POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

17 June 2014

POOR MISS FINCH (chaps. 47-Epilogue) for 24 Feb. 1872: Serial Finale!

Dear Serial Readers,

And we come to the end! Lucilla and Oscar have been reunited, Nugent has been banished (as well as frozen), and Mme P has declared her charge a happy woman.

When I began this post, I felt compelled to tie up all the questions we’ve raised into similarly neat bows, but I don’t think even Doctor Grosse would be capable of such a comprehensive job. Instead, I’ll raise a few more ongoing questions/notes, and invite everyone who has read along to share how their early question have been inflected by the novel’s final chapters.

I found myself most drawn to the novel’s ongoing engagement with Lucilla as the finder and provider of evidence. These chapters often refer back to her earlier “experiment” with Oscar and Nugent, in which she employed her “own way” to tell the difference between the twins. On the one hand (pun intended), we have the Doctor insisting that her time of getting “thrill-tingles” is long past, because she has seen and has thus lost the “superfine-feelings” available only to the blind. At the same, she proves him wrong only one chapter later! There she is, feeling Oscar’s face and recognizing him as not-Nugent. This isn’t to suggest that the novel supports Lucilla’s assertion of her powers, because it stages a complex debate about whether she can “see” with her hands, but rather that it also doesn’t support the Doctor. Lucilla is still her own evidence gatherer.

We might also think about Mme P’s analysis of Lucilla’s degenerating vision through her degenerating handwriting. In this case, Lucilla is once again not the evidence-gatherer, but the provider of evidence for other characters who want to diagnose her changing condition. How do these moments of analysis fit into what Susan identified as The Tyranny of Oversight? Not only does Mme P read the change in handwriting as the legible sign of illegible impairment, but she also reads Lucilla’s new handwriting as a shift in identity. This new writer is “a stranger,” regardless of her consistent tone, because the form of her characters has changed. How does Mme P map the mutation in written form onto the form of Lucilla’s body? To what extent does the novel corroborate or complicate that mapping?

Finally, I wonder at the ways that the novel ends in an attempted placement of blame. Doctor Grosse insists that his eye surgery has not failed in recreating her sight. Instead, he tells Lucilla, “it is you who have failed to take care of your nice new eyes when I gave them to you.” Even if Lucilla doesn’t see her regained blindness as a failure, and if other doctors disagree with Grosse’s opinion, the novel gives him the space to blame Lucilla for her own disablement. Grosse neatly embodies the medical model of disability (as an individual problem which requires a cure to regain individual wholeness) while it was still being created, but is he represented as correct? Are Lucilla and her caregivers portrayed as having ruined her opportunity for vision or are the attempts to shelter her eyes and mind portrayed as ill founded from the start?

Thanks to everyone for reading along, and I look forward to your thoughts on the end of our odd little adventure!
Serially Satisfied,


09 June 2014

POOR MISS FINCH (chaps. 44-46), installments #22-24

Dear Serial Readers,

Each of these three chapters appeared as a separate installment when first published. Is there a suspenseful break after each of these chapters accordingly?

As for general observations about the Ramsgate seaside chapters 44 and 45 and Lucilla's journal, I have two comments that I'm titling "The Tyranny of Sight" and "The Tyranny of Oversight."

Getting to use her eyes is a confusing matter for Lucilla.  She doesn't "feel" the same about "Oscar" (who everyone else knows, except of course the aunt who'd never seen the Dubourg twins, is really Nugent), but she can't quite figure this out.  When she was blind, Lucilla seemed rather confident and bold in the department of desires, but not so now where her vision is beset by mists--both optically and the deception plotting of Nugent.  I'm less interested in the deception and traded places of the twins than in how Lucilla's sense of regained sight is rendered--and it's not an advantage for her.  Even her handwriting was better when she was blind and not confused by mists.  The Tyranny of Sight.

