Sunday, November 13, 2011

Book Review : Poor Miss Finch by Wilkie Collins (Oxford World Classics 2008)

On the surface, this sounds rather unpromising.

Lucilla Finch has been blind since an early age. When shy young bachelor Oscar Dubourg moves into her neighbourhood, she quickly falls in love.Oscar has a brash identical twin brother, Nugent, who likes Lucilla but the feeling is not reciprocated.Oscar is hit on the head causing debilitating epilepsy, but this is cured by using nitrate of silver - the only problem is that it turns his skin blue, and Lucilla, despite being blind, has a dislike of dark colours. All of which would not have been a problem if it wasn't for Nugent introducing her to the oculist Herr Grosse, who believes he can cure Lucilla of her loss of sight. Nugent spots the opportunity to supplant his brother in Lucilla's affections.

Following hard on the heels of his detective story The Moonstone and the legal drama Man and Wife, Wilkie Collins confounds his admirers by once again switching styles to a domestic drama, albeit one with a mystery to resolve and replete with  Sensational elements.

It is interesting to compare this novel and its lead character to his early work Hide and Seek, which features Mary, a deaf and dumb girl. Mary is impossibly idealised, incapable of any wrong, and a passive recipient of the affections of others. Lucilla Finch is a much better realised character - whilst pretty and affectionate, she is also headstrong and the possessor of a fine temper which predispose her against listening to advice. In addition to driving the plot, this makes  her a much more believable and engaging character.

In fact, all the main characters are well-drawn. Oscar Dubourg superficially is weak and vacillating, but he is loyal and has an inner strength. Nugent's brash overconfidence alerts the reader at outset, but he also wavers between selfishness and remorse so that one is never sure whether he would carry through any action to trick his brother. Mme Pratolungo, the narrator, has an engaging, conversational tone and a fiery continental temper as well as unreliable republican sympathies.

Herr Grosse is an eccentric German who has made his reputation in the United States, and is introduced by Nugent, so one instinctively mistrusts his dirty appearance, his snufftaking and tobacco-smoke and his murdering of the English Language. However, appearances can be deceptive. On the other hand, the bumptious, arrogant and self-important Reverend Finch is the recipient of all the animus that Collins can summon up against clerical hypocrisy.

In his previous work Collins devoted his energies towards investigating the weaknesses in marital law across the United Kingdom. No such elevated subject drove him to write this novel, but he still did not stint on his research - he carefully studied cases of blind people who regained their sight and the subsequent physical and psychological impact upon them. He also looked at the effects of Nitrate of Silver on the skin of epileptics. Through careful study and explication, Collins made a basic plotline which sounded superficially ridiculous believable and engaging. This is not a great work of literature, but it is a very readable and enjoyable novel.

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