An unsigned review of Wilkie Collins’s Hide and Seek (1854) describes this novel as one which “borders on romance without sacrificing probability” (Page 59). Another contemporary reviewer of Poor Miss Finch (1872) believed that this novel created the impression “of a sort of civilised romanticism, of a fairyland under the control of the police of the present day” (Page 198). Thus these two novels, written on either side of the four great sensation novels of the 1860s, were arguably more indebted to a fairy-tale quality, which Collins tempered with realism. This article will argue that while Collins adopted several of the traditional features of fairytales, such as the mysterious foundling, assumed identities, substitution between identical twin brothers and the damsel in distress, he also took pains to inject realism into his story. Collins did this by giving realistic descriptions of the disabilities of deafness and muteness in Hide and Seek and blindness in Poor Miss Finch. In fact, Wilkie Collins based his representation of disability in these two novels on Dr John Kitto’s The Lost Senses: Deafness and Blindness (1845). Sometimes Collins takes ideas almost verbatim from Kitto’s book, which has been described as “a cultural history of deafness and blindness” (Stoddard Holmes 134). At other times Collins was able to develop hints from The Lost Senses in a more creative way. The conclusion will also suggest advantages Collins reaped from the combination of the fairy tale and the realistic.
Collins’s unusually positive attitude among his contemporaries towards the physical disabilities of deafness and blindness and his use of Kitto’s material presented creatively will be explored. Martha Stoddard Holmes, in an intriguing appendix to her book about physical disability in Victorian culture, has compiled a list of nineteenth-century British literature’s disabled characters. In the first section, on “Blind Characters”, there is a list of twenty-seven characters, including Lucilla Finch and Leonard Frankland in The Dead Secret.1 There are only six deaf characters listed, but two of these were created by Collins: Mary (Madonna) Blyth and “The Cur” in The Guilty River (Fictions, 197-199).2
John Kitto was born twenty years before Collins in 1804 and died at the age of fifty in 1854. From the age of twelve he was himself deaf, and for some years mute as well. Nevertheless he was able to carve out a literary career in numerous genres, ultimately devoting himself to writing about religious causes. He was rewarded with an honorary doctorate. There is no evidence that Collins read Kitto’s devotional works, but he was certainly, by his own admission, familiar with The Lost Senses: Deafness and Blindness.
In his note to Chapter VII of Hide and Seek, Collins acknowledges his indebtedness to Kitto’s book. With the aid of The Lost Senses, Collins states that he is trying to do something not before attempted in fiction: “to draw the character of a ‘Deaf Mute’, simply and exactly after nature” (Hide and Seek 431). Although other Victorian writers had attempted portraits of people with disabilities, they had not done it “as literally as possible”, which was Collins’s aim. His note tells us that luck threw in his way Kitto’s book and solved the problem he had found in “getting at tangible and reliable material to work from.” Without Kitto’s book, Collins admits, “I believe that my design must have been abandoned” (Hide and Seek 431).
In the introduction to the first volume, Deafness, Kitto explained how he himself became deaf. He presents this event dramatically, by creating a picture of the scene and recording some of the dialogue which took place between himself and his doctors. Collins presents Mary’s (henceforward to be known by her nickname “Madonna”) “misfortune” befalling her in a very similar way, and presents some of the scene through Mrs Peckover, including her account of the conversation between Madonna and her doctors. (An earlier, less detailed version had been given by the circus’s owner, Mr Jubber on a placard, but Mrs Peckover’s account follows and enlarges on his).
Both Kitto and Madonna were working with adults at the time of the accidents which caused their loss of hearing. Kitto was helping to put slates on a roof when he fell thirty five feet (Kitto 10). Madonna was working with an adult horse rider in the circus when she too fell from a height. Both children were slow in learning that their hearing had gone: Kitto asked the adults, “Why do you not speak?” (Kitto 11) and Madonna similarly enquires, “Why doesn’t somebody speak to me?” (Hide and Seek 93). Each uncomprehending child accuses the surrounding adults of “whispering”. In both cases the doctors break the news by writing on a slate three shocking words: “You are deaf”. The only difference in these three words in the two accounts is that while Madonna’s doctor writes them in lower case letters, Kitto’s medical attendant printed them in capitals. The explanation of the sudden onset of deafness is the same. Kitto’s doctors advanced various theories, one of which was “that the auditory nerve had been paralysed” (Kitto 12). Madonna’s specialist provides the same reason: “The shock of that fall has, I believe, paralysed the auditory nerve in her” (Hide and Seek 97).
In retrospect, Kitto believed that his youth saved him from realising the extent of his misfortune: “to a child the full extent of such a calamity could not be at once apparent” (Kitto 12). Madonna’s doctor makes the same comment on her misfortune to Mrs Peckover; he says that Madonna is “too young” “to know what the extent of her calamity really is” (Hide and Seek 95). It is noticeable that both writers use the word “calamity”.
