Sunday 7 December 2014

Review: Poor Miss Finch, Wilkie Collins (1871-2)

Illustration from Poor Miss Finch

Writing in the 1880s, John Ruskin was dismissive about the merits of Collins’s Poor Miss Finch, summarising its plot as evidence of its ridiculousness: ‘the heroine is blind, the hero epileptic, and the obnoxious brother is found dead with his hands dropped off, in the Arctic region.’ He didn’t even think to mention that the epileptic hero, thanks to an (un-)healthy dose of Silver of Nitrate is now distinguishable from his otherwise identical twin brother through being bright blue (!). It’s one of those novels (like Allen’s What's Bred in the Bone which I reviewed a few months ago) which you can take great joy in telling people about, but the reading experience is a lot more uneven. So today I take you through the good, the bad and the ugly aspects of the much maligned (e.g. Ruskin) – and occasionally defended (see T.S. Eliot) - Poor Miss Finch. 

The Good: 
Most of Collins’s later novels call for social change (often around marriage and legitimacy laws) but this one is an exception. Its central subject is instead a study of blindness – the experience of living in the world having been unable to see since infancy and the relative desirability of recovering sight. Collins researched meticulously for the novel. The heroine and title character, Lucilla, is even given words taken almost directly from testimonies of blind patients in scientific literature so interested Collins is in examining the realities of this different kind of existence. Lucilla is a stronger character when blind – she does not seem disabled, but, with her acute sense of touch, differently abled. She is independent financially, practically and mentally, and willing to disregard stifling moral conventions to win the man she loves (“[Concealing love] is very hard on the women. If they feel it first, they ought to own it first.”). All of this changes when she can see the world (and see the eyes of the world on her). Easily duped, unhappy and uncertain, Lucilla is in no doubt which life she prefers (“My love lives in blindness!”).

The same attention to medical detail is even there with poor Oscar’s complexion-altering epilepsy medication. That’s right, people, you can turn blue – here’s a guy who did just that and then went on TV to prove it:

Poor Miss Finch, whatever else it might be, is well-researched – and it is also populated by an array of memorable characters. Apart from Lucilla, there is the opinionated republican narrator Madame Pratolungo (a widowed French woman, previously married to a South American revolutionary) and then the Dubourg brothers who, in the distinction from each other, provide an interesting insight into how men were affected by Victorian ideals of masculinity. Lucilla’s perpetually half-dressed and breastfeeding stepmother and her 14+ children also make for an amusing satirical side note, with the Finch family’s ridiculous fecundity mocking the idealised Victorian home. 

The bad: 
Warning: this novel definitely drags and is hardly one of Collins’s best plotted. At times it is yelling-at-the-pages-frustrating, at others just disappointingly unbelievable.

Its central premise is that Lucilla is irrationally scared of dark colours, having been blind. Due to this, her fiancé Oscar tells her it is actually his twin, Nugent, who is blue, which is all very well until she recovers her sight and the brother take advantage of this case of mistaken identity.

It’s just mad and, while the characters might be interesting, they seem totally incapable of any rational behaviour.

There is also a lot of extraneous back story about a previous murder trial which, while interesting in itself, doesn’t really come back into play – just demonstrating how different this is to Collins’s mystery blockbusters like The Woman in White. 

The ugly: 
Having a crazy dislike of those with a dark complexion is as racist as it sounds (e.g. Lucilla is physically repulsed when someone invites a ‘Hindu’ to dinner) and this is just one of the things which makes it very difficult for modern readers to sympathise with the protagonist. The German oculist who treats her eyes is also a tiring and offensive stereotype – think lots of ‘Zs' and unnecessary plurals, and an obsession with food, especially Madame Pratolungo’s mayonnaise. 

The verdict: 
There’s a lot to study here, but I think if this was your first taste of Wilkie Collins you might be put off for life. Approach at your peril (and stay away from the Silver of Nitrate!).


What lesser-known nineteenth-century novel should the Secret Victorianist read next? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

1 comment:

  1. It's a shame he managed to mess this one up. I quite liked how he wrote about Madonna, the deaf girl in "Hide and Seek". It would be interesting to read his representation of a blind character as a comparison, but I'm not sure I can bear the thought of ploughing through what sounds like a somewhat turgid production! (that one in the Venice hotel was bad enough...!).

    Collins' approach to race is quite interesting. I feel like going "Yay!" when he brings a non-white character on-page (so to speak) but then, for instance in "Armadale", he messes it up by having Midwinter be the most superstitious man to have ever lived - and why? Because of his African ancestry. Ooooh ok, then, Wilkie.....