Wednesday, December 06, 2023

Wilkie Collins, Poor Miss Finch (1872)

So the narrator is Madame Pratolungo, a widowed Frenchwoman with revolutionary politics (though that last isn't super-relevant).  Penniless, she ends up in England where she gets a situation as a companion for a young woman, Lucilla Finch, who is blind.  Lucilla ends up engaged to this fellow named Oscar Dubourg, who is leading a quiet life.  But then, disaster: some no-good types come to rob Oscar's house and whack him on the head.  That's bad!  But he recovers.  That's good!  But now he's subject to regular seizures.  That's bad!  But there's a cure.  That's good!  But the cure is silver nitrate, which gives people who take it a blue complexion (that's a real thing)!  That's...bad?  Well, what's bad is that Lucilla, in her blindness, has conceived an instinctive revulsion for people with dark complexions.  What will happen if she finds out?  Or even, if she recovers her sight?  Oscar has an identical twin brother (oh yes) named Nugent, living in America; he's a great guy, seemingly; previously, Oscar had been tried for murder and would likely have been hanged if Nugent hadn't found an exonerating witness at the last minute.  And now he's found a German doctor--one of those classic Comedy Foreigners--who may be able to restore Lucilla's vision (she's been blind almost since birth).  But oh no, now Nugent has fallen in love with Lucilla as well.  What follow are...well, "hijinx" would be overstating the case, but a sort-of drama.  It's not exactly that I don't want to spoil it; more that it's kind of convoluted and I can't be bothered.  Anyway, you can probably tell from the above whether you want to read the book, and that the answer is "no."

Well, this is all fucking bonkers.  You have to sort of wonder what happened to Wilkie Collins.  Too much laudanum?  Does that make people write weird, kinda-bad novels?  He goes on in his introduction about all the dang research he allegedly did into the experiences of blind people, and also claims that readers found Gosse, his comedy-foreigner doctor, so believable and compelling that they wrote him asking if could put them in touch with him.  I mean, far be it from me to doubt the word of a man of his stature...and yet, I somehow do.  Also, for all this supposed research he did, the book is pretty weird and inconsistent on its view of disability--whether or not being blind is a horrible fate, and like that.  Someone could write and probably has written an article about this aspect of the novel.

But hey, you know, that's all kind of okay.  Collins always was always capable of being somewhat preposterous, as you remember if you think about the denouement of The Moonstone.  But the problem here is that there's just absolutely none of the suspense or excitement that make his best novels so memorable.  Certainly none of the indelible characters; no Count Fosco or Captain Wragge or Geoffrey Delamayne, and the fact that I can actually remember their names says something.  I'll grant you that Madame Pratolungo is a kind of appealing narrator, but nothing all that special.  How is it that this came right on the heels of Man and Wife, which, in spite of being lesser-known, might be his best novel?  It's some weird fuckin' shit, man.  I won't say that there wasn't a certain mild interest in seeing where all this was going, but eh.  I kind of doubt I'm going to read every single Collins novel on the strength of this.  Which is too bad!  Have I ever mentioned that I liked him so much that when I was in the UK, I specifically made a point of visiting his grave?  'Cause I did, and here is the photographic evidence:

My hair is way different than that now.  But the point stands.  You've gotta be at least a little less goofy, Wilkie!

(For the record, since they were in the same cemetery, I also saw Trollope's grave, which is immaculately maintained--there must be some sort of Trollope society that's taken responsibility for it--and also William Thackeray, whose grave is almost impossible to identify--it has REALLY gone to seed. Collins is somewhere in the middle.)


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