Mme. P's frequent interruptions of her supposedly faithful transcription of Lucialla's journal while in Ramsgate is the Tyranny of Oversight.  I get that she's filling in plot points, that she's showing us what Lucilla didn't know--such as the encounter between Grosse and Nugent--but still, these asides and reflexive commentaries take up pages sometimes.  It almost seems like the delays are padding to get to a particular length.  I also don't discern a clear, distinct voice from Lucilla's journal writing in contrast to P's voice, and I know from many other novels that Collins is able to devise very different voices for first-person narrators (such as Marian Halcombe and Walter Hartright and the peevish Frederick Fairlie, just from one serial).  Somehow Lucilla's voice seems too consistent with Pratolungo's narration which of course is the filter.  Voice and vision are less individual and instead rather misty. 

Time for finishing up this serial!  I guess that Lucilla and the real Oscar will be reunited before the elopement is completed, and that Nugent will be banished somehow. 

Rachel will see us through to the end next week!

Serially sighted,

03 June 2014

POOR MISS FINCH (chaps. 39-43), installments #19-21

Dear Serial Readers,

We are nearing the end, my friends and as we do so, I’m struck by this section’s explicit focus on reading, writing, and –particularly—letters. With the action rapidly drawing to a close, we have Mme. P pulled away to deal with family matters that seem to have no narrative purpose except to put her at a deliberate distance. Why is it so important that we read this section of the novel via letters and, discussion of letters, journal entries, and narrative interpretation? I’m not sure I have the answer to that question, but I can offer a couple themes that the shift brings to the fore:

1.     It further highlights the limitations of Lucilla’s new vision. At first, she cannot read or write because her doctor insists that it (like the truth) will ruin her eyes. Then when she can read and write, being able to see doesn’t give her any greater judgmental power. She can now write with her own hand, rather than relying on an aid, but her caretakers are just as capable of concealing the truth as they were when she was blind. In fact, they might be even better.

2.     Delay. Susan has already spoken about the role of postponement and delay in the novel as we wait between plot points and serial publications. By making the characters wait between letter deliveries, they too are forced to keep the pace that their form of communication allows. And even then, the novel is liable to hold back a key piece of evidence, like Miss Batchford and her stalled letter. We might not like it, but we are told that it is good for us. We have to wait until we’re ready.

3.     Lucilla gets a turn. The novel’s turn to letters and journals also represents the first opportunity for the protagonist to tell her own story in her own words. We can certainly talk about how successful that opportunity is for Lucilla, but it does represent at least a partial change in perspective.

At this point we know that Lucilla is no longer afraid of blue faces and at least Mme P thinks that Nugent is ashamed. Will Nugent follow his better angels, will Oscar reappear from the ether, or is Lucilla going to have to suss out the deception?

For next week: chapters 44-46.

Serially yours,

27 May 2014

POOR MISS FINCH (chaps. 36-38) Installments #16-18

Dear Serial Readers,

More delays!  Will Lucilla's sight be restored during her convalescence, and if so, to what extent? And which of the twin brothers will prevail as Lucilla's suitor and, eventually, husband? The good/evil binary that Mme P constructs in her story of Oscar and Nugent keeps blurring and shifting.  Now is each one"good" inasmuch as he selflessly wants the other brother to succeed with Lucilla?  But, when will she see the light of who they are and how will she respond to the deception?

I'm struck by how the narrative seems to play with the cliche of "love at first sight."  Nugent says as much--"from the moment I first saw that heavenly creature...."  And the reverse seems true as well with Lucilla recoiling from Oscar's blue face at her very first sight of him.  However, there is a great deal of questioning whether vision is a reliable sense for knowing the world. Not only does Lucilla claim that her sense of touch is superior to sight, but also the narrator draws the comparison between the surface view or "outer covering which is physically wholesome" with "the inner nature which is morally diseased." Perhaps only Jicks's vision is reliable--or is it?

Does vision also function as a disability to see beyond a surface appearance in some respects? I'm also struck by Oscar's blue face, a kind of social disability that is the side-effect of his cure of a life-threatening disability of seizures.

