POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

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,



Barbara said...

I’ve been thinking about the serial form, prompted by Susan’s earlier comment on the different types of seriality we see in this novel (and the focus of the blog itself of course!). At the risk of over-reading, here are three instances of possible (and possibly far-fetched) thematizations of seriality (that is, these aren’t examples of other types of seriality but rather places where the narrative may be drawing attention to its serial form).

1) Oscar’s treatment. Oscar takes a drug in installments to “fix” his nervous problem. This method, then, inverses the typical critique of the sensation novel; the installments, the delay, the suspense (will he turn blue? how blue?) cure his nervous disorder rather than create it. At another meta-level, the cure happens slowly and we are in suspense: the form within the form. Or, actually at this level, perhaps this is just another version of a type of seriality.

2) Reading Nugent’s letter. Lucilla is annoyed by Oscar’s affection for his brother and keeps interrupting Oscar as he reads the letter. She (and we) have to endure these interruptions until he gets to the point. She also expresses “nervous irritation” here and so once again nerves and seriality are in play (if one accepts my possibly far-fetched suggestion that seriality is in fact invoked!). Also, Lucilla is told to “wait” as Oscar reads and Nugent is constantly associated with waiting.

3) The reading of Hamlet. Nugent’s arrival interrupts the reading (and the reading itself is full of pauses—“Pay particular attention to the Pauses, and to the management of the Voice at the end of the lines” [chap 23], Mr Finch instructs Madame P.) And so, again, interrupted reading, pauses, and waiting are thematized possibly in relation to seriality. Should we pay attention to the voice at the end of the installments?

Hamlet also seems perfectly chosen for Oscar’s situation. I like Rachel’s reflections on perception and proof! I’m also struck by how often, as a reader, I feel as if I’m visually impaired and perceiving the world through Lucilla’s senses. It is an odd feeling and I’m not quite sure where it comes from since Madame P is the narrator.

All the best, Barbara

sdb said...

Great examples of seriality in this novel, Barbara! In particular the emphasis on breaks, pauses, interruptions--a key feature of serial formats that's highlighted at the end of each installment, and sometimes each chapter division. While the pauses are part of the narrative work of suspense (installment #9 ends with Oscar's disclosure that Lucilla thinks the "Blue Man" is Nugent--what will come of that, after Lucilla seemingly can feel the difference through their active touch?), pauses and breaks give readers space to try to work things out.

I'm struck by how this novel highlights different kinds of reading: such as two different ideas about performing a reading of Hamlet, and Lucilla's reading of persons via the power of their touch.

I'm curious about your idea, Rachel, that Lucilla's ability to feel a different energy (is this an erotic charge?) through holding each twin's hand might resemble freak show displays. Here it seems to me part of the novel's larger project of pointing to other sensory ways of knowing the world, which in turn prompts us to question sight and the gaze as not the key to all perceptions, and sometimes as misleading.

I'm also struck by Lucilla's agency--her questioning, her objections to how she's treated at times, and her insistence on her own experiment after Nugent's fails.

There are many suspenseful strands now: will Nugent's German specialist of diseases of the eye be able to restore Lucilla's sight? Will Lucilla figure out that Oscar is the Blue Man? And if her antipathy to dark clothes and people isn't "intrinsically meaningful," can this be altered? Is Collins suggesting something about prejudice?