I re-read this recently ahead of moderating a panel at NAVSA2016, so I thought it might be worth reviewing here.
Perhaps less well-known that Wilkie Collins’ major sensation novels, The Woman in White and The Moonstone, Poor Miss Finch deserves a read for sheer enjoyment alone. It has the rollicking plot and cast of characters that one might get in a Shakespeare comedy: a beautiful blind girl, her laughable man-of-the-cloth father, twins of variant personalities, a revolutionary French-woman, and a heavily accented but avuncular eye-doctor. Although at times extended in directions that might be of less immediate interest to a plot- and sensation-hungry reader, such as Madame Pratalungo’s narratorial excursions regarding her political past, the novel has that Shakespearean balance of digression and dramatic plot.
Critically, the novel has drawn relatively little notice, with articles on it attending either to its representation of both mid-Victorian medicine and visual culture.
What interested me most was the cultural blindness to the threats to Lucilla Finch as a young woman. Manipulated by her father in order to access her maternal family’s mother, held to an engagement by her lover’s twin brother without any support structures in place to assist her in distinguishing his manipulations from his passion, and almost made prisoner at the end in order for Nugent to try to effect his aim of marrying her in his brother’s name, Collins’ story tells us less about the treatment of medical conditions and a great deal about the mistreatment of women who might lack for education in practical or worldly matters.
The love story between Lucilla and Oscar is, like the man himself, rather insipid. It is the struggles of female companionship in providing support and guidance for one another, in particular in moments when trust might be stretched to its limits, that comes through with the force of a romance. The relationship between Lucilla and Madame Pratalungo is the one on which the novel’s drive really hinges. The relationship between Oscar and Nugent, the twin brothers vying for Lucilla’s affections, also raises a question about male homosocial relationships and their fragility, but the threat to their brotherly love comes from within, while the attack on the sororal relationship between Lucilla and her companion comes from without.
What I would be most inclined to write about critically, though, is something fairly tangential to the plot itself: the representation of figures of ridicule, in particular Reverend Finch (although to a lesser extent also Herr Grosse). There is something archetypal about Reverend Finch’s ridiculousness, and the summary dismissal of them by Pratalungo’s narrative voice, which echoes some of Dickens’ finest absurdities, such as Bounderby’s bluster, and those of countless authors before and since. This is one going on my chalkboard of ‘things to write one day’!
Image from the 1875 Chatto & Windus edition