Kitto and Madonna both share an unwillingness to talk when deaf and both of their voices alter drastically. While Kitto eventually regained his speech, Madonna never does. Kitto recorded that once deaf he “spoke with pain and difficulty, and in a voice so greatly altered as to be not easily understood… my voice had become very similar to that of one born deaf and dumb, but who has been taught to speak” (Kitto 19. Emphasis in original). Collins evidently based Mrs Peckover’s description of Madonna’s voice when she becomes deaf on Kitto’s experience: “It sounded, somehow hoarse and low, and deep and faint, all at the same time; the strangest, shockingest voice to come from a child” (Hide and Seek 93). Kitto added that “nothing distressed me more than to be asked to speak” (Kitto 20). Mrs Peckover reports the same experience befalling Madonna: “It seemed such a dreadful difficulty and pain to her to say only two or three words” (Hide and Seek 99). The Peckovers decide not to try and force her to speak and the Blyths adopt the same policy, knowing that she has a “horror” of being coerced into talking. All the adults have decided, in Valentine Blyth’s words, to let Madonna “remain perfectly happy and contented in her own way” (Hide and Seek 117)).
A final example of Collins’s indebtedness to Kitto for the first few weeks after Madonna becomes deaf may be cited here. It is an incident the significance of which neither Collins nor Kitto explains, leaving their reader in ignorance. It involves the doctors’ final treatment of Kitto and Madonna, in which both children have a watch inserted between their teeth, but have to confess they cannot hear the ticking of the watch. This inability seems to finally dishearten the medical men. As Kitto records, at this point the doctors “gave it up as a bad case, and left me to my fate” (Deafness 12). Mrs Peckover, carefully observing the specialist when Madonna cannot hear the watch ticking, concludes “that he thought it was all over with her hearing, after what had just happened” (Hide and Seek 96). Collins presumably foregrounded this experiment to add authenticity to his creation of the deaf mute girl in his novel.
Ever in pursuit of authenticity for his character Madonna, Collins again was heavily indebted to Kitto in describing the sort of life she led. Collins does not often try to enter Madonna’s mind, so she is mostly observed from the outside by the narrator and other characters in the novel. Without the benefit of sound and speech, both Kitto and Madonna come to rely heavily on the visual enjoyment of the natural world. Following Kitto, Collins selects Madonna’s particular love of observing trees. This is significant in that it suggests the importance of the remaining senses. Kitto writes of experiencing “[a]n exquisitely keen perception of the beautiful in trees” (Deafness, 56). Collins, in trying to create the character of Madonna, with her traits and preferences, gives the same sort of detail about the deaf mute girl’s response to trees: “Trees were beyond all other objects the greatest luxuries that her eyes could enjoy” (Hide and Seek 120). Collins goes on to describe the physical changes that this pleasure produces in Madonna. Yet, while Kitto’s description of his pleasure in trees is given first hand, Collins’s observations are from the outside, especially in viewing physical changes in her. Here Collins is less successful than Kitto in trying to describe a subjective experience particularly felt by the deaf. As so often, he seems to find it difficult to penetrate deeply into Madonna’s mind.
However, Collins is more successful in giving the reader insight into his deaf mute character when he describes her use of the “seeing sense” and what happens when it fails. Again this description is derived from Kitto’s volume on deafness in which he observes: “being in darkness must be peculiarly irksome to the deaf, as this nearly throws out of exercise all the perceptive faculties, and, for the time, reduces the patient as nearly as possible to the deplorable state of one who is both deaf and blind” (63). Similarly Collins describes Madonna as being “overcome by the most violent terror […] whenever by any accident, she happened to be left in the dark” (Hide and Seek 121). The girl herself explains this nervous terror to a new servant who asks why she always sleeps with a light in her room, saying, “Remember that I am deaf and blind too in the darkness… I hear nothing, and see nothing – I lose all my senses together in the dark” (Hide and Seek 121).
As well as presenting what affects the deaf, this information is in addition an anticipation of a crucial scene later in the novel, where Madonna’s experience of the dark is powerfully conveyed in a dramatic way. This use of the “showing” rather than the “telling” method in presenting Madonna is highly successful. Incidentally, Collins gave very particular directions to his printer for the use of this dramatic scene as an illustration to the novel, even suggesting a choice of two different captions for the picture (Baker, Gasson, et. al., vol. I, 245-6). In Chapter XII of Volume II of Hide and Seek, this scene of Madonna’s terror in the dark as her uncle extinguishes her candle reveals not only the deaf mute girl’s character, but also that of Matthew Grice. This tough man feels “both regret and repentance” for “the paroxysm of terror he had caused her” (343). This anticipates the end of the novel where it is Madonna who tames and civilises Matthew Grice and “cooled the Tramp’s fever forever” for travel in him, so he will “wander no more” (Hide and Seek 430).
Kitto, and in turn Collins, give still more emphasis to the importance of sight in the deaf. Kitto eloquently describes the need and method for evaluating people without hearing or speech. He explains:
every one who is deaf must become a physiognomist… a rapid glance enables him to gather an intuitive and unscientific aggregate of all the conclusions to which scientific investigations might lead, and to realise an impression concerning the person with whom he has to deal, which he might find it difficult to define in words, but which is generally so true, that subsequent acquaintance seldom gives occasion to correct the notice which the first hasty glance conveyed (Kitto 61-62).
