until 1985 when Beryl Gray published her Afterword to accompany the 1985 Virago edition of The Lifted Veil (Small  xi). Ever since that date, this early text has been put alongside the rest of the writer’s oeuvre.

7The novella narrates the story of a young man, Latimer, who is endowed with a heightened sense of hearing which defines his relations with people and eventually his own life. The narrative in many ways responds to the protagonist’s sensitive nature as he is also its narrator.

8The character is predominantly grasped from inside, and the first-person retrospective narration presents him as an evolving and dynamic personality. He is not a conventional figure; while possessing virtues, attributive to a young fellow of the Victorian middle classes, such as prudence, chastity, meekness, self-discipline, he yet possesses exceptional talents which thrust him above average in the society and at the same time look like aberration. He hears voices as a result of intruding involuntarily into the world of other people’s minds—this being a preternatural ability, which, as it grows, becomes both irresistible and unbearable. The character’s sensitivity by no means makes him richly individuated.

9Furthermore, he transgresses the norm by breaking the gender affinity. With Latimer, George Eliot subverts the conventional attributes of the genders with regard to sensibility which was then applicable predominantly to women—what’s more, in the story it is a man who is sensitised most. Indeed, in this character Eliot is more concerned with the specific rather than the typical or universal. And this is a sign of Romanticism which prefers the particular over the general. Yet we will go astray if we consider Latimer a character without context; on the contrary, he is inseparable from his social environment as long as he does things ‘rigorously demanded of a rich Englishman’. His degree of independence from the society is quite high, and this autonomy is authorised by his unique talent. One may say that, bearing the features of a romantic character and having a horrifying story to tell, Latimer echoes Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner. However psychologically subtle, even psychoanalytical as he sometimes is, Latimer is also, to a certain degree, allusive of modernist characters whose individuated consciousness is often put at the epicentre of narrative—such as Marcel’s in M. Proust’s novel Du côté de chez Swann (1913) or Mrs. Dalloway’s in V. Woolf’s eponymous novel.

10The whole narrative is, so to speak, a dramatic self-display of the protagonist and the evolution of his sensibility, spanning from his childhood till when he is in his early twenties. It begins in medias res: the narrator informs the reader about his own imminent death as a consequence of angina pectoris. ‘The time of [his] end approaches’ unless he is ‘cursed with an exceptional physical constitution’ just as he is ‘cursed with an exceptional mental character’. The very same reason that inspires the man’s hope for the better, enables him to ‘foresee’ when he shall die, and ‘everything that will happen in his last moments’. Out of his ‘incessant insight’ and ‘foresight’ springs a very clear vision of the finale, described by the protagonist at length. The scene of death in the ‘agony of pain and suffocation’, which is to take place ‘just a month from this day, on September 20, 1850’, is represented in a horrifying scene of physical suffering in solitude in (surprisingly!) a quite populated house (two servants, a housekeeper, and a scullery-maid). Albeit Latimer rings a bell, nobody responds.

11That the protagonist’s vision of his own death is true is ensured just at the close of the novella, ending with the unfinished sentence written by the man on the 20th of September. Before this happens, he wishes to use his ‘last hours of ease’ to tell ‘the strange story of [his] experience’, and explains why:

I have never fully unbosomed myself to any human being; I have never been encouraged to trust much in the sympathy of my fellow-men. But we have all a chance of meeting with some pity, some tenderness, some charity, when we are dead: it is the living only who cannot be forgiven—the living only from whom men’s indulgence and reverence are held off, like the rain by the hard east wind. While the heart beats, bruise it—it is your only opportunity.

12As seen from the quote, not only is he driven by the will to ‘unbosom himself’, he also seeks ‘sympathy’, ‘pity’, ‘tenderness’ and ‘charity’. Apart from psychological and ethical, the story-telling has also a distinct aesthetic value; the epithet ‘strange’ in the ‘strange story of my experience’ is Latimer’s narrative strategy aimed at attracting the reader with something worth listening, interesting. However the narrator is, in his own words, deprived of any writer’s ambitions: ‘I shall leave no works behind me for men to honour’. Straightforward are also his expectations with regard to the readers: ‘[to] win a little more sympathy from strangers when [he is] dead, than [he] ever believed it would obtain from [his] friends while [he] was living’. The readers are thus strangers who, unlike friends, are capable of sympathising. Thereby Eliot invites readers, behind Latimer’s back, to contemplate the nature of human sufferings: how they appear, evolve and also how they vibrate in other people’s souls.

