Review: “Poor Miss Finch” by Wilkie Collins [1872]

Wilkie Collins is a well known Sensation fiction writer, a genre that was very popular during the 1860s, and largely regarded as the ‘trashy’ novels by contemporaries. Poor Miss Finch is decidedly not a Sensation novel. I have to admit, I had expected this to be one, considering Collins’ reputation.

Instead, Miss Finch is a story about romance that surpasses boundaries and limitations. Narrated by Madame Pratolungo, a Frenchwoman who married a South American democracy activist, she records her time with Lucilla Finch. Left widowed by her husband’s untimely death, Madame Pratolungo accepts a job as a companion to Lucilla, a young woman in her early twenties who has been blind since she a was a year old. Madame Pratolungo moves to the isolated countryside where the Finches live, Lucilla in her own annex, and her father and step-family in the main house with the perpetually pregnant step-mother who is rarely seen without a suckling baby in her arms. The two women strike up a close friendship immediately. Lucilla admonishes Madame Pratolungo to never feel sorry for her blindness and demonstrates that her lack of sight is no barrier to her way of life and even an advantage:

She delighted in putting the room tidy late in the evening, when we helpless people who could see were beginning to think of lighting the candles … We were only allowed to light the candles when they showed us the room magically put in order during the darkness as if the fairies had done it. She laughed scornfully at our surprise, and said she sincerely pitied the poor useless people who could only see! – p. 89

Lucilla falls in love and becomes engaged to a newcomer, Oscar Dubourg, who also has an identical twin brother, Nugent, whose personality is the complete opposite to Oscar’s. During a robbery, Oscar is struck heavily on the head and begins to suffer from injury-induced epilepsy. Lucilla and Oscar postpone their wedding in hopes of Oscar would recover or have his epileptic fits reduce its intensity but to avail.

In desperation, Oscar tries the only known medication that has proven to control epilepsy in the small percentage of patients who dares to try it – Nitrate of Silver which has a horrible side affect. The medication turns the patient’s complexion blue. However, Lucilla has a strong aversion to all dark people, having lived in her own darkness all her life, and so this side affect is kept from her. The dilemma arises when Nugent introduces a well known German oculist to Lucilla who is given hope again that she may yet regain her sight allowing to finally see the face of the man she is marrying.

After the operation, Lucilla slowly regains her sight. Everybody is very nervous at how Lucilla will take Oscar but Nugent has other plans. He has fallen in love with Lucilla and, while she could tell the two brothers apart through touch alone when she was blind, she is ironically left defenseless when she only has her vision to rely on.

While Miss Finch has some very Wilkie Collins narrative devices (shady pasts, identity confusion, twins), it is a very different sort of story to his earlier novels. It is both an exploration of blindness and the senses but also the extent of love. Lucilla’s forward behaviour towards Oscar is deemed inappropriate by Madame Pratulungo:

‘I want to tell him how deeply I feel for him, and how anxious I am to make his life a happier one if i can.’

‘My dear Lucilla! you can’t say this to a young man. It is as good as telling him, in plain words, that you are fond of him!’

‘I am fond of him.’

‘Hush! hush! Keep it to yourself, until you are sure that he is fond of  you …’

‘That is very hard on the women. If they feel it first, they ought to own it first.’ – p. 60

The normal social constraints of propriety and the correct ways of how women and men interact do not affect Lucilla because she has never seen how others might look at her and having been used to her own imagination of the world. There are some very interesting aspects to how the blind lives and even more so of the consequences of what might happen when the blind regain their sight. Distinguishing between shapes and colours become very difficult and the world might not be as beautiful as they had imagined. The majority feels pity for the blind but as Lucilla, and Collins, show, accepting impairments that are beyond your control, whatever they may be, might just be the key to happiness.

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27 comments

      1. No, I haven’t really Mae – except that I’ve read some Dickens of course and he probably at times flirts a bit with that. BUT in terms of the true writers in the styles/genre, I haven’t. Clearly I should though (even if to round out my literary education).

        1. I think you’ll enjoy it. They’re just really fun to read because they’re so melodramatic but they also give great insight into Victorian society.

  1. Trashy or not, I quite like Wilkie Collins The Moonstone and The Woman in White. Am actually planning a reread of both these books again.I think I shall add this one and make it a WIlkie mini-marathon.

