While it's one of Collins’ lesser-known works, Poor Miss Finch does not fall into the category of his ‘thesis’ novels, and it remains a work with much to offer the reader. It does not measure up to the heights scaled by some of his other novels, but unlike those pieces, this is a novel which has, not characterisation and intricate plotting, but philosophical, and, specifically, phenomenological exploration as its central strut. Nonetheless, we are not without the sensational, gothic and grotesque aspects which characterise Collins’ work – the double (a recurrent theme), hideous disfigurement, the exurban gothic setting of an isolated house in a remote corner of the country (though accompanied by that staple of Victorian fiction, the picaresque village), and a plot driven by crime, multiplying and improbable coincidence, and a sense of fated doom.
The narrative concerns Lucilla Finch, a young blind woman, and her suitor, the good-natured but weak and quick-tempered Oscar Dubourg, as well as his more worldly twin, Nugent. The story is related by Madame Pratolungo, a companion to Lucilla and a former South American revolutionary – who represents here, along with the eye surgeon Herr Grosse, an example of Collins’ problematic depictions of ‘foreigners’ (we might think of Professor Pesca in The Woman In White), as well as the occasional vehicle of somewhat misogynistic views, but is nonetheless a sympathetic character. Perhaps the most famous aspect of this tale is the treatment Oscar takes for epilepsy – silver nitrate, which turns his skin a metallic blue-grey. The work is subtitled 'A Domestic Story,' and Collins (who, like Dickens, had a highly unorthodox domestic situation, but who, unlike Dickens, was open to the presentation of radical sociosexual moral critique) treats us to a hideous parody of the lower-upper Victorian bourgeois family in the Finch rectory, a former nunnery.
The plot is at times artificially melodramatic, and hence the characters somewhat frustrating, although from a feminist perspective Lucilla is a very atypical Victorian heroine – strong willed and with a definite personality (even if at times more stereotypically irrational and emotionally labile) – but the gothic and melodramatic aspects can also be relished, in the setting (an isolated downland house) and the dénouemont (a wild chase to avert a marriage schemed up under the auspices of deceptive identity, the latter being another characteristic Collins theme).
But unlike many of Collins’ other works, the concern here is not only with identity in terms of appearances which are deceptive because misrecognised (treating here another typical Collins project, the converse characteristics and complex emotional bonds of the double), but also with the way in which identity is created by perception – in particular, in Lucilla’s travail between blindness and sight, and the implications for her character and state of mind. Collins did a great deal of research into blindness for the work, and it was written in a period in which explorations of perception and ontology, with particular reference to blindness, had been budding in the work of philosophers such as Locke, Molyneux, Diderot and Bishop Berkeley (Collins did a great deal of research into the medical aspects of the work, both accounts of blindness and recovered sight, and the treatment of epilepsy with silver nitrate).
In a deeper sense, then, the novel is one which questions deeply-held assumptions about ‘affliction,’ happiness and the human condition, and further, mutual intelligibility – Catherine Peters’ introduction quotes Shaw: ‘do not do unto others as you would they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.’ Peters also notes that Collins’ project, well achieved, was not to show blindness in the typical Victorian sentimental mold, but in the light of human reality – and the sometimes frustrating aspects of Lucilla’s character may be an inevitable outcome of this approach.
Even more so than his better-known novels, this is not a piece without flaws – and those which are characteristic of Collins are the most magnified. But it is also a thought-provoking text and one which is fascinatingly unusual both within Collin’s already outré oeuvre – due to its philosophical concerns – and within the Victorian canon itself.