For next week: chapters 39-43.  We're approaching the end!

Serially stalled,


21 May 2014

POOR MISS FINCH (chaps. 32-35)--installments #13-15

Dear Serial Readers,

It’s getting exciting folks! Lucilla can see, and now she can find new ways of troubling Mme P’s careful plans.

What did you make of the moment when our protagonist first takes off her bandages? First, before she can even make any plot-changing decisions, Mme P has the chance to see her eyes. They’re different, to be sure, but this “new life of sight” isn’t necessarily a positive addition to her face. Mme P describes the change as irradiating her face with “an awful and unearthly light.” Earlier in the novel, we get multiple characters comparing Lucilla’s perceptive abilities to superhuman or unearthly powers, but now her ability to see is also something other than human? Which is it? What is it about the change from blindness to vision that so transfigures her face for our narrator?

Another trend that I noticed in this particular group of chapters was a concern about Lucilla’s potential intimacy with her German doctor. Herr Grosse, we learn is not a man who follows strict medical boundaries. He does everything “by impulse,” which sounds quite a bit like our Lucilla, and then, when he comes back from London, Mme P finds them together in a suspicious position. He sits, “gloating” over the tools of his trade, while she stoops over his body, one hand placed “familiarly on his shoulder” and the other “deftly fingering one of his horrid instruments.” Scandalous, no?

I haven’t seen any implications that Herr Grosse and Lucilla could or would do anything to seriously damage her virtue, but Mme P isn’t the only one disturbed by implications of their intimacy. Later, we see Oscar irritable over the fact that the doctor can sit on a couch and speak quietly with his ladylove, while he’s forced to wait elsewhere. Even as Mme P insists, “it was plainly impossible” for Oscar to be jealous of a man “of Grosse’s age and personal appearance,” the very fact that she has to say so renders the threat oddly real.

We might also consider connecting the Herr Grosse threat with the central sexual duplicity of the novel. For Lucilla, Oscar and Nugent trade places, which means that a woman with unusually low physical boundaries could place herself in a sexual context with a man who isn’t her fiancé. At this point, we don’t know how the switch will play out. Perhaps it will all be resolved before Nugent and Lucilla have any opportunities for hanky panky, but for now, the threat remains. What are we to make not only of the fact that Lucilla is in constant sexual danger, but that the danger seems to increase when she gains her sight?

For next week: chapters 36-38. I’m looking forward to a bumpy ride!

Serially yours,


13 May 2014

POOR MISS FINCH (chaps. 26-31)--installments 10-12

Dear Serial Readers,

The plot thickens--can we *see* where things are headed?  Interesting in *light* of Rachel's observations about the unknown causes of Lucilla's (whose name means 'light') blindness that in these chapters we learn that cataracts developed during her first year of life.  Can these cataracts be removed and sight restored?  We have two different professional opinions: yes (Grosse) and no (Sebright--another interesting name that embeds visuality).  And if Lucilla's vision is restored,
will she prefer the "light" twin over the "dark" one?

I had thought that if Lucilla were to be able to see the faces of these brothers, she might still shrink from Nugent's "blue face" (as she's been led to believe) and prefer Oscar's complexion because "light" and "dark" could only have been for her abstract (or social) concepts, but without a physical dimension.  However, now that it's disclosed that Lucilla can distinguish between (to quote Herr Grosse) "nice-light" and "horrid-dark," perhaps (if her sight is restored) she will be able to understand that Oscar has the blue face and that she's been deceived. In any case, all this attention complicates the matter of prejudice to dark and light faces as much more than a physical quality. 

Lucilla certainly seems to enjoy more freedom with her sexual desires than sighted women of her day and class, given her boldness showering Oscar with kisses and directing him to hug and kiss her. Even our French narrator is horrified.  To me, these scenes suggest the advantages of Lucilla's freedom from the gaze--given that she doesn't know what it means to be looked at and assessed accordingly.