    Btw, your book reviews are always very good, but there is something special about this one. You have made me so curious about this story and you have highlighted aspects just calculated to rouse my interest. Loved reading this one 🙂

    1. I don’t think they’re trashy at all but it’s an interesting insight into how other writers/critics view fiction. Would Dan Brown be regarded as a classic in a hundred years time? I still haven’t read The Moonstone. I tried a few years ago on the plane but couldn’t get into it. I must read it soon but I love The Woman in White. Armadale is also another good one. I hope you enjoy this one when you get around to it.

      And thanks for your compliment. 🙂 I’m never really sure about my reviews.

  2. Great review! I hadn´t heard of this one before, but it certainly sounds very interesting. I´ve only read his The Woman in White, but I loved it and want to read more by Collins now 🙂

    1. Thanks Bina. I think I’m in the process of collecting Wilkie Collins’ books – I seem to have amassed quite a few of his works. I have to read Woman in White again. I first read it in uni and sped right through it. It’s amazing.

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful review! I’ve yet to read any Wilkie Collins (yes, bad – I know!) but I’m not sure which would be the best one to start with?

    1. Thanks Rebecca. 🙂 I think The Woman in White is the best one to start Collins’ with – it’s very good, classic sensation fiction and quite fast paced. Let me know you think of it.

  4. This book has been on my shelf for a few months waiting to be read, but after reading your review I think I’ll try to get to it as soon as possible. I love Wilkie Collins – I’ve read all of his more popular books and am now starting to work through his lesser-known ones. Thanks for the great review.

    1. I still have to read The Moonstone so that’s probably going to be my next Collins but I’m also interested in read No Name as well. I think the lesser known Collins are pretty interesting and perhaps even better.

  5. Eek. I want to like Wilkie Collins. I mean, be intrigued enough to get a copy of either Woman in White or Moonstone. But I’m rather hesitant to try out Sensation Classics. It’s personal taste.

    But I think, personally speaking again, this is a good place for me to start. A calmer Collins, less sensational. And then, if I like this, I’m heading to his more famous novels.

    Thank you!

    1. I think you’re first I know who doesn’t like Sensation fiction! But yes, I agree – it’s all down to personal tastes. Perhaps you might be more interested in his shorter stories? The Haunted Hotel was a great read too.

      1. The genre has never intrigued me. But I’m weird that I want it to, haha. I don’t even know what’s stopping me from just picking up a Sensation fiction book.

        I’m adding The Haunted Hotel to the Let’s-See list. 🙂 Thank you!

        1. I guess it’s because it’s such a favourite genre with many other readers but each to their own. 🙂

          The Haunted Hotel – not Collins’ best but still a very good read and short!

  6. I have read a few of Wilkie Collins’ sensation novels and am intrigued by this as it seems to be a departure from his usual style. I must read more of him. Your review is lovely, and has made me really want to read this now!

    1. I was pretty surprised at this as well. I kept expecting some dark shadows lurking in the background waiting to jump out but it was all relatively calm and controlled. I’ll be interested to hear what you think of this.

    1. Yes, and that story (Collins and Dickens) is also featured in Richard Flanagan’s Wanting. The Captain is Sir John Franklin who had been governor of Tasmania but later went searching for (but disappeared while doing so) the Northwest Passage. Wanting is a great read.

      1. Hmm, I actually borrowed this awhile ago but I returned it without having read it. I’ll have to get it out again. These new info have made me more intrigued by it! I didn’t know it was so tied with Australia.

        There is some reference to The Frozen Deep in Miss Finch towards the end with one of the characters (I don’t want to give the story away) goes away on an expedition to the arctic on the same doomed ship (i think).

  7. Even with “proper” sensation novels like Collins’ most well-known work, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, etc, I think it’s so funny that they were considered trashy at the time. I’ve only read a handful of them to date, but what they all seem to have in common is that at their core they deeply subvert Victorian mores. Maybe calling them trashy was a way of dismissing a type of social commentary that was uncomfortable at the time? Anyway, I hadn’t heard of this particular Collins novel, but I want to read it, as I do everything else of his.

    1. Absolutely. It probably came too close to home about the repressed issues the Victorians were facing – contradictory marriage and gender laws, female victims along with the rise of female empowerment, growing awareness of the world. Collins himself didn’t lead a traditional life.

      It’s great fun to try and read between the lines but it can be rather tiring too!

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