Madonna also displays the skills of a physiognomist in her social relations, though she is equally unable to explain her method of forming her opinions of other people. Her technique
consisted simply in examination of a stranger’s manner, expression and play of features at a first interview. This process, however, seemed always amply sufficient for her; … Her affliction had tended, indeed, to sharpen her faculties of observation and her powers of analysis to such a remarkable degree, that she often guessed the general tenor of a conversation quite correctly, merely by watching the minute varieties of expression and gesture in the persons speaking – fixing her attention always with especial intentness on the changeful and rapid motions of their lips (Hide and Seek 119-120).
Another way of taking part in a general awareness of what is happening within a room for the deaf person is also dealt with by Kitto under the title of “Percussion”. Kitto explains his own experience of “percussion”:
In the state of entire deafness, a peculiar susceptibility of the whole frame to tangible percussions suggests the only intimations which have the slightest approximation to those which hearing affords. I was about to call this a peculiar susceptibility of the sense of touch; but this would unduly limit a kind of vibration which, in certain of its development, seems to pervade the whole frame, to the very bones and marrow […] the lightest foot fall upon the same floor is quite sufficient to attract my attention, and even to rouse me from sleep (Kitto 32, 40. Emphasis in original).
Borrowing from Kitto once again, Collins attributes this sensibility to Madonna. Collins uses exactly the same term (“percussion”) but stresses, rather more than Kitto did, that it is a part of the sense of touch (or “feeling”). Early on in Hide and Seek the narrator records that
it was discovered that her total deafness did not entirely exclude her from every effect of sound. She was acutely sensitive to the influence of percussion – that is to say (if so vague and contradictory an expression may be allowed), she could, under certain conditions feel the sounds that she could not hear (120).
This susceptibility is not merely stated by Collins. Instead his narrator goes on to give examples of it, including Valentine Blyth’s rubbing his mahl-stick or foot gently on the studio floor. This “reached her nerves instantly; provided always that some part of her body touched the floor on which such experiments were tried” (121).
Apart from using slates to write upon, both Kitto and Madonna also employ a system of signs. To explain his meaning, Kitto quotes from Dr Watson’s book on the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb (1809). Watson gives an explanation of how it is possible for a deaf mute to remember and identify a person whose name he would never have heard. Watson describes how a deaf mute who met someone with a temporary patch on his face where he had accidentally cut it, would thenceforward identify this person by this distinguishing mark, despite the fact that the patch would have disappeared when the wound had healed. On future occasions when the deaf mute wished to identify this person he would point to the place on his own face. Watson concludes: “To attempt a description of these signs in words would be endless, because they are various as the circumstances and fancies of the inventor” (Kitto 114-115).
In Chapter V, Part II of Hide and Seek Collins expands on this interesting description in a creative way, which adds to his characterization and plot. Collins portrays Madonna indicating to the bedridden Mrs Blyth which people are arriving for Valentine Blyth’s picture exhibition. The narrator explains this procedure in much the same terms as Watson:
Mrs Blyth always encouraged her to indicate who the different guests were, as they followed each other, by signs of her own choosing, – these signs being almost invariably suggested by some characteristic peculiarity of the person represented, which her quick observation had detected at a first interview, and which she copied with the quaintest exactness of imitation. The correctness with which her memory preserved these signs, and retained, after long intervals, the recollection of the persons to whom they alluded, was very extraordinary. (231)
This scene between Mrs Blyth and Madonna provides an insight into their characters and relationship. It also provides a degree of comic relief for the reader as the novel moves relentlessly onwards towards the discoveries which conclude “The Seeking”. Positioned as it is in Hide and Seek, Collins also exploits the reader’s curiosity by creating suspense as we await the arrival of Zack Thorpe and Matthew Grice, from whom we expect revelations. Thus though Collins took this description from Kitto’s book, he has put it to a creative use which develops beyond Watson’s description.
If Madonna can amusingly and accurately inform the Blyths of the identities of their visitors, they can make a return by assisting her to interact with their guests and to share in the news and opinions being expressed in this society. Kitto briefly describes the situation of a deaf and mute person in a social setting, where “a strange craving arises for that lesser talk which no person thinks it worthwhile to repeat to one who is deaf” (150). Collins picked up on this hint and introduces it into his novel, describing how the Blyths are happy to present Madonna with the “little chatty nothings of everyday” (144). The narrator explains that these “little chatty nothings” which the deaf person can so seldom enjoy, are felt as a “special deprivation” (Hide and Seek 144).
