As you all may be aware, I am a big Wilkie Collins fan. In my view, there’s nothing more fun, or more satisfying for summer reading, than a big old sensationalist Victorian novel — and the more sensationalist the better. Poor Miss Finch was, therefore, a fantastic choice: it has twins (!) and mistaken identity, multiple betrayals, ESP (!!), epilepsy, elopement, a man with a shocking blue face (!!!), and a blind heroine (!!!!). It was also, as many of Collins’s novels are, completely hilarious.
The book is narrated by the outspoken and indefatigable Madame Pratalungo, a Frenchwoman who has come to be a companion to Lucilla Finch, who has been blind since she was a year old. Madame is happy to find that Lucilla is delightful in every way — capable, intelligent, sensitive. She has only one peculiarity: a nervous antipathy for dark colors. If she even imagines that something is dark — a dress, a piece of furniture — she can’t bear it to be near her.
Near Lucilla’s home where she lives with her absurd parents (more on whom later), they meet Oscar Dubourg, who has recently been acquitted of murder in a very public trial and is shrinking from the public eye. Lucilla falls for him instantly; Madame not so much, because Oscar is kind of a delicate flower, rather than the dashing sort of young man she prefers. But Lucilla will have her way in everything, and soon a marriage day is set. But! Oscar, partly through his own carelessness, is attacked by thugs, and the result of his injuries is severe epileptic seizures. The only cure? Silver nitrate, taken internally, which turns Oscar a shocking dark blue all over. Madame entreats Oscar to tell Lucilla — she will get used to it — but Oscar keeps the truth from her, and eventually outright lies to her, afraid to lose her love because of her nervous loathing of dark colors.
It turns out that Oscar has a twin brother, Nugent, whom he adores and who was responsible for his acquittal. Nugent has a very different temperament from the weak and shrinking Oscar: he is “the most opinionated man in the world,” full of energy and good humor (and, may I say, conceit.) Nugent insists that he knows a German oculist who can help Lucilla regain her sight, something everyone else had long ago given up. Of course everyone is delighted — except for Oscar. What will he do when she actually sees him?
I have to say that amid the twists and turns of the convoluted plot, I was absolutely delighted by the representation of blindness in this novel. Lucilla is entirely capable of caring for herself. She knows not only her home but her neighborhood, and she can and does go for walks by herself whenever she likes. She insists on caring for Oscar herself when he is ill, and boasts that only she can do it around the clock without disturbing him with a light. When she’s presented with the idea of regaining her sight, she says that in many ways she’s never wanted to see: her hands tell her everything she needs to know, and solve her problems, whereas eyes can play tricks. She suggests that if she could have extremely long arms instead, it would do her more good: she could touch things at a distance and “see” for herself what we can only see with telescopes. Madame Pratalungo also points out that Lucilla is less modest than other girls her age, in terms of saying what she thinks, because modesty is a function of being aware of others’ eyes judging you, and she is never aware of such a thing. Apparently, Collins got bad reviews because Lucilla Finch wasn’t saintly enough: people said that she should have been more patient and kind, given her lifelong trial, and so forth. I’m so glad that instead she is headstrong, lively, endearing, angry, suspicious, and anxious, among other things.
It’s not a perfect book, by any stretch of the imagination. I think Collins means us to have one opinion of the twins at the beginning and then flip our opinion halfway through, but Oscar is too weak and tells too many lies at the beginning to really be able to reestablish a different opinion of him afterward. The structure isn’t strong enough to withstand a real reversal like that. The strength of it is in the humor — Madame Pratalungo, with her fierce Republican tendencies, is a marvelous narrator. The different ways of looking at domesticity are also very clever, and Lucilla’s parents are completely hilarious. Another strength is in the exploration of the idea of regaining sight in a person blind from infancy. Collins suggests outright that it’s not going from disability to ability, but the reverse, at least at first. It’s fascinating. I absolutely enjoyed this book. I’m not sure which of Collins’s novels I’ll read next! Any suggestions?