Wednesday, March 24, 2010
From the Shelves of the Paco Library
Victorian-era novels are not everyone’s cup of tea, but as someone who prefers traditional novels to short stories, I have always enjoyed them. Authors like Dickens, Reade and Trollope were masters of characterization, and wonderful story-tellers to boot, and if the tales frequently tend toward the improbable or overly complex, I have rarely had trouble suspending my disbelief in return for the reward of getting to know such richly drawn characters, or encountering such startlingly imaginative plots.
Wilkie Collins, a novelist and sometime-collaborator with Dickens, wrote several classics of the period, including The Moonstone and The Woman in White, and his books are filled with the same plot twists and beautifully limned characters common to most of the Victorian novelists. With Poor Miss Finch, however, he departed from the usual sensational themes of lost jewels, stolen inheritances, and family madness to delve into the subject of blindness. Collins appears to have researched several of the (very few) cases of people who had been blind, either from birth or at an early age, and who had subsequently recovered their sight. He was keenly interested in discovering how the blind “saw” their world through the other senses, and the effect on their understanding of that world when the sense of sight was acquired.
In the novel, the blind protagonist, Lucilla Finch, is a woman of twenty years who has been blind from the age of 12 months. She has thoroughly accommodated herself to her plight, and her heightened tactile and hearing senses do the duty of her sightless eyes. She eventually falls in love with a young man of independent means, Oscar Dubourg, who has taken up residence in their remote hamlet, but, as the result of a serious wound to his head during an encounter with two men caught burglarizing his house, he develops epileptic fits. Ultimately he opts for a medical treatment with nitrate of silver which vanquishes his epilepsy, but discolors his complexion, turning his skin to a bluish hue. This creates a dilemma for, Oscar, because Lucilla has always had an inexplicable, but morbid fear of anything dark (or that she associates with the idea of darkness).
Enter Oscar’s twin brother, Nugent, whose friendship with a brilliant German optical surgeon enables him to hold out hope to Lucilla that her sight can be restored. Through a series of plot twists, Lucilla winds up with the gift of vision, and Nugent, who falls in love with her, embarks upon a nefarious plan to impersonate his brother and claim Lucilla for his own.
But the plot is eventually foiled, largely due to the efforts of Lucilla’s paid companion (and narrator of the tale), Madame Pratalungo – and a more interesting female character I have rarely seen in Victorian fiction. She is a Frenchwoman, and the widow of a doctor who spent most of his adult life fighting against dictators in South America. Madame Pratalungo fully shares her late husband’s political beliefs, and her strong republican and socialist convictions are played to great comic effect (with occasional incongruous outbreaks in the narrative of “long live the Republic!”) However utopian her political views, she is a loyal, courageous and determined friend, much wronged by her charge, as Nugent succeeds in sowing the seeds of discord between them, but faithful to the end (even during her occasional absences, when she has to return to France to assist her elderly, but libidinous, father to get out of a series of romantic entanglements). The novel includes several other fascinating characters, including Lucilla’s father, the Reverend Finch, a pompous windbag with an exalted sense of his own importance and a steady stream of sonorous platitudes (he ends by being promoted to the office of colonial bishop and sent among the savages, who find him “wonderful”). And the brilliant, brusque, yet kindly, German optical surgeon is a sort of pipe-smoking force of nature, whose commitment to the health of his patients is undeviating and uncompromising.
This is a marvelous yarn, combining (as many Victorian novels do) an overarching theme of general interest (in this case blindness) with vividly-imagined characters, an unhurried, but not sluggish, pace, deft comic touches and a plot containing wheels within wheels.