Can you resist a Victorian novel featuring a blind heroine and identical twins, rivals for her love – one of whom turns dark blue in the course of the novel? If not, read no further, but rush off and buy Poor Miss Finch. For readers who have not yet discovered this novel, I shall try not to give too much away. Those of us who love Victorian fiction do so because it panders to our narrative greed. Résumés spoil the appetite.
Wilkie Collins, of course, serves up some very highly spiced tales; and the first thing to admit about Poor Miss Finch is that it is deeply curious. This, of course, is not unusual in Collins’s fiction. His exuberant imagination throws up some pretty odd combinations of protagonists (deaf-mute heroine and a man who has been scalped by Indians in Hide and Seek; a prostitute with a webbed left foot and a Christian Socialist from an American cult in The Fallen Leaves, among many others); and he regularly stretches the long arm of coincidence to the point of dislocation.
There are readers – I confess I am one – who positively enjoy the oddities, even the far-fetched sillinesses of Victorian sensationalist fiction. They will not be disappointed. As if a blind heroine with a pathological fear of dark colours and a dark blue suitor were not enough, the first chapters are crammed with lurid incident. The more extrovert twin, Nugent, has, when the story starts, already dramatically saved his more introverted brother Oscar from the gallows (‘Good God!’ I cried, ‘You are the man who was tried for murder last month, and who was all but hanged on the false testimony of a clock!’); there rapidly follows violent robbery, and a horrid message ‘traced on the back of the child’s frock, with a finger dipped in blood – HELP’. All this even before one of the brothers turns irrevocably blue. (I shall not reveal which, how or why, though I cannot resist hinting darkly that Flaubert was
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