To complicate the unravelling of the plot in Hide and Seek, Collins exploited a further typical aspect of the deaf: “It has often been observed that the deaf mutes always look younger than they really are” (Kitto 199). Hence Matthew Grice in trying to work out whether Madonna is indeed his niece has to ask Zack how old she is. His informant tells him: “She’s older than she looks, I can tell you that. You wouldn’t guess her at more than eighteen or nineteen. But the fact is, she’s actually twenty-three” (Hide and Seek 289). Collins thus uses both large and small details from Kitto’s The Lost Senses: Deafness. Some are more effectively built on than others, as we have seen. But how successful is Collins’s presentation of Madonna as a heroine whose novelty lies in her characterization as a disabled person? This question has occupied critics from the contemporary reviewers of the novel to those of the twenty-first century. An unsigned review which appeared in Bentley’s Miscellany in July 1854 tackled this question by stating that Madonna was one of the novel’s “well-drawn portraits”, and “has several traits of originality” (Page 59). However, the anonymous reviewer continues that Madonna cannot “play a very prominent part from her position and physical deficiencies” (Page 59). It might be argued that Madonna’s portrait does not actually show “several traits of originality”, as practically every prominent aspect of her character is drawn from Kitto’s book.
Further, modern criticism has been troubled by the ending of the novel, which dispels Madonna’s romantic interest in Zack Thorpe because he turns out to be her younger half-brother. Kate Flint summarises this disappointment felt by earlier critics by describing their view that Collins retreated from what would have been “a radical possibility” in the Victorian Age of “the fulfilment, and affirmation, of the affective and physical desire of someone with impaired senses” (Flint 159). Flint, opposing this reading, argues instead that it is “a means of emphasising the continuum between the fully able and the impaired”, by making them closely related (159). However, it is also possible to suggest that Hide and Seek is not primarily a novel of conventional romantic involvements. The relationship between Madonna’s parents belongs in the distant past, as does the original domestic establishment of the Blyths. The interest of the novel lies in the “hiding” and “seeking” as, indeed, the title suggests. No marriage is celebrated at the end of Hide and Seek; Zack is no more romantically involved with a woman, any more than Madonna is with a man. Indeed, Lillian Nayder argues that Hide and Seek belongs to a different genre:
Although The Moonstone is often cited as the first English detective novel, Collins began to experiment with this literary form from nearly the start of his career. Despite the absence of a policeman or inspector from its cast of characters, Hide and Seek can be considered Collins’s earliest example of detective fiction (42).
That Collins had no ideological or eugenic objection to the marriage of a woman with impaired senses emerges in his novel Poor Miss Finch (1872), in which the burning question is who the blind eponymous heroine will marry. That this denouement would be unusual even in late twentieth-century literature is revealed by two comments by Martha Stoddard Holmes. Holmes writes that Poor Miss Finch‘s “core narrative of a blind woman falling in love, marrying, and having children – without first being ‘cured’ – remains a rarity in fiction and film” (Holmes 2003, 60). The argument from Victorian ideas of hereditary is also explained by Holmes, as something that “not only pointed backward, to parental transgression and defect, but even more urgently, to future generations. Victorian medical and social science reshaped the Biblical category of ‘unclean’ into the social-scientific category of the dysgenic or degenerative” (Holmes 2003, 80).
I will now turn to Collins’s portrayal of the eponymous heroine of Poor Miss Finch, a novel that reveals an even more radical attitude towards disability than Hide and Seek. Holmes describes the blind heroine’s “assertive sexuality” as being one of her most striking features (Holmes 2003, 74). Indeed, Collins may have intended to be provocative and shocking as well as entertaining. Collins’s attitude towards both Madonna and Lucilla Finch’s disabilities is summed up in his “Dedication” to Poor Miss Finch, where he writes: “I subscribe to the article of belief which declares, 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” (XI). Collins made the same point at least twice in his letters. He provided his correspondent with an “analysis of the story called:- Poor Miss Finch”:
The object of the story is to show the modifying effect of the circumstances on the calamities that afflict human life. The calamity selected for illustration is Blindness. The person afflicted is a young girl. She is presented to the reader as having been blind from infancy. She is afterwards operated on, and recovers her sight for a time. The interval past, her sight fails her again, and her blindness is renewed for life. The incidents of the story are so managed as to make the happiest days of the girl’s life – not the days when she enjoys the brief restoration of her sight – but the after-days when the operation had failed, and the blindness has permanently returned. The story leaves her, at its end – by a perfectly natural succession of circumstances – happier, under the return of her calamity, than she had been at the earlier period of her life when her sight was restored for a time (Baker and Clarke 347).
The following year, 1872, Collins apologised for “the vain hopes which I have innocently raised” in a blind man who was encouraged to believe the restoration of his own sight might occur, following the example of Lucilla Finch. Collins partly blames “the vile system of publication” – the novel was being serialised – and explains:
When the last numbers of Poor Miss Finch appear, my readers will discover that she relapses into total blindness, and that her blindness and her happiness are made to be conditional one on the other. I have written the book expressly to show that happiness can exist independently of bodily affliction (Baker, Gasson, et. al., vol. II, 314-315).
Collins is radical in conveying aspects of the characters of Madonna and Lucilla through their physical appearances which are practically perfect and more obvious than their disabilities – in fact they could be called idealised portraits. Thus Madonna is regarded as highly attractive by those she mixes with. Although different people disagree about Madonna’s attractions
They unanimously asserted that the young lady’s face was the nearest living approach they had ever seen to that immortal “Madonna” face, which has for ever associated the idea of beauty with the name of RAPHAEL… that image of softness, purity and feminine gentleness (Hide and Seek 50).
