Disability as Subversive Agency in Wilkie Collins’s Poor Miss Finch

Lauryn Collins is a recent graduate of the Masters of English program at Dalhousie University. Her thesis focused on presentations of disability and “trans possibilities” (Zigarovich) in the work of Wilkie Collins. At present, she is looking to apply the results of her thesis to material from other writers of the time, including Oscar Wilde, Anthony Trollope, Lewis Carroll, Robert Louis Stevenson, and George Gissing. Lauryn can be found on twitter @laurynecollins and through her Gothic horror blog, http://www.thecoronersreport.ca. This blog post has been adapted from a chapter of Lauryn’s MA thesis, entitled “Gender Non-Conformity Beyond Narrative Prosthesis in Wilkie Collins’s The Law and the Lady and Poor Miss Finch.”

Despite assumptions from contemporary readers that disability may signal an inherent lack of agency or mobility, Wilkie Collins’s fiction consistently defies expectations by subverting understandings of what constitutes “ability” in his disabled and chronically ill characters. Although The Law and the Lady’s Miserrimus Dexter is the most notable of Collins’s disabled figures, the sweet, young, blind woman at the core of his novel Poor Miss Finch is a fascinating focal point for an analysis of ability and agency in Victorian detective fiction, particularly because she has the added burden of needing to enter the marriage market.

Collins’s Poor Miss Finch is indicative of his distinct style of storytelling, fully embodying the sensation novel with its complex love triangles, its grand deceptions of identity, and, in this case, its focus on the medialisation and pathologizing of disability. Lucilla Finch begins the narrative as a young woman in her early 20’s having lost her sight as a toddler. The narrative details the evolution of her romantic relationship with the soft-spoken, but nonetheless intelligent Oscar Dubourg. The arrival of Oscar’s twin brother, (and eventual rival for Lucilla’s affections), Nugent Dubourg, begins an examination of Lucilla’s blindness and a quest for a permanent cure. As Lucilla moves from the realm of the blind into the realm of the sighted, she loses agency, as opposed to gaining it. When she eventually returns to blindness, the agency she lost as a sighted woman is regained, she expresses happiness and relief at the loss of her sight—much to the surprise of the sighted (able-bodied) figures in the narrative.

Although some of the imagery Collins employs to describe disability could be construed as indicative of the prejudices of his time, I hope to demonstrate that, at least in the case of Poor Miss Finch, he employs these stereotypes to satirize the assumptions that create what Tobin Siebers calls the “ability as ideology” framework that consistently places ability as the only acceptable goal for those who are not, at present, able-bodied. Additionally, he uses strategies of caricature in his writing carefully, delivering realistic and humanizing perspectives of people contained in texts that are fundamentally used to shock and entertain. This, in turn, allows for more nuanced discussions of marginalization and bodily difference in a fictional tradition that foregrounds the domestic sphere (Stoddard Holmes 493) in stories of the late 19th century. Sieber’s “ability as ideology” outlines a list of fallacies that ableist society uses to position disability as outside the established ‘norm.’ Collins uses three of these assumptions to create tension in his novels before subverting them to create sensation: firstly, that ability is the supreme indicator of value when judging human actions, conditions, thoughts, goals, intentions, and desires; secondly, that overcoming a disability is an event to be celebrated—or that it is an ability in itself to be able to overcome disability; and finally, that a loss of ability translates to a loss of sociability, and therefore the ability to engage in social norms (Siebers 10).

As a scholar who researches presentations of disability in nineteenth-century fiction, I have found Siebers’ frameworks indispensable for analysing Lucilla’s representation in the novel. Blindness as an “affliction” is treated as an exception in Victorian literature, as it is often romanticized in the context of other physical disabilities (Newman n.p.; O’Farrell 513), however, in Lucilla’s case, her blindness is positioned as a direct obstacle to her fulfilling her purpose as a woman in marriage. One remark from her eye surgeon, Herr Grosse, points to an aesthetic failure in her womanliness at the point of her eyes, as he states: “I shall let the light in here—but in my own way, at my own time. Pretty [love]! Ah, how infinitely much prettier she will be, when she can see!” (Collins 205). In blindness, Lucilla is free to engage in her courtship with Oscar freely and on her own terms, removing reproduction and sexual obligations from the table as she depends on touch to “see” Oscar—breaching boundaries of propriety without incurring accusations of impropriety or impurity due to her blindness. This places Lucilla in a position of subversive defiance to “ability as ideology”, as she incurs less judgement for her actions through the lens of her disability, rather than more. Any potential infraction of sexual propriety is sanitized and forgiven through her blindness, allowing her a breadth of expressive agency that may otherwise be disallowed to her by nature of her class, gender, and marital status.

