Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Poor Miss Finch by Wilkie Collins: Blue men and blindness

I haven't read a Wilkie Collins since I was an adolescent; what with the new biography out this year, by Andrew Lycett, I found myself drawn to one of them which is rather more obscure than The Moonstone.

Poor Miss Finch is unlikely to be found on many university reading lists, still less library shelves, and yet I think, despite its faults, it deserves a little attention because of its sheer weirdness, and because of the refreshingly dashing nature of its female characters (bar one). It was published in 1872 (some time after The Moonstone), and contains portraits of two of the most daring and adventurous Victorian heroines I've ever come across.

Miss Finch, far from being poor (therein lies the irony) is a woman of private means who lives in her own quarters in her father's rectory; the inhabitants of her rather dismal village term her "poor" because of her blindness. She, however, is a delightful creature, who thrills with sensitivity at the touch and sound of the things she encounters. She is clever, forceful, and brave enough to take matters into her own hand, standing up to her boorish father and organising her own destiny. Crucially, though, she has a hatred of dark colours (which she claims she can sense.)

The novel is narrated by a Madame Pratolungo - a Frenchwoman who spent her fortune fighting in various countries for Republicanism (no, really) - who ends up as a companion to Miss Finch (named, of course, Lucilla - little light.)

There are some extremely striking, not to say lurid scenes: a little girl arrives in the rectory with a message scrawled on her pinafore in blood; the hero, apparently weedy Oscar Dubourg, arrives shrouded in mystery - he's been let off a murder charge because of the evidence of a clock. More strange still is the plot which - bear with me - continues like this. Oscar Dubourg has a charismatic layabout artist twin brother, Nugent, who comes to stay and sponge; Oscar falls in love with Lucilla, and they make tentative moves towards marriage.

The crisis of the novel comes when Oscar develops epilepsy. In order to be cured, he embarks on a course of silver nitrates, which has the unfortunate effect of turning him blue. Since Lucilla hates dark complexions, when she hears one of the children asking where "the blue man is," everyone pretends that it's Nugent who's gone blue, not Oscar. And so the stage is set for an impersonation which will see Lucilla's virtue tested and Oscar's courage blossom.

The sensationalism of the plot kept me going: I will admit that some aspects of the latter parts of the novel began to drag a little - there was perhaps too much discussion about various minor matters, and there is a character, a gourmand oculist called Grosse, whose German-English expressions become immensely wearying - but on the whole, those who wish to understand how a complex plot can be manipulated, and to see the beginnings of the "weird" in our literature, should definitely take a look. And I won't mind if you skip the last few chapters.

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