Similarly, the blind eponymous heroine in Poor Miss Finch reminds the novel’s narrator, Madame Pratolungo, of “the matchless Virgin of Raphael, called ‘The Madonna di San Sisto’”, which she has seen in an art gallery in Dresden (Poor Miss Finch 13).
Resembling Hide and Seek is the authorial aim of presenting “blindness as it really is” in Poor Miss Finch, instead of earlier accounts of blindness which were written “more or less exclusively, from the ideal and the sentimental point of view” (Dedication XXXIX). Although Collins only refers to his sources as “competent authorities of all sorts”, it will be shown that Poor Miss Finch takes many of its details from Blindness, the second volume of The Lost Senses by Kitto.
It is noticeable that both Kitto and Collins reveal an ambiguous attitude towards blindness. These will be explored in Kitto’s Blindness and in Poor Miss Finch through the attitudes of its characters. Although Lucilla sometimes feels angered by her disability, which she feels makes it easy for those with sight to deceive her, this is not her final attitude. Collins also presents the positive aspects of blindness, including such substitutes for the seeing sense as touch and hearing. Smaller aspects of blindness which Collins takes from Kitto’s book will also be dealt with. These will include perceptions of colour, how blind people dream, the heroine’s love of music and her ability to write.
As previously discussed, Kitto had experienced deafness and muteness himself and drew on some of his own experiences in Deafness. In his Blindness volume he was more dependent on other people’s description of this sensory deprivation, having never been blind himself. Perhaps for this reason he was more open to the suggestion of people he interviewed about their blindness that they were not always desirous of regaining their sight. This point-of-view is expressed on at least five different occasions in Blindness. Three examples of this will sufficiently make the point. In Chapter IX of Blindness, Kitto reports the attitude of one James Schegkins: “Having early become blind, he was so little sensible of the loss of his sight, that he refused to allow himself to be couched by an oculist who assured him that the operation would restore his vision” (211). A second example from Kitto is to be found in Chapter X of Blindness, where an unnamed blind man was quoted as saying: “I am deeply convinced that there are simple, proper and available means, by which the mind might be brought to feel blindness as no privation at all” (253). The third and final example of the acceptance of blindness as a positive state is an extreme case, in which one Francis Huber made a “declaration that he should be miserable were he to cease to be blind.” His expressed consolation for his blindness was that “to me my wife is ever young, fresh and pretty” (219).3) This approximates to Lucilla’s acceptance of blindness so that she can preserve her mental picture of Oscar unbothered by his blueness.
Like Madonna, Lucilla has developed her remaining senses to compensate for the lost one. Lucilla even feels superior to her seeing friends: “She laughed scornfully at our surprise, and said, she sincerely pitied the poor useless people who could only see!” (Poor Miss Finch 89). Later Lucilla states: “I really don’t feel as if it would give me any particular pleasure to use my eyes. I have been blind so long, I have learnt to do without them” (220). At the end of the novel, when Lucilla is blind again she tells Madame Pratolungo: “I told you I was used to being blind…. You people who can see, attach such an absurd importance to your eyes!” (414). Madame Pratolungo confirms this attitude: “She had declared that she had never honestly envied any of us the use of our eyes” (414).
Kitto gave several examples of people who either underwent operations to restore their sight, or were advised of this possibility, including the poet John Milton and one Edward Rushton. The cases of these two men may have suggested to Collins the possibility of his eponymous heroine in Poor Miss Finch submitting to eye surgery. Both Milton and Lucilla consulted foreign oculists, Milton the French M. Thevenot, and Lucilla the German Herr Grosse.
When Lucilla falls in love with Oscar, she is in a parallel situation to another of the cases discussed by Kitto. This blind man was “only actuated by an intense desire to see, when I met with some one who excites more than ordinary interest in my feelings” (Kitto 98). Likewise Lucilla states to Madame Pratolungo that she is used to being blind and “only wanted to recover my sight, to see Oscar” (413). But having discovered that it is Oscar, who she loves who is blue and not his twin brother Nugent, who she does not, Lucilla says:
“Thank God,” we heard her say to herself fervently –“Thank God I am blind.” [When Madame Pratolungo protests at this, Lucilla replies]: “Do you think I wish to see him disfigured as he is now? No! I wish to see him – and I do see him! – as my fancy drew his picture in the first day of our love. My blindness is my blessing” (417).
Lucilla further enlarges on this theme when she sees Madame Pratolungo’s incomprehension of her attitude. The latter asks what Lucilla meant when she said she had gained rather than lost by the return of her blindness. Lucilla replies: “Happiness… My life lives in my love. And my love lives in my blindness”. The Frenchwoman comments “There was the story of her whole existence – told in two words!” (418). So naturally Lucilla refuses to consider a further operation on her eyes. Ultimately the reader is also content that Lucilla has returned to blindness; as Madame Pratolongo says:
As blind Lucilla, you first knew her. As blind Lucilla, you see the last of her now. If you feel inclined to regret this, remember that the one thing essential was the thing she possessed. Her life was a happy one. Bear this in mind – and don’t forget that your conditions of happiness need not necessarily be her conditions also (424).
