Monday, 16 July 2012

Poor Miss Finch

Her sight newly restored, Lucilla embraces the wrong twin.

I recently finished reading Wilkie Collins’ novel Poor Miss Finch. It seems to be one of his lesser-known novels - possibly a deserved fate in this case. Reading it is rather like rummaging around the back of an old bookshop – leafing through musty pages. Outside the shop, life goes on. Inside, time stands still for a few moments of peaceful browsing.

It’s a book we could never turn into a film though, because we’d tie ourselves in politically correct knots, trying to impose our own cultural norms on Collins’ much more matter of fact take on blindness and skin colour.

Lucilla Finch is a young blind woman, but comfortably off so her blindness is mitigated somewhat by servants and physical comfort. She falls in love with Oscar Dubourg, one of two twins, the other being Nugent. Oscar is assaulted during a burglary and as a result of a blow on the head, suffers from epilepsy. He controls his epileptic fits by taking silver nitrate which turns his skin dark blue, almost black.

Actually it would be more likely to poison him, but Collins seems not to have known that. The novel is narrated by Madame Pratolungo, a Frenchwoman and companion to Lucilla.

"Silver!" he exclaimed. "Have you?" I asked. "I know the price I pay for being cured," he answered quietly. His composure staggered me. "How long have you been taking this horrible drug?" I inquired. "A little more than a week."

Notice how the silver nitrate is a horrible drug merely because of the skin colour effect. In the world of Collins' novel, it completely controls Oscar's epileptic fits with no other side-effects.

Anyway, Lucilla has a horror of dark colours and although she and Oscar are engaged to be married, he doesn’t tell her about the colour of his skin. At this point, Herr Grosse, a German oculist is consulted on Lucilla’s blindness and he undertakes to cure her. Collins did a considerable amount of research on blindness, particularly on the way blind people adapt and also on what tends to happen if a blind person is fortunate enough to recover their vision.

The disorientation and inability to make sense of what is newly seen are all described well, although the cause of Lucilla’s blindness, childhood cataracts, and the speed of her recovery once Herr Grosse removes them, are medically improbable.

To nobody's surprise, Lucilla mistakes the other twin, Nugent for Oscar when her sight is restored. Eventually the situation is resolved after lots of nefarious double-dealing by Nugent and wimpish evasion by Oscar. Unfortunately the stress of it all sends Lucilla blind again, another medical twist so unlikely that it had me smiling at Collins' literary chutzpah.

Could we handle these subjects today? Collins just used blindness and skin colour as plot mechanisms, but I’m not so sure we’d manage it with all the baggage we have. All in all a worthwhile if rather odd read, as Collins usually is, but I doubt if many would get on with it these days.

An interesting comment on how far we have drifted socially though.


Sam Vega said...

Hang on a minute!

Blind Lucilla has a horror of dark colours?

I take it she once had sight.

Actually, there is an opportunity for a better novel here, AKH, and you ought to start today. What about a young anosmic girl who falls in love with the good-looking chap with foul B.O. and halitosis? All remark on the suitability of their match until the good Herr Grosse turns up...

A K Haart said...

Sam - Lucilla went blind at the age of one because of childhood cateracts, but was sensitive to light and dark.

Maybe the anosmic girl could be a ghost? Or maybe she just works at a sewage works then gets another job? But because she loves him, she goes back to the sewage works.

James Higham said...

Actually it would be more likely to poison him, but Collins seems not to have known that.

Well, we must have the regulation [near] black person, mustn't we?

A K Haart said...

James - I'm not really sure what Collins intended with this. There is no suggestion that Oscar looked like a black person - just weird.