For next week (and Rachel's lead post): chapters 32-35). I can't wait to see what happens if Lucilla sees!

Serially looking forward,

06 May 2014

POOR MISS FINCH (chaps. 20-25)--installments #7-#9 (Octobert 1871 in Cassell's Mag)

Dear Serial Readers,

I’ve loved reading the comments on each section! Sometimes I wish we could all just meet up and talk about Lucilla and Oscar over cookies and tea.

To continue our conversation about forms of perception and knowledge, I’ve found myself interested in the ways in which the text shows Lucilla gathering evidence. Rather than simply accepting or rejecting her own claim that she can sense dark colors, the novel shows the many sources that Miss Finch uses to learn about the world and then allows the other characters to debate her capacity. For example, in the first scene where Mme P sees Oscar and Lucilla together after the former’s transformation, Lucilla insists that she’s being denied information because of the unnatural speed of Oscar’s beating heart. Again and again we see her selecting evidence from the world around her and using it to fill in what others might perceive as gaps.

Contrast Lucilla’s search for “proof” with the rush of unfiltered senses in Mr. Finch’s horrid reading of Hamlet, and Lucilla’s efforts of selection appear even more stark. Where Mme P seems to experience every part of the awful scene simultaneously, from the sucking baby to her own distracted legs, Miss Finch has learned to isolate those aspects of her surroundings that will be useful for her understanding.

I wonder, in particular, how the mock experiment that she conducts with Oscar and Nugent (with the hand holding and the transfer of “energy”) compares to “experiments” performed in freak shows to illustrate the superhuman powers of blind performers. I know that such performances were popular during the late-Victorian era, but I’m not sure how closely that scene echoes those demonstrations.

Finally, I was struck by the novel’s refusal to provide an easy narrative to explain Lucilla’s blindness. When Nugent starts to dig into the possible ways that Miss Finch may have become blind, both Mme P and the novel deny him the comprehensible narrative that he (and we) are looking for. There was no apparent accident or disease. In fact, we can’t see any causal agent that could allow us to turn her blinding into a legible story. If we want to give narrative signification Lucilla’s blindness, we are going to have to do it on our own, because the novel isn’t going to help us.

For next week: installments 10-12, chaps 26-31. Susan will provide our lead post.

Serially yours,


28 April 2014

POOR MISS FINCH (chaps. 11-19), serial installments 4-6 in Cassell's Magazine, Oct. 1871

Dear Serial Readers,

Great comments on the first three installments! One idea I have links up with Barbara's several interesting observations about suspense and plot and time. It seems to me that the ends of each serial installment are marked by some dramatic incident designed to bring readers back for more: Jicks's white frock with the bloody words "help me!" and Oscar's epileptic fit, and finally with the sixth installment (ends with chapter 19), Oscar's treatment which will turn him into a "blue man."  I'm curious how serial format (how the novel was first written with serial publication in mind--rather than volume publication) maps onto serial forms within the story--serial crimes, serial characters (the Dubourg twins, for instance, and then the unnamed "blue man" in Paris as a prequel to Oscar treated with silver nitrate), serial spaces (even with uneven borders or location) and other possibilities.

Barbara's comment on how the two parts of the house don't align (an observation also about forms and formats) dovetails with how topsy-turvy some elements of the story seem: Oscar's feminine hyper-nervousness, Lucilla's unfeminine lack of modesty and her boldness (which Mme P links to her lack of physical sight--clearly there are advantages for a woman who does not see the male gaze!), Jicks's wandering propensities and her precocious perception about the strange men who turn into robbers, and even Mme P's aged father who uses cosmetics, false hair and teeth, and even "stays" to make himself look younger for a woman. All these are inversions of some kind from the usual!