As we have seen, Madame Pratolungo is expressing Collins’s own view as he expressed it in his “Dedication”. Throughout Poor Miss Finch he had imaginatively used Kitto’s accounts of blind people to bestow their compensations for their lost sense on his own heroine. In Chapter III Kitto presents a deaf, mute and blind girl called Laura Bridgman. The latter as a model for both Madonna and Lucilla is of particular interest in view of Collins’s expressed intention to create deaf-mute and blind women “simply and exactly after nature”. As Elisabeth Gitter makes clear in her article, Laura Bridgman was not presented as she really was during the nineteenth century. Though Gitter writes she was studied as “a real girl” and “became a living laboratory for research into the existence of innate ideas: she was studied, poked, prodded, and discussed” by “scientists and pseudoscientists”, Laura actually was rapidly idealised. Gitter writes that Laura became “a spiritualised heroine brought to life” and that as “a spiritualised heroine” she was also “a popular subject for articles and poems in Christian tracts and women’s magazines” (186). More than Madonna, the blind Lucilla is irrepressibly herself and is presented in a thoroughly realistic way as a young woman who is determined to find her sexual mate to marry and produce children with. Collins refuses to spiritualise Lucilla.
Nevertheless, Collins does give Lucilla some of Laura’s behaviour. Like the deaf and mute Madonna in Hide and Seek, Lucilla’s sense of touch has been greatly sensitised. In his Blindness, Kitto had revealed these compensations:
With regard to the sense of touch, it is in Laura very acute, even for a blind person… The fingers are to her as eyes and ears and nose, and most deftly and incessantly does she keep them in motion. Like the feelers of some insects which are continually agitated, and which touch every grain of sand in the path, so Laura’s arms and hands are continually in play (61).
Still writing of Laura’s sense of touch in Chapter IV of Blindness, Kitto relates that “her sense of touch is now so exquisite, that having been acquainted with a person once, she can recognise him after almost any interval” (75); so much so that “touch was her chief reliance” (77).
Collins used this sense of touch both to convey with realism how a blind person copes with her lost sense of sight, and also as a plot device whose denouement will finally turn on this very sense. Knowing that this will be an important element in his plot, Collins introduces it early on in the novel in an apparently casual fashion, when Lucilla asks her new companion: “‘May I see you in my way?’ she asked gently – and held up her pretty white hand. ‘May I touch your face?’” (14).
Collins’s use of Lucilla’s highly developed sense of touch is worthy of further examination, as it leads to an ultimately satisfactory conclusion of the plot. Oscar exclaims to Lucilla on their first meeting that her identification of a vase by feeling is “‘Wonderful… I believe you have eyes in the ends of your fingers’” (35). It is ironic, then, that his identical twin brother thinks he can substitute himself for Oscar because Lucilla cannot see with her eyes who he really is. And he still succeeds in imposing on her when she has regained her sight. But for Lucilla, touch rather than sight is “much the most trustworthy, and much the most intelligent sense of the two” (220). Although she cannot immediately disentangle the deception, she is anxiously aware that the putative Oscar – really Nugent – is not affecting her sense of touch as the genuine Oscar did. Collins manages to suggest that Lucilla is sexually attracted to Oscar but not to Nugent. The latter’s embrace fails to produce “the delicious tingle” which she usually experiences with Oscar (147 & 329). Similarly when the putative Oscar gives Lucilla “a tender squeeze” she confesses “Nothing in me answered to it. I should have felt it all over me a few months since” (334-335). Lucilla’s fear, which is confirmed by Herr Grosse (404), is, “Can the loss of my sense of feeling be the price that I have paid for the recovery of my sense of sight?” (329).
Meanwhile the faithful Madame Pratolungo, exiled in France, refers to Lucilla’s “faithful instinct which persists in warning her that this is the wrong man” (332-333). Lucilla is also disappointed with the appearance of the supposed Oscar when she recovers her sight. Like the Duke of Gloucester in King Lear, Lucilla “stumbled when I saw” (IV, I, L21). When blindness descends on her once more, she is able to distinguish her real lover by her sense of touch. Madame Pratolungo has returned to see the reunion of the two lovers. She tells Lucilla to touch Oscar’s face. At first Lucilla is afraid,
Then, with a long low cry – a cry of breathless rapture – she flung her arms passionately round his neck. The life flowed back into her face… In soft tones of ecstasy, with her lips on his cheek, she murmured the delicious words:
“Oh Oscar! I know you once more!” (416-417)
Another aspect of Lucilla’s blindness which is influenced by Kitto’s Blindness is the ability of the blind to distinguish colours by touch, whilst also loathing dark colours. Kitto quotes from a Mr Spence who had remarked on “one of the most wonderful circumstances related of the attainments of the blind – namely the power which some of them are alleged to have possessed of distinguishing colours by the touch” (139). Later, a further quote from Mr Spence elaborates further about the blind: “they can distinguish all the principal colours, in a piece of silk for instance… and I have heard that some of them have carried this so far as to distinguish several of the intermediate colours, and even the mixtures of different tints in particular silks” (140-141).
