Surgery and Sensation in Poor Miss Finch (1872)

October 2018

Alison Moulds dissects the surgical subplot in Wilkie Collins's novel Poor Miss Finch (1870).

First edition of Poor Miss Finch (1872). Public domain.
First edition of Poor Miss Finch (1872). Public domain.

‘In the first place, Poor Miss Finch is a surgical and a medical novel,’ pronounced the Saturday Review’s unsigned reviewer in 1872, as he disparaged Wilkie Collins’s latest offering. Poor Miss Finch follows its titular heroine, a young blind woman, as she undergoes an operation to restore her sight. The reviewer found himself unable to empathise with the story’s independent and assertive protagonist (‘we can get no further than pity’) and decried the surgical plotline as thoroughly unpalatable: ‘if our sentiment struggles against the idea of examinations, consultations, and cases of surgical instruments, it is hopefully killed when it comes to the question of bandages’.[1]

Poor Miss Finch almost faded into obscurity, overlooked in comparison with Collins’s better-known works, namely his genre-defining sensation novel The Woman in White (1860) and detective story The Moonstone (1868). In Poor Miss Finch, Collins moves away from the scandalous subjects that characterised his early fiction (from bigamy to insanity). In the book’s dedication, the author sets out his aim towards authenticity, to ‘exhibit [….] blindness as it really is’, building on his reading of real-life cases.[2] His principal interest is the subjectivity of his heroine, Lucilla Finch, before and after surgery.

The narrative pays particular attention to how her changing sensory perceptions affect her burgeoning romance with Oscar Dubourg. In his search for authenticity, Collins didn’t altogether eschew sensationalism – following a violent attack, Oscar contracts epilepsy and is treated with nitrate of silver, a remedy which turns his skin blue. After learning of Lucilla’s deep-rooted antipathy towards dark colours (which has decidedly racialised overtones), Oscar fears that her newly restored sight will drive a wedge between them. Panicking, he agrees to trade places with his identical twin Nugent, who is himself in love with Lucilla and determined to use the subterfuge to his own ends. The ruse confuses Lucilla, who cannot understand her apparent loss of affection towards her betrothed. At the novel’s end, Lucilla and Oscar are reunited and her vision fades. The sight loss does not invite pity however, for Lucilla proudly reclaims her identity as a blind woman.

The novel is most radical in its depiction of Lucilla, for whom the epithet ‘poor’ is a purposeful misnomer (despite the Saturday Review’s insistence on pitying her). Collins positions a young blind woman at the centre of his marriage plot, challenging contemporary ideas about the marital prospects of women with disabilities. In recent decades, interest in the novel has been revived by scholars working in medical humanities and disability studies.[3] It was while re-reading the novel to teach a class on disability and the body that I was struck by how far it overlapped with our interests on Surgery & Emotion as well.

Poor Miss Finch stages a dispute between two surgeons, the upright English adviser Mr Sebright and the larger-than-life German oculist Herr Grosse, who has made ‘a reputation and a fortune’ through the skilful treatment of eye diseases (182). While both agree that the heroine’s blindness stems from cataracts, they disagree on the prognosis – Sebright feels the condition cannot be cured, while Grosse maintains that he can restore her sight. These characters are shaped by national and surgical stereotypes, with the narrator emphasising that ‘[t]he English oculist was as unlike his German colleague as it is possible for one human being to be to another’ (190). Mr Sebright is ‘reserved’ and speaks in a detached manner, explaining that his prognosis is ‘based on surgical considerations which it requires a professional training to understand’. Yet he is also sensitive to his patient’s feelings, suggesting that he is unwilling to ‘expose’ her to ‘the moral consequences of a disappointment which must seriously try her’ (200). By contrast, the outlandish Herr Grosse is both grotesque (with a ‘diabolical smile’) and charismatic (with an ‘irresistible’ manner) (194; 202).

The surgical subplot engages with contemporary medical discourse and is replete with emotions. In part, the narrative seems to reinforce stereotypes about the ‘emotional excess’ of women with disabilities,[4] but it is sympathetic to Lucilla’s feelings and also foregrounds the affective responses of others. When Herr Grosse suggests he can restore her sight, Lucilla responds with ‘a cry of joy’ (199), while Oscar is a ‘miserable man’ as he fears what this will mean for their relationship (212). The protagonist’s decision to undergo surgery ‘terrifie[s]’ her companion Madame Pratolungo, who calls herself the ‘greatest coward living’ when it comes to operations (201). Meanwhile, Herr Grosse’s mercurial temperament shifts between lightness and ‘sudden gravity’ (194; 203). He adopts a ‘tender’ and ‘sentimental’ attitude towards his patient, laying her hand over his heart. His disturbing fixation with how ‘infinitely much prettier she will be’ after the procedure taps into contemporary prejudice (205).