13Latimer’s ‘strange story’ begins in childhood. Looking back into his past, the narrator selects those episodes which bear a profound sensuality. Self-defined as ‘a very sensitive child’, he refers to tactile (tenderness of his mother, very Proustian, indeed) and sonic sensations of his early years:

I remember still the mingled trepidation and delicious excitement with which I was affected by the tramping of the horses on the pavement in the echoing stables, by the loud resonance of the groom’s voices, by the booming bark of the dogs as my father’s carriage thundered under the archway of the courtyard, by the din of the gong as it gave notice of luncheon and dinner. The measured tramp of soldiery which I sometimes heard [. . .] made me sob and tremble.

14Presented in an amplifying manner, the soundscape of his childhood in just this example conspicuously anticipates his exceptional hearing when older.

15Latimer’s sensitivity is dramatically contrasted with his father’s sense. He is a banker, one of the most successful men in the money-getting world, who with his practical mind considered education in exact sciences a proper choice for both his sons. In retrospect, Latimer points at his distress at being schooled in sciences; so while tutors taught him zoology, botany, mathematics and physics, his own choice would have been art and literature (reading Plutarch, Shakespeare, and Cervantes) or contemplating Nature. Later, at the age of sixteen, during his studies in Geneva, he got fascinated with Rousseauist practices: ‘I used to do as Jean Jacques did—lie down in my boat and let it glide where it would, while I looked up at the departing glow leaving one mountain-top after the other, as if the prophet’s chariot of fire were passing over them on its way to the home of light’. The young boy’s sensitivity, aversion for sciences and a contemplating mind eventually stopped his father from troubling himself about Latimer’s career to invest time and efforts in a far more promising older son, Alfred.

16Latimer becomes very fond of poetry, and as his sensitivity evolves he is gradually prepared to recognise ‘the poet’s nature’ in himself and pay tribute to the great poets of the past—Homer, Dante, Milton, and Novalis—masters of spontaneous creations. His own sensitivity is of a dual nature–visionary and auditory as he discovers that he can hear voices of other people’s minds around: they ‘would force themselves on [his] consciousness like an importunate, ill-played musical instrument, or the loud activity of an imprisoned insect’. These importunate insights are fitful, so in the meantime he relishes silence. Numerous episodes of the protagonist’s involuntary overhearing become part of the narrated story. Depending on the impact they had on his life, he labels them differently: ‘my pride’, ‘exultation’, ‘my diseased sensibility’ or even ‘exquisite tortures of sensitiveness, that had made the web of [his] life’. It was wearying if it was about the trivial experience of indifferent people; it brought pain and grief—if it was about those who were in a close relation to him—for when they were ‘seen as if thrust asunder by a microscopic vision’, ‘all [their] intermediate frivolities, all the suppressed egoism, all the struggling chaos of puerilities, meanness, vague capricious memories, and indolent make-shift thoughts’—were unveiled to Latimer. Voices he heard not only affected his relationship with others, they turned ruinous to his picture of the world as long as sinister motifs behind people’s deeds resulted in the protagonist’s disappointment and despair about mankind on the whole.

17Latimer’s ‘new gift’ causes him physical torments. This is dramatically illustrated in the episode with the family’s courier. As the narrator explains, when the courier approached, ‘stream of thought rushed upon [him] like a ringing in the ears not to be got rid of, though it allowed [his] own impulses and ideas to continue their uninterrupted course. It was like a preternaturally heightened sense of hearing, making audible to one a roar of sound where others find perfect stillness’. This ‘ringing in the ear’ is both physical and metaphorical. Obviously loud sounds function as a literary device to represent the extent of disgust caused by ‘involuntary intrusions’ into people’s minds. Latimer’s passion for a young lady, Bertha, becomes his only escape. (The relationship between Latimer and Bertha I will intentionally leave aside as it offers many issues to ponder upon and I will further focus on the aspect of soundscape).

18Part 2 is less noisy than part 1, for while in part 1 Latimer manifested the preternatural ability to amplify sounds, in part 2 he demonstrates the ability to hush sounds or dumb them in building relationships, as in the case of flirtation with Bertha followed by their marriage after his brother’s death. Madly in love with the young lady, a 21-year old Latimer is fully devoted to his beloved. A shift in the narratorial interest from inward to outward in the second part is the result of the new routine—that of a married man, in the whirl of society.

