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The Gothic Undead: a 19th-Century Interpreation(18 May 2015)
By Ms Emily Zarka
We have officially entered in the Victorian period in this week’s blog post with George Eliot’s Gothic novella, The Lifted Veil. Published in 1859, this text was a major departure from Eliot’s previous (and more famous) works. Latimer, who self-identifies that he has the “gift” of clairvoyance, tells the narrative. He develops an attraction to his brother’s mysterious finance, Bertha. After his brother’s sudden death, Latimer weds Bertha himself, much to his later regret.
I would argue that this novella constitutes an early representation of the “urban Gothic.” The narrative does not take place in an earlier time period, nor does it involve aristocracy or a castle in some way. However, it does involve a clash of socioeconomic groups, a battle between genders, and a “haunted house” in the form of a dark and dreary London townhome.
Like other undead texts, the outwardly beautiful exterior of the risen corpse hides the inner decay. The attractive undead body is most often associated with vampires today, but as I noted in my previous post, only looking at the modern interpretations of the characters does a disservice to the literary history of the undead. As The Lifted Veil demonstrates, undead characters cannot be easily slotted into one of two categories (vampire or zombie) nor should they be. Bertha is beautiful, a “tall, slim willowy figure” with blond hair, pale grey “fatal” eyes, and small features. She first encounters Latimer in a pale green dress with green leaves circling her hair. These images remind him of a “Water-Nixie” that had been birthed from “some cold, sedgy stream” (Eliot 11-12). Common in Germanic mythology, the nixie possessed the ability to shape shift and was commonly associated with the traits (or even the body) of a dragon, or alternatively, the horse (seen with the Scottish kelpie). Similar to the mermaid, these river dwelling creatures were not inherently evil, were associated with heartbreak (as they commonly abandoned their seduced human lovers) and like sirens, would try to lure people into the water. While I have not found any connection to the undead with the nixie (in all its iterations), the evocation of these folkloric creatures only adds to the overall supernatural tone of Eliot’s novella, and marks Bertha as nonhuman.
Eliot additionally appears to allude to another mythological creature. When Bertha’s dress is noted, she is always wearing green, even on her wedding day, and possesses another signature adornment—an emerald serpent broach. Associated with jealousy and poison the green color palette coupled with the snake/dragon pin brings to mind other supernatural beings, including the lamia. The lamia evocations are of particular importance to my undead obsession, and its application to this text. In ancient Greek mythology this creature was actually a queen who became a child-devouring demon after angering Hera for her relationship with Zeus. In Renaissance interpretations, Lamia has the body of a serpent and the head of a woman. These monstrous women are similar to vampires and succubi in that they often appear as beautiful women and crave some physical consumption of the human body (flesh or blood).
John Keats uses the lamia character in a poem he wrote in 1819 (“Lamia”) in which a woman is trapped in the body of a serpent. It is possible that Elliot was aware of the folklore surrounding this supernatural woman, utilizing its imagery in her narrative.
I am not the only one to argue for Bertha as a supernatural undead being. In Victorian Ghosts in the Noontide: Women Writers and the Supernatural, Vanessa Dickerson argues for the establishment of Bertha as a vampire, although she defines this as those who “seek power through other women, or else one [who] uses their own power to fail with the weapons of negative emotion” (98). It is not clear what kind of vampire Bertha might be, for although we do not have any depictions of her drinking blood, she does seem to feed on the negative emotions of others. She is intimately connected to all of the deaths in the novella, suggesting that she is somehow benefitting from sucking the life from Latimer, her maid, and her original fiancé Alfred. But whether or not she is feeding on the blood or on the life force of her victims is insignificant in relation to her participation as a Gothic body. Either way, she is othered, she is unnatural, and she is otherworldly.
Bertha’s maid, Mrs. Archer also toes the boundaries of life and death in an interesting way in the story. The woman becomes ill following an argument with her mistress. Mrs. Archer is declared dead, but and brought back to life through a blood transfusion directly into her neck. Upon awakening from death, she points to Bertha and claims that she means to murder Latimer (Eliot 42). Here we have the truth-telling corpse, another important facet to the undead legend. Many times in the literature of these creatures, the dead rise in order to seek revenge or reveal an important truth. I also find the choice to give Mrs. Archer the blood transfusion straight to the neck an interesting choice that alludes to more “traditional” undead creation via vampire bite.
This moment provokes Latimer to identify his wife in a very different way. Looking at her standing by the head of her maid, he says that her “features at that moment” appear to be “preternaturally sharp, the eyes were so hard and eager—she looked like a cruel immortal, finding her spiritual feast in the agonies of a dying race” (Eliot 41). Although there are a slew of interpretations for this identification of Bertha as a “new race” (changing role of women, destruction of the working class, infiltration of the foreign, etc.), of most importance to my argument is the use of “immortal.” Given her physical appearance and the trail of mysterious deaths that follow her, for me this description solidifies Berthas as supernatural.
Mrs. Archer’s “death” scene in The Lifted Veil is yet another example of how developing science and technology contribute to the Gothic and undead legend alike. Blood transfusions are an important transformative moment. In more modern undead narratives, this intravenous method of delivering blood is equally important. In the 1987 American vampire movie Near Dark, two vampires are cured of their affliction with a transfusion of blood, making them fully alive, and fully human again. The even more recent South Korean vampire film Thirst (2009) bears more of a resemblance to The Lifted Veil in that the creation of the undead priest is accidentally caused by a tainted transfusion. All of these transfusions are examples of the “life changing” power of blood transfusion. As The Lifted Veil, Thirst, and Near Dark illustrate, the transformative power of blood can take away life (turning one undead), or restore it (“curing” the body).
Using the Gothic in her own way, repurposing its tropes, ultimately Eliot uses The Lifted Veil as a Gothic cautionary fairytale disguised as a mystery, utilizing the power of the female inhuman to elevate the text’s narrative impact, and providing yet another reference point for the undead.
Dickerson, Vanessa D. Victorian Ghosts in the Noontide: Women Writers and the Supernatural. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri, 1996.
Eliot, George, Helen Small, and George Eliot. The Lifted Veil ; Brother Jacob. Oxford, England: Oxford UP, 1999.