Despite Herr Grosse’s care for his patient, the operation is represented in the Gothic mode. Volume One draws to a close with his ‘wild black eyes gloating over a hideous array of scissors, probes and knives’, while Lucilla is ‘deftly fingering one of his horrid instruments’ (231). The prospect of the beautiful heroine undergoing a gruesome operation is exploited for its melodramatic and sensational potential, though the procedure happens ‘off-stage’. Perhaps the author feared alienating his audience through too much clinical detail, though this tactic also enables him to shroud the operation in mystery, ensuring it retains its fear and fascination.

Illustration of surgery on the eye for the removal of a cataract. From Joseph Pancoast's A Treatise on Operative Surgery (1846). Credit: Wellcome Collection.
Illustration of surgery on the eye for the removal of a cataract. From Joseph Pancoast's A Treatise on Operative Surgery (1846). Credit: Wellcome Collection.

The Saturday Review’s commentator found his sentiment and sympathy ostracised by the surgical plot. Yet the novel’s sensational appeal derives from the reader’s anticipation surrounding Lucilla’s operation and recovery, the question of whether or not the surgery has been a success. In Volume Two, the plot turns on the need to screen the patient from anxiety or shock in the weeks following her operation. Thus her family and friends agree to the twins’ ruse. Ironically the identity switch only serves to agitate Lucilla, who cannot fathom why her affections have diminished. She finds her encounters with ‘Oscar’ to be curiously devoid of erotic appeal – in her journal she expresses feeling ‘disappointed’ at the loss of that old ‘delicious tingle’ (329). As she learns to use her eyesight, Lucilla stops relying on her (acute) sense of touch, which is sending her warning signals. When she is finally reunited with her real fiancé (who temporarily fled), Lucilla feels that ‘exquisite sense of […] recognition by touch’ (417). Sensation fiction is characterised by its ability to thrill the nerves, and reading Poor Miss Finch is a remarkably sensory experience.

In one of his ‘Clinical Lectures on Diseases of the Eye’, ophthalmic surgeon Charles Bell Taylor (1829-1909) asserted that ‘to restore sight to the blind has ever, and justly, been considered one of the grandest of human achievements’.[5] Initially it seems Collins’s novel will perpetuate this narrative of the grand surgical intervention. Indeed, the Saturday Review suggests that the heroine’s story ‘idealizes the surgical element in the novel’.[6] But the ending challenges this orthodoxy (and surgical authority) when Lucilla pronounces that she is happier being blind, reclaiming her ‘disability’ as central to her identity. ‘You will persist in thinking that my happiness depends on my sight,’ she tells Madame Pratolungo, before emphasising, ‘I look back with horror at what I suffered when I had my sight – my one effort is to forget that miserable time’. Refuting everyone’s obsession with her sight ‘loss’, she protests that she has ‘gain[ed]’ ‘happiness’ (418).

Collins declared that the object of his narrative was to show that ‘the conditions of human happiness are independent of bodily affliction’ and that ‘it is even possible for bodily affliction itself to take its place among the ingredients of happiness’ (xxxixl). The novel thus privileges Lucilla’s own experience of blindness over other interpretations (both lay and medical) which see happiness as contingent on cure. Tabitha Sparks argues that Collins’s plot frames surgery as ‘a destructive practice’.[7] Yet in a later preface, Collins notes that he has been approached by readers keen to consult the real-life Herr Grosse (he assures them the character is purely an invention). This remark bolsters the narrative’s claims to authenticity and credibility. Yet it also illustrates how the electrifying surgical caricature captured the imagination of his original readers. Collins’s emotionally charged narrative seems both to question and sustain the aura surrounding the miraculous operation.

[1] ‘Poor Miss Finch', Saturday Review, 2 March 1872, pp. 282-3 (p. 282).

[2] ‘To Mrs Elliot’, in Poor Miss Finch, Wilkie Collins (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. xxxix-xl (p. xxxix). Further references are given after quotations in the text.

[3] Martha Stoddard Holmes, Fictions of Affliction: Physical Disability in Victorian Culture (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004); Heather Tilley, Blindness and Writing: From Wordsworth to Gissing (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).

[4] For more on this stereotype see Holmes, p. 7.

[5] C. Bell Taylor, ‘Clinical Lectures on Diseases of the Eye: Lecture V: Eye Troubles in General Practice’, Lancet, 16 April 1887, pp. 765-7 (p. 765).

[6] ‘Poor Miss Finch’, p. 283.

[7] Tabitha Sparks, ‘Surgical Injury and Narrative Cure in Wilkie Collins's Poor Miss Finch and Heart and Science’, Journal of Narrative Theory, 32.1 (2002), 1–31 (p. 2).