Lucilla’s return to blindness explicitly subverts “ability in ideology” in the narrative as Lucilla finds happiness and comfort in her blindness, even after experiencing life as a sighted person. Declarations such as, “I am a woman—I won’t be treated like a child” (Collins 250) throughout the novel indicate how she feels infantilized by the way dominant society treats adult women with disabilities. These outbursts and outcries—previously excused by nature of her disability, are, as a sighted person, rendered unacceptable in light of the restoration of her sight. As a “cured” woman is expected to now engage in a set of marriage-centered social expectations that, as a blind woman, she was excused from by nature of her position “outside” abled society. The narrowing of freedoms for Lucilla’s expressive and assertive behaviours renders her “aggressive and unsociable” by her peers and her medical team—another subversion of ability as ideology—as Lucilla’s newfound ability actually causes her to become less sociable than when she was blind. Venting her frustrations in a clear rebellion of what her surgeons and family want, Lucilla yells: “‘my eyes are of no use to me! Do you hear?’ she cried furiously, taking him by his broad shoulders and shaking him with all her might—‘my eyes are of no use to me!’” (Collins 300). As radical a notion as it was (or, perhaps, is) to see a woman with a disability emphatically reject the heralded “cure,” where I think Collins’s attention to sensitivity and agency shines through in his choice to have Lucilla return to a state of blindness—seemingly without medical cause. Interpreting this as psychosomatic to some degree, Lucilla’s rejection of sightedness and a miraculous “cure” allows her to return to a time where she had agency over herself, her behaviour, and her position and presentation on the marriage market.

            Re-examining Victorian literature through the lens of contemporary disability studies—particularly with recent publications, among them Clare Walker Gore’s Plotting Disability in the Nineteenth-Century Novel (2019) and Karen Bourrier’s The Measure of Manliness: Disability and Masculinity in the Mid-Victorian Novel (2015) — offers a wealth of new analytical possibilities in these Victorian texts. Although Collins’s earlier works feature disability in more peripheral forms, his later works offer the potential to offer new perspectives to scholarship’s treatment of disabled identities prior to the twentieth century, examining how these identities may have influenced fiction and made space for later, bolder literary acknowledgements of figures who operate outside the physical norm.

Works Cited

Bourrier, Karen. The Measure of Manliness: Disability and Masculinity in the Mid-Victorian Novel. U of Michigan P, 2015.

Collins, Wilkie. Poor Miss Finch. Edited by Catherine Peters, Oxford UP, 2008.

Durgan, Jessica. “Wilkie Collins’ Blue Period: Color, Aesthetics, and Race in Poor Miss Finch.” Victorian Literature and Culture, vol. 43, no.4, May 2015, pp.765-783. 

Gore, Clare Walker. Plotting Disability in the Nineteenth-Century Novel. Edinburgh UP, 2019.

Mangum, Teresa. “Wilkie Collins, Detection, and Deformity.” Dickens Studies Annual: Essays on Victorian Fiction, vol. 26, 1998, pp. 285-310.

Newman, Hilary. “John Kitto’s The Lost Senses: Deafness and Blindness and Wilkie Collins’s Hide and Seek and Poor Miss Finch.” Wilkie Collins Online-Only Journal, vol. 12, 2013. 

O’Farrell, Mary Ann. “Blindness Envy: Victorians in the Parlors of the Blind.” PMLA, vol. 127, no. 3, 2012, pp. 512-25.

Siebers, Tobin. Disability Theory. U of Michigan P, 2011.

Stoddard Holmes, Martha. “Disability in Victorian Sensation Fiction.” A Companion to Sensation Fiction, Dec. 2011, pp. 493-506.

Tromp, Marlene. “Sensation Fiction.” Victorian Literature and Culture, vol. 46, no. 3-4, 2018, pp. 858-861.