Tamara's observation about Mme P's appropriating the male (and narrating?) gaze is intriguing.  If the novel seems to be discrediting Mme P's (masculine-linked) rationality, is it also opening up other possibilities for knowing the world?   Collins seems to explore how Lucilla's acute sense of hearing and touch do matter, sensory knowledge offset by the narrator's litany of "my poor Miss Finch."  Lucilla's blindness is not simply an impediment--instead, she's able to "see" in the dark, to apprehend the world (and people) around her in valuable ways. Mme P even notes how Lucilla leads Oscar around the house "as if it was he that was blind, and she who had the use of her eyes."  There are also ways in which physical sight seems inferior to insight or other forms of knowledge--take Mr. Finch who only sees himself, and Mrs. Finch whose "watery blue eyes" don't seem to register much. Yet the language of vision, eyes, and sight seems to appear on nearly every page. Perhaps it's only my heightened awareness of this sensory capacity that has alerted me to how contingent the narration is on a lexicon of sight.

On the treatment with silver nitrate and the blue-black complexion--this also seems a doubling or kind of serial from another Collins serial--Ezra Jennings in The Moonstone, serialized only a few years before this one.   Collins associates some physical disablements (or "disfigurement") with immaterial capacities.

I'm also curious about how Mme. P's "revolutionary" politics via her her husband matter to this story--I guess we'll "see"!

For next week: installments 7-9, chapters 20-25. Rachel will provide our lead post.

Serially yours,

21 April 2014

POOR MISS FINCH (chaps. 1-10; serial installments 1-3; Cassell's Magazine in Sept. 1871)

Dear Serial Readers,

Welcome to the world of Poor Miss Finch! The first ten chapters (and the first three installments) introduce many of our key players, but first we have to get through Madame Pratolungo. Who on earth is this woman and why is she our narrator?

I was drawn to the specific, antagonistic rhetorical relationship that she sets up with her readers. We know from chapter one that she does not think of herself as holding the same values as her implied audience. Where she is “ultra liberal,” we are “monarchy-people, sitting fat and contented under tyrants.” Moreover, she sets up a similarly divergent relationship with the provincial, English characters that fill the rest of the novel. Why, I wonder, is this person our guide to the world of the novel? Why do we need a woman who is both completely certain in her views and frequently wrong to be our guide? She explains why she’s such a proper companion for Lucilla, but what is it about her that makes her our fit companion?  Why does she get to translate this world for us, much like she attempts to translate the world for Miss Finch?

We might want to consider how Madame Pratolungo’s role as the narrator relates to Oscar’s narrative of near-incarceration. In “The Perjury of the Clock” we learn that he was almost convicted of a murder because of mistaken evidence, or more precisely, because of a mistaken reading of evidence. The case against Oscar seemed incontrovertible, based on the given interviews and material evidence, until the housecleaner’s story came to light. If we add in fact that two of the ten chapter titles are “Candlelight View of the Man” and “Daylight View of the Man,” the novel seems to set up a discussion around accuracy and individual perception. If the same set of evidence can be understood in two different ways, is one of the two options necessarily correct? When and where is there a right way of seeing, both metaphorically and literally?

Next time, look forward to Susan’s post on chapters 11-18, which include “Discoveries at Browndown” and another appearance of my beloved Jicks.

Serially yours,


05 April 2014

New Serial Reading Adventure: POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins--starting week of April 21, 2014

Dear Serial Readers,

Please join in reading Wilkie Collins's Poor Miss Finch, first serialized in Cassell's Magazine in 26 parts (from Sept. 1871 to Feb. 1872). To speed up our serial reading schedule, we'll aim for three installments per week, beginning the week of April 21, 2014.

The first three installments include the first 10 chapters (with the serial divisions after chapters 4, 7, 10). You might use the Oxford World's Classics edition of the novel, or you may read it online by downloading Poor Miss Finch

Rachel Herzl-Betz will join me in this serial reading adventure by sharing the lead posts.  We'll alternate in some fashion, so stay tuned!  Please share this website link!

Serially starting soon,

Serial Susan