Again Collins has creatively factored this aspect of blindness into his blind character. The apprehension of colours without the assistance of sight is introduced quite casually into Poor Miss Finch from Kitto who encourages the reader to see it as another facet of the sense of touch.4 In Poor Miss Finch, Lucilla wishes to choose Madame Pratolungo’s dress for the evening meal on the day of her arrival, to demonstrate her skill at distinguishing colours. Lucilla is very disappointed when she is told that she has confused two dresses which are of the same texture but of dark and light colours. This is a clever stroke by Collins, for it makes the reader enquire: how reliable is Lucilla’s judgement of colour?
A further aspect in Kitto’s volume on blindness is the feeling that the blind attach to certain colours. He writes of Laura Bridgman in Chapter IV, “she forms an idea (vague of course) about colours; she thinks that black is a dirty colour, and that the ground is black; another says that black is rough, while white is smooth etc.” (67). Kitto explains that the blind person lives in permanent darkness and this may account for his or her horror of dark colours. Madame Pratolungo refers to the blind living “in their own dark sphere” and in “changeless darkness” (Poor Miss Finch 33). Lucilla herself tells us that she associates light “with all that is beautiful and heavenly” and dark “with all that is vile and horrible and devilish” (221).
This aspect of Lucilla’s blindness introduced so skilfully by Collins, apparently only to give a realistic impression of such a person’s views, is actually of great importance for the plot of the novel. Difficulties enter the characters’ lives when Lucilla’s fiancé, Oscar, has to take drugs for epilepsy. This medication has the side effect of turning his skin a dark blue – a colour that Lucilla loathes. Oscar refers to this “peculiarity” of Lucilla’s, which is her “strongest antipathy”, a “purely imaginary antipathy to dark people and dark shades of colours of all kinds”. Oscar concludes that this antipathy is “quite as inexplicable to herself as to other people” (17). Nevertheless Oscar fears she will reject him if she sees his colour. The problem is only ultimately solved by Lucilla’s contented return to blindness, after many plot complications and considerable suffering on the part of the main characters. This perception of colour among the blind is actually raised in Kitto’s Blindness. Once more Mr Spence’s comments are introduced into Kitto’s text. On this occasion Mr Spence is making an observation on the blind (obscure) poet James Blacklock: “our author may have affixed a set of ideas to the words he uses in relation to colours, though quite of a different kind from the ideas which they give to us” (140).
Another sense highly developed in the blind in general, and in Lucilla in particular, is that of hearing. Like touch, hearing is refined and sensitised as a partial substitute for the failure of the seeing sense. The blind traveller, James Holman, is quoted by Kitto as an example of a blind person who used the voices of people he met to compensate for his inability to see them. Holman attributed this pleasure to “the tone of the voice, the manner of speaking, and other circumstances, which excite in my mind an ideal picture of the features, personal qualities, manners – nay, even the character of the person conversing with me” (97-98).
Likewise, Lucilla creates her own internal picture of Oscar from his voice. She immediately asks Madame Pratolungo to describe him after they have spoken to him: “Tell me – what is her like? Is he beautiful? He must be beautiful, with that voice” (21). Later on, Madame Pratolungo suggests how hearing is a substitute for sight for Lucilla: “She found as many varieties of expression in listening to her beloved tones, as the rest of us find in looking at our beloved face” (71).
However, the helpfulness of the sense of hearing which can identify different voices is undermined in this instance, as Nugent can exactly imitate the voice of his twin brother. This deceives Lucilla and leads her to total and helpless confusion. She comes close to perceiving the truth when she describes listening to Nugent, thinking she is hearing Oscar: “It was the old voice talking in a new way: I can only describe it to myself in those terms” (342).
Another characteristic of Lucilla’s is common among the blind according to Kitto. He tells the reader: “It is difficult to find a blind person to whom music is not the highest luxury of life” (171). Similarly, Madame Pratolungo informs her reader that “The poor young lady had one great pleasure to illumine her dark life – Music” (4). This aspect of Lucilla’s pleasures is also an important catalyst to the story, for it brings the narrator, Madame Pratolungo, to Dimchurch. Collins has again very naturally and realistically introduced the Frenchwoman into Lucilla’s world. The introduction of a stranger is also a useful device for informing the reader about the fictional world. Her initial observations tell us everything Collins thinks his reader should know.
Another realistic touch is taken from Kitto, who quotes from an unnamed blind man’s comment on his dreams: “Dreams are to me always replete with images of visible objects” (250) In this connection, Kitto also referred to the dream described by the blind poet John Milton. Kitto suggests that this poem “raises the question, can the blind see and recognise in dreams what they never saw with their bodily eyes?” (126).5 Collins evidently decided that the answer to this conundrum was “Yes”, for Lucilla dreams that she married Nugent instead of Oscar: “I saw his hideous discoloured face – I am never blind in my dreams” (171). At some level Lucilla is already uneasy about the twin brothers and their relationships with her and each other, and this is very naturally expressed in a dream.
A final aspect of the blind Lucilla to be considered in connection with Kitto is her ability to write. Lucilla, like Laura Bridgman, the blind, deaf and mute girl, keeps a journal. The teacher in charge of Laura has observed that when writing Laura “kept her left hand always touching, and following up her right, in which of course she held her pen: no line was indicated by any contrivance, but she wrote straight and freely” (Kitto 74-75). That this skill was surprisingly common among the blind is suggested by the fact that Kitto gives another example, that of James Holman, who says that when there is no amanuensis around “I have still a resource in my own writing apparatus” (Kitto 91).
The fact that the blind can write is of great significance in Poor Miss Finch. Initially it is useful for Lucilla to be able to contact Oscar and she insists on writing the first letter to him herself, explaining to Madame Pratolungo: “‘I can write – in my own roundabout way. It’s long and tiresome; but still I can do it. Come and see.’ Guiding the pen in her right hand with the fingers of her left she wrote slowly in large, childish characters” (60). Like other factors introduced apparently casually into the novel, Collins will exploit this skill of Lucilla’s later on in his story, when he makes her write a journal. This is necessary for two reasons. Firstly because Madame Pratolungo is away from Lucilla and somebody must record events. Secondly because her insistence in writing her journal, despite Herr Grosse’s warnings, destroys her newly restored sight and moves the plot towards its resolution.
In conclusion, Wilkie Collins wrote positively about deafness and blindness – the first in Hide and Seek and the second in Poor Miss Finch – in accordance with his views expressed in the Dedication to the latter novel. He based these accounts on Dr Kitto’s book The Lost Senses: Deafness and Blindness. While using fairytale or romance plot elements in both these novels, Collins’s depiction of the disabilities of deafness and blindness were solidly based on fact. The novels reveal some degree of didacticism, as well as providing entertainment. This dual purpose, to teach radical ideas about disability and to entertain the novel-reading public, may account for these two apparently disparate elements. For, while wishing to educate, Collins had no intention of writing a dry scientific treatise on disability. Therefore, he chose to combine realism and romance, according to the classical Horatian formula of bestowing both profit and pleasure; or in neoclassical terms he presented Sir Philip Sidney’s gilded pill. That is, Collins’s novels delight, but they also disguise their subversive ideas on disability by smuggling them in under fairy-tale plots and character elements. Thus the mixed genres are exploited by Collins for his own subtle purposes. It is no accident that Collins is one of the two most prolific creators of disabled characters in nineteenth-century fiction. Moreover, in these two novels, Hide and Seek and Poor Miss Finch, this didactic purpose in no way distorts the story and its attributes often actually contribute to the mechanism of the complicated plots.
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Collins, Wilkie. Hide and Seek. Ed. Catherine Peters. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.
______. The Dead Secret. Ed. Ira B. Nadel. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
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______. Miss or Mrs?, The Haunted Hotel, The Guilty River. Ed. Norman Page. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
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Gitter, Elisabeth. “Deaf-Mutes and Heroines in the Victorian Era.” Victorian Literature and Culture 20 (1992): 179-196.
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- Robert Ashley sums up the effect of The Dead Secret and its difference in its treatment of blindness from that in Poor Miss Finch: “Furthermore, Collins made no attempt to study the psychological effect of being blind, nor did Leonard’s blindness have any impact on the plot” (21). [↩]
- It is of interest that in The Guilty River the psychological consequences of deafness are wholly destructive of the young man thus afflicted. Here it is combined with hereditary “bad blood” to create a would-be murderer. This is Collins’s penultimate finished novel and reflects his current interest in the hereditary nature of criminality. In a death bed confession, “The Cur” writes to the hero to explain that his “infamous conduct” was caused by “the family taint, developed by a deaf man’s isolation among his fellow-creatures” (351). Thus he is very different from Madonna. [↩]
- Exactly the same point is made in The Dead Secret. On their honeymoon, Rosamund tells her recently blind husband Leonard: “When years have passed over us both, Lenny, and when time begins to set his mark on me, you will not say to yourself, ‘My Rosamund is beginning to fade; she grows less and less like what she was when I married her’. I shall never grow old, love, for you! The bright young picture in your mind will still be my picture when my cheeks are wrinkled and my hair is gray”. (68 [↩]
- Another source for this feature of blindness was, according to Collins, information supplied by Charles Reade. See PFWC Volume II, 300. [↩]
- Actually John Milton was born in 1609 and did not become totally blind until 1654. Likewise Collins’s blind characters have had their sight for some time before total blindness. The question of dreams in the blind is also tackled in The Dead Secret. After having lost his sight for over a year, Leonard still sees in his dreams, as he explains to his wife: “I dream a great deal, but I never dream of myself as a blind man. I often visit in my dreams places that I saw and people whom I knew when I had my sight, and though I feel as much myself, at those visionary times, as I am now when I am wide awake, I never by any chance feel blind… I have lost my sight more than a year now, and yet it was like the shock of a new discovery to me to wake up from a dream, and remember suddenly that I was blind” (Chapter III, “The Bride and Bridegroom”). [↩]
John Kitto’s The Lost Senses: Deafness and Blindness and Wilkie Collins’s Hide and Seek and Poor Miss Finch
by Hilary Newman
The Wilkie Collins Journal 12 (2013)