19By the end of the seventh year Latimer lost his gift. It was a big relief, but not for a long time—‘the curse of insight’ came back. In search of remedy, he approaches science, epitomised in the novella by Charles Meunier, his old friend since the Geneva student time. When the servant-maid dies of peritonitis, Meunier performs revivification, wherein he injects his own blood into the diseased woman. Latimer, observing Charles making his experiment, notices that the man was so absorbed, that ‘his senses would have been closed against all sounds or sights which had no relation to it’. Alas, life for him was no more than a scientific problem. The irony about the outcome of the experiment was that the diseased woman was brought to life long enough for her to unveil the truth about Bertha, who meant to poison her husband. The reactions of the participants of this scene are again related to sound: Bertha’s ‘stifled cry’ manifests her fear, while Latimer’s amusement at what it is to live again is nothing else but ‘unuttered curses rising to our lips’—the sound of revenge, although not pronounced.

20At the novella’s close, the protagonist demonstrates a weak longing for life. The ending suggests that he ultimately abdicates the role of a married man. Isolated in a remote place in Devonshire instead, he regains independence ‘till at last disease took hold of [him] and forced [him] to rest [there]—forced [him] to live in dependence on [his] servants’. In his last moments he is likely to be more aware of ‘the pathos’ of his own lot, earlier acknowledged as the lot of a being ‘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’. This awareness of the tragic course of events in one’s own life and restricted, if any at all, authority in changing it invite the reader to sympathise with Latimer.

Latimer’s Narrative ‘Ear’

21Latimer’s exceptional power of hearing, dubbed as clairaudience by Murray Schafer, a pioneering figure in the soundscape studies in the 1970s (Schafer 8), is crucial to the crafting of the novella’s narrative. It is the act through which, to a large extent, the story unfolds. Throughout the novella, readers access the events through what Latimer hears or provisions. Furthermore, hearing guides the novella’s narration.

22In his classical work, Narrative Discourse, Gérard Genette theorised the concept of focalisation, distinguishing between ‘who sees’ and ‘who speaks’ (Genette 186). According to Genette, Latimer is the character ‘who sees’—quite an ambiguous definition for somebody, who is volens-nolens a grotesque hearer. Years later, William Nelles, inspired by the French theorist, suggested a typology of focalisation by five modes of perception: ocularisation (sight), auricularisation (sound), gustativisation (taste), olfactivisation (smell), and tactivisisation (touch) (Nelles, 75–89).

23The narrative of The Lifted Veil is, of course, predominantly oriented through aural perception. Focalisation by sound relies on the protagonist’s sound ability to sensitise reality. Latimer’s registering of sounds he hears thus controls his narrative ‘eye’. Furthermore, the novella’s narrative is related to focalisation by sight, or to be more precise, by a visionary sight of Latimer inasmuch as he is disposed to many visions, including those which are directly related to his own life.

24So what kind of narrator is Latimer? As a homodiegetic narrator, who participates as a character in the story, he cannot know more about other characters than what their actions reveal. But as a hearer and clairvoyant, he is aware of other people’s hidden intentions and motives, actions they will take—he, thus, describes the experiences of the characters that appear in the story in which he does not participate, which is the quality attributed to a heterodiegetic narrator. Formally, this, so to speak, dual status should grant the narrator privilege of omniscience but in fact it does not, and numerous textual lacunas and semantic gaps prove that. There is an undeniably important difference between them: describing the experiences of the characters that appear in the story, in which he does not participate, Latimer demonstrates, most of the time, reluctance. And there are two reasons for that; firstly, even though he is aware of the impending actions, he often lacks knowledge to explain them, and secondly, the narrator’s self-centricity holds off all the other selves and, consequently, he restrains from being an evaluative unbiased analyst. He demonstrates his partiality, probably at most, in describing his relations with Bertha—first through the prism of idealistic adoration which is soon followed by hate. In what way and to what degree this partiality may be regarded as a result of the Victorian gender stereotypes is explored in the landmark feminist perspective of the story provided by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar (‘Made Keen by Loss: George Eliot’s Veiled Vision’).

25One more issue with regard to the narrator’s engagement with sound: it can be conscious—verbal, but also unconscious, when it is inscribed on his body: he feels unwell, faints, feels dizzy, etc. The emotional weight gradually exhausts his body. As he confesses, ‘We learn ‘words’ by rote, but not their meaning; ‘that’ must be paid for with our life-blood, and printed in the subtle fibres of our nerves’. However, the emotional response, articulated by his body, is not always deciphered by Latimer himself—then it is the reader’s part to do so.

Physiological Acoustics ‘Unveiled’

26I will now proceed to the final part, attempting to explicate the impact of the scientific knowledge in acoustics on George Eliot’s early writing, particularly, how it informs the soundscape of The Lifted Veil. This certainly requires a number of explanations as regards the theory of sound itself, and for that I invoke, considerably, John Picker’s comments and clarifications.

27In 1856, when Hermann von Helmholtz began his work on acoustics, George Eliot began writing fiction—coincidentally, of course, not to mention they were almost coevals. In seven years’ time the book on acoustics, ‘Die Lehre von den Tonempfindungen’, was completed. Twelve years after that, in 1875, the third edition of the book was translated into English by Alexander J. Ellis, ‘On the Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music’. In it, he formulated the resonance theory of hearing.

  • 3 George Eliot. The Journals of George Eliot. Ed. Margaret Harris and Judith Johnston. Cambridge: CUP (...)
  • 4 William Baker. The George Eliot—George Henry Lewes Library: An Annotated Catalogue of their Books a (...)

28It is established that George Eliot was familiar with the works by the German physicist. As evidence for this argument, scholars refer to the February 1869 entry in her notebook in which the writer mentioned about her reading Helmholtz: ‘I am reading about plants, and Helmholtz on music’.3 Apart from this explicit statement, it is also confirmed that, together with George Henry Lewes, she owned six books by the scholar.4 Yet none of them were published before 1859, the year of The Lifted Veil’s publication (the earliest were French edition of 1868 and three-volume collected lectures published between 1865 and 1876). This is enough to exclude a direct influence of the German physicist’s theoretical book on the author’s early fiction.

  • 5 Picker refers to Ernest G. Wever’s Theory of Hearing. NY: Dover, 1970, 10–33 and others.

29Yet many scholars reiterate that George Eliot might have got familiarised with the idea of sympathetic vibration beyond Helmholtz and thus before even reading him. She could have been inspired by the works of Galileo who was first to introduce the physical understanding of acoustical processes or by the articles of John Herschel and James Sully (Picker 177), to name just a few possible sources. Experts claim, Helmholtz was not the first to postulate the resonance theory of hearing,5 but he was the one to incorporate the contemporaneous principles and observations in mathematics, physiology and anatomy into the ideas known since Galileo (Picker 176). And what he theorised in his seminal work Eliot had already sensed in her early writing. This artistic anticipation of Helmholtzian ideas justifies the mode of affinities in relation to The Lifted Veil while the mode of ‘echoes’ is more appropriate as to the writer’s fiction after the 1860s.

30So, according to the resonance theory of hearing, all the musical tones are complex—they are composites of fundamental and upper partial tones. Helmholtz reasoned that stringed instruments could discern fundamental and partial tones through sympathetic vibration or resonance. Sympathetic vibrations occur when sound waves cause distant objects to sound at the same pitch. This feature of acoustics Helmholtz explained through the image of a piano: ‘Gently touch one of the keys of a pianoforte without striking the string, so as to raise the damper only, and then sing a note of the corresponding pitch forcibly directing the voice against the strings of the instrument. On ceasing to sing, the note will be echoed back from the piano’ (Helmholtz 61). The ear too is a resonant instrument or a resonator capable of separating compound notes in simple notes.

31As Picker explains, the definition of hearing as provided by Helmholtz was both revolutionary and aesthetic: ‘hearing, a form of sensory excitation by the external stimuli of sound waves, is nothing less than a bodily form of sympathetic vibration, and the ear a kind of microscopic Aeolian harp wired to the brain’ (Picker 87). This analogy is not only a simple explanation of the sophisticated phenomenon but also a beautiful trope suggesting a poetic nature of the renowned physicist, and it may as well be regarded as an eloquent example of cross-fertilisation of the exact sciences and arts.

32In his book, John Picker traces how the Helmholtzian resonant theory of hearing permeates George Eliot’s novel of 1876, Daniel Deronda—its narrative, characters, and relationships between heroes as well as ideas, which are central to this novel. Among them are: centrality of the problem of hearing to the novel’s structure, tonal sensitivity of characters, and ‘the metaphor of sympathetic attention engaged through sounds, music, or voice’ (Picker 88).

