Illustration from the 1875 Chatto & Windus Piccadilly Novel
Illustration from the 1875 Chatto & Windus Piccadilly Ed. of Poor Miss Finch

A striking coincidence: while writing a funding proposal for a project on epilepsy in the Victorian imagination, this interview popped up on The Huffington Post. It’s a segment from The Today Show with Paul Karason, the “blue man” who’s been treating a skin condition with colloidal silver for over a decade. (The show seems to have a penchant for curious bodies—just yesterday they featured an young girl who’s been sneezing ten times a minute for the past two weeks.)

Anyway, I was particularly struck by Karason’s story because I’ve reading Wilkie Collins’ Poor Miss Finch, a highly original meditation on the intersections of disability and visibility. The novel’s “poor” woman is Lucilla, called so (not without irony on Collins’ part) because of her blindness. Lucilla’s fiancée Oscar suffers from epilepsy, and, true to the chemical dependencies of Collins’ plots, we find that his post-traumatic seizures are curbed with silver nitrate, a remedy that causes a dark-blