POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

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,