33Tracing the affinities between the Helmholtzian ideas and George Eliot’s treatment of sound in her early fiction, I outline the following four in The Lifted Veil.

  • 6 Charles-Édouard Brown-Séquard was a French physiologist and neurologist who achieved notoriety by r (...)

341. First of all, the readers of the story are well aware of the author’s masterful processing of the knowledge of the exact sciences (and pseudo-sciences) and transforming them into a source of imagery and tropes, as can be seen in these few examples selected from many. ‘Microscopic vision’ of talks and deeds of people in Latimer’s ‘superadded consciousness’ is a metaphor based on the idea of rendering visible the small objects invisible to the eye, which became possible one hundred years earlier. The main character’s ability to amplify ‘the silent roar of others’ thoughts and feelings’ is stethoscopic by essence. It is a literary figure borrowed from technological developments, namely the experiments with audition which started at the beginning of the 19th century and culminated in the invention of the first carbon microphone in 1878 by David Edward Hughes. Another example: the scene of revivification, performed by Meunier; it echoes a contemporary debate about transfusion and is reinforced through showing that the doctor had an actual prototype, Charles-Édouard Brown-Séquard.6

  • 7 More on that in Kate Flint’s article, ‘Blood, Bodies, and The Lifted Veil’. Nineteenth-Century Lite (...)

35George Eliot invoked scientific discoveries as well as alluded to the experiments which had distinct historical specificity and by so doing acknowledged her vibrant interest in the contemporary experimental science demonstrating its fertilising power for a work of literature.7

362. If the Victorian era ‘experienced a rise in close listening’ (Picker 6), Latimer, in an eccentric mode, encapsulated the historical shift from looking to listening. To trust Picker, ‘[f]or Eliot, the ear is the most deeply receptive organ, and the sound wave the most penetrative and conjunctive to the individual captive in the bounds of ego’ (88). This observation regarding the author’s later novel Daniel Deronda (1876), Helmholtzian by essence, is also true about The Lifted Veil’s narrative and structure of the main character.

37Latimer’s acute hearing refers to his exceptional perceptive abilities (to amplify ‘stillness’ of other people’s minds) but the unprecedented acoustic technological innovation of the time endows it with the broader connotations linking it to the Victorians’ growing interest in (hearing and listening to) sounds—writers and artists among them—as a source of inspiration but also as a technological breakthrough that promises more penetrating knowledge about oneself and the world.

38Yet, in Latimer’s case, acute hearing is represented as a contradictory practice which he first tries to get rid of but later returns to. Helmholtzian theory does not explain the protagonist’s exceptional hearing ability as long as what he hears is not only due to his aural perception but also to his ability to perceive the words which are not yet pronounced. While the narrator himself is incapable of embracing his preternatural ability in its origin, in the epigraph, when referring to ‘great Heaven’, and on the concluding page, when mentioning ‘the moving curtain of the earth and sky’, he points at its unearthly origin. And this character’s self-awareness of a wider than physical dimension of the aural exceptionalism can be fulfilled with the ideas of Charles Babbage, an English mathematician and inventor, defender of natural theology and the modern philosopher who over two decades before that, in his attempt to reconcile the scientific and the spiritual, had suggested a new kind of acoustic significance. Presenting this new aural philosophy in the 1837 treatise, The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise: A Fragment, Babbage claimed the temporal and spatial permanence of sounds (or aural waves): ‘The waves of air thus raised, perambulate the earth and ocean’s surface, and in less than twenty hours every atom of its atmosphere takes up the altered movement due to that infinitesimal portion of the primitive motion which has been conveyed to it through countless channels, and which must continue to influence its path throughout its future existence’ (Babbage 109). Babbage’s conception of vibrations, also known as the theory of vocal diffusion, emphasising the inevitable influence of words (‘the waves of air’) on people, is particularly relevant to Latimer’s case—what exactly renders sounds, which are absolutely inaudible to others, accessible to him, we may treat as a particular case of the aural permanence. Besides, the immortality of words and the ever-presence of sounds give promise of eternal life that Latimer is willing for. The inevitability of judgement and punishment can also justify a surprisingly moderate reaction of the man to his wife’s cruelty in the attempt to poison him.

