POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

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,



Barbara said...

In this section I was especially interested in the role of delay. Most of the main delays in the novel—the delay of Oscar and Lucilla’s marriage, the delay in deciding about her eyes (admittedly only a slight delay), the question about whether to delay the surgery, and most importantly the delay in correcting Lucilla’s mistake about the brothers—have been building for some time. At first, the novel seems a study in the failure of an individual character or a failure of will (or procrastination) insofar as Oscar delays telling Lucilla the truth about his treatment. Increasingly, however, it becomes *everyone’s* failure: Nugent’s, Lucilla’s entire family, the doctors, and, of course, Madame P. In a way, the failure is excused by the threat disclosure poses to Lucilla’s sight but this reason was not part of the picture before the surgery became a reality. Madame P urges Oscar to tell the truth but he fears Lucilla’s rejection; he delays, in other words, to protect himself but at the cost of deceiving his fiancé. He thinks he will tell her, he doesn’t, he thinks he will again, he doesn’t. The resonances with *Hamlet* are intensified here not only in Oscar’s vacillation but also in Gertrude’s role in dividing Hamlet’s father and his uncle (in other words, two brothers) which Hamlet later articulates in that famous scene in which he says “Have you eyes? . . . Have you eyes?” (3.4).

At any rate, when Sebright advises Oscar to “wait” he tells him exactly what he wants to hear himself and, relieved, he returns to Dimchurch with his inclination to procrastinate reinforced. The chapter closes on a note that seems to resonate throughout the entire novel “Not to-day!” (chap 35). That said, there are many rash actions as well and I will be curious to see how the tension between delay and action develops in the following chapters.

And thank-you, Rachel, for drawing my attention to Lucilla’s quasi-erotic encounter with Herr Grosse; I hadn’t noticed that!


sdb said...

Thanks for these comments, Barbara! Delays are of course part of the structure of the serial and the perpetuation of suspense--even to excess.

Rachel, your comments about the insinuation of something erotic between Lucilla and Grosse reminds me of a comment I made earlier about how Lucilla seems rather more sensual than most heroines of her era--and whether her freedom from gaze-consciousness could account for this. I was interested too in her remark that if it weren't for her wanting to see her beloved Oscar, she would just as soon remain blind. Lucilla claims that her hands and touch are the more "trustworthy" and "intelligent" of the two senses. Her eyes mislead her about who is Oscar and who is Nugent (which is how this last chapter ends), but touch will undeceive her if no one else will. If so, then what are the implications about the power of physical vision? And the meaning of appearances (blue face, dark and light faces)?

Did you notice that the illustration that is at the top of this blog seems to correlate with the scene where the bandages are to be removed in the company of many (not Jicks, though), although this particular scene ends up to be one of the delays/deferrals?

What did you make about Jicks's role in this chapter? What has she seen and what does she want to tell Madame P?

Naomi said...

I thought your point about Lucilla’s troubling closeness with Herr Gosse was especially interesting, Rachel, especially given Madame P's earlier account that figures Lucilla’s blindness as something that makes her “fearless” rather than nervous (as expected) “in the company of strange men.”* I’m curious about how Collins and his fictional characters will deal with the idea of a woman whose lack of sight removed some of the qualities associated with appropriate gender performance. Will Collins link the ability to see with an increase in womanly boundaries (expressed, according to Madame P's earlier equation, with a nervousness figured as naturally feminine)—something that would have significant implications for the way that bodies figure into Collins’s representation of femininity and the senses? If so, I could see Collins taking this in one of two directions—the first would frame the boundaries that (might) emerge through the ability to see itself as “natural,” while the second would emphasize the socially constructed aspect of gendered interactions, highlighting the effort others feel the need to expend in reacting to or redirecting her behavior now that she can see.

Susan’s comment about the illustration also made me pay closer attention to Herr Grosse and Nugent in this representation. Grosse may be a medical man, but this image does emphasize the idea of erotic contact—he must stand very close to Lucilla and appears to be touching her hair and neck in this image. Nugent’s shadow actually falls across her skirt, something that stands out more when we look at the other watchers’ physical distance in this scene. I’m curious about whether the two men’s proximity in the illustration would have intensified a sense of erotic threat for Victorian audiences.

*(Oxford World’s Classics edition, p. 37)