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.