393. Picker states that sound began to assume the status as ideal function that sight had earlier held. He also acknowledges that while in Deronda Eliot ‘fully demonstrated the new power of acoustics’, the shift had been apparent throughout her earlier fiction (91). It is, indeed, true of Latimer but not at full extent as the world of The Lifted Veil is sonic—sounding and hearing are excessive—but not exclusively; Latimer senses and responds to both—sounds and visions.

404. George Eliot’s doctrine of sympathy can also be related to the resonance theory.

41The so called quality of sympathetic resonance (or vibration or tonal sensitivity) is the characteristic of Daniel Deronda. Picker’s comments on one of Daniel and Gwendolen’s conversations is persuasive enough: ‘when the lady thinks to herself: “I wish he could know everything about me without me telling him” while Daniel’s quality of sympathetic resonance (or hearing) ensures that he, in essence, already does’ (98). So, if sympathetic vibration involves the following of another’s voice—physically or spiritually—Latimer is just another good example. He is a hearer who in his sensitivity to sympathetic vibrations of others becomes, like Daniel Deronda, ‘the resonant repository’ for ‘confessions’ of others. Latimer and Deronda, the characters belonging to the writer’s early and late writing, are both Helmholtzian resonators.

42In The Lifted Veil there is yet another resonant listener–the reader. The narrator seeks sympathy (or sympathetic resonance) by breaking silence and choosing the adequate voice—confessing and sincere. Ultimately, sound (waves) of the protagonist resonate with the reader’s self—this is the sympathy (resonance) Eliot cultivated. According to the Oxford Dictionary, sympathy is defined as feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune; understanding between people. It is also the state or fact of responding in a way similar or corresponding to an action elsewhere. The word comes from Greek sumpathēs, from sun- ‘with’ + pathos ‘feeling’. At the beginning of the story the narrator addresses his potential resonant listeners—i.e. the readers—to ‘feel with him’ as he bruises the hearts of stranger listeners by ‘lifting the veil’ of his tragic life and in so doing makes ‘completer manhood’.


43To conclude, approached from the perspective of the Victorian soundscape and contemporaneous sciences of sound, George Eliot’s The Lifted Veil demonstrates just another facet in the multitude of many, including individual psychologies, indebtedness to literary traditions, cultural conditioning, and the author’s own standpoint. The novella’s unique relationship to sound cannot be underscored; it is, first of all, a means of constructing the key character and plotting. Auricularisation (i.e. focalisation by sound) is critical to the story’s narrative strategies. Profiting from the interdisciplinary practices of recent years—first and foremost from John M. Picker’s scholarship—we found out that Hermann von Helmholtz’s core ideas are highly appropriable to George Eliot’s early writing. The affinities between Helmholtzian theory and The Lifted Veil’s aurally centered character and beyond are significant, yet the acoustical theory formulated by the German physicist operates in Eliot’s early text implicitly. What’s more, what he theorised in the 1863 book, On the Sensations of Tone, she had already sensed and manifested in her early fiction. However, the later in time the more powerful, explicit is George Eliot’s emphasis on sounds and the more pronounced is the anticipation of the modernist writers’ interest in acoustics and other sciences and technologies. And last but not least: the outlined soundscape and its relation to the scientific knowledge of the time also help to reconcile George Eliot’s early fiction with her classic works.

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Babbage, Charles. The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise: A Fragment. 1837. 2nd ed. London: John Murray, 1838.

Bailey, Peter. ‘Breaking the Sound Barrier’. Popular Culture and Performance in the Victorian City. Cambridge: CUP, 1998: 194–212.

Eliot, George. The Journals of George Eliot. Ed. Margaret Harris and Judith Johnston. Cambridge: CUP, 1998.

Eliot, George. The Lifted Veil. 1859. Accessed 10.01.2019.

Fleishman, Aurum. George Eliot’s Intellectual Life. Cambridge: CUP, 2010.

Genette, Gérard. Narrative Discourse: An Essay on Method. 1972. Trans. Jane E. Lewin. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1980.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. ‘Made Keen by Loss: George Eliot’s Veiled Vision’. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven, Conn: Yale UP, 1979. 443–77.

Helmholtz, Hermann L.F. On the Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music. 1875. Trans. Alexander J. Ellis. NY: CUP, 2011.

Nelles, William. Frameworks: Narrative Levels and Embedded Narrative. Frankfurt: Lang, 1997.

