|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.
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.
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.