Picker, John M. Victorian Soundscapes. Oxford: OUP, 2003.

Schafer, Murray. Soundscapes and Earwitnesses. Hearing History. A Reader. Ed. Mark M. Smith. Athens: U of Georgia Press, 2004. 3–9.

Shuttleworth, Sally. George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Science: The Make-Believe of a Beginning. 1984. NY: CUP, 2009.

Small, Helen. ‘Introduction’. The Lifted Veil. Brother Jacob. Oxford: OUP. Ix–xxxvi.

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1 A seminal work, concerned with the complex ways in which science and technologies are assimilated in George Eliot’s fiction, is Sally Shuttleworth’s 1984 book George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Science: The Make-Believe of a Beginning. The analysis takes as a focus the writer’s involvement with organicist theory. A sampling of articles on this subject includes: Kate Flint, ‘Blood, Bodies, and The Lifted Veil’ (1997); Beryl Gray, ‘Pseudoscience and George Eliot’s The Lifted Veil’ (1982); Jill Galvan, ‘The Narrator as Medium in George Eliot’s The Lifted Veil’ (2006); Thomas Albrecht, ‘Sympathy and Telepathy: The Problem of Ethics in George Eliot’s The Lifted Veil’ (2006); Joy Johnson, ‘Print, Image, and the Cycle of Materiality in George Eliot’s The Lifted Veil’ (2007).

2 The George Eliot Letters. Ed. Gordon S. Haight, 9 vols. New Haven: Yale UP, 1954-78. iii. 41.

3 George Eliot. The Journals of George Eliot. Ed. Margaret Harris and Judith Johnston. Cambridge: CUP, 1998, 135.

4 William Baker. The George Eliot—George Henry Lewes Library: An Annotated Catalogue of their Books at Dr. Williams’s Library, London. NY: Garland, 1977, 91–92.

5 Picker refers to Ernest G. Wever’s Theory of Hearing. NY: Dover, 1970, 10–33 and others.

6 Charles-Édouard Brown-Séquard was a French physiologist and neurologist who achieved notoriety by reporting that he had ‘rejuvenated’ himself by subcutaneous injections of a fluid prepared from the testicles of freshly killed guinea pigs and dogs (Britannica).

7 More on that in Kate Flint’s article, ‘Blood, Bodies, and The Lifted Veil’. Nineteenth-Century Literature 51.4 (1997): 455–73. Another article exploring the influence of Eliot’s knowledge of pseudoscience on The Lifted Veil is Beryl Gray’s ‘Pseudoscience and George Eliot’s The Lifted Veil’. Nineteenth-Century Fiction 36.4 (1982): 407–23.

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Lilia Miroshnychenko, « ‘Making audible to one a roar of sound where others find perfect stillness’: Soundscape in George Eliot’s The Lifted Veil and the physiological acoustics »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 90 Automne | 2019, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2019, consulté le 05 avril 2020. URL :; DOI:

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Lilia Miroshnychenko

Lilia Miroshnychenko is a professor of world literature at Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv in Ukraine. She has published papers on British authors including Doris Lessing and William Golding. She is also one of the authors of History of Dutch Literature (2002). Her research and teaching interests include the contemporary British novel, relations between literature and philosophy, the history of literature, and Dutch literature. In 2015, she published the book Projections of Scepticism in the Modern British Novel, in which she attempts conceptualisation of modern literary scepticism, and demonstrates its complex nature, in both manifestations (projections) and origins. She is currently interested in the (post)-secular studies and the representations of belief and doubt in English literature.
Lilia Miroshnychenko est professeure de littérature comparée (britannique et néerlandaise) à l’Université nationale Taras Shevchenko de Kiev en Ukraine. Elle a publié de nombreux articles sur des auteurs de langue anglaise comme Doris Lessing et William Golding. Elle a également participé à une Histoire de la littérature néerlandaise (2002). Ses recherches et son enseignement portent sur le roman britannique contemporain, notamment sur les rapports entre littérature et philosophie, l’histoire de la littérature et la littérature néerlandaise. En 2015, elle a publié Projections of Scepticism in the Modern British Novel, ouvrage dans lequel elle propose une conceptualisation du scepticisme littéraire moderne tout en montrant sa complexité, à la fois dans ses manifestations (projections) et dans ses origines. Elle travaille actuellement dans le domaine des études post-séculières et des représentations de la croyance et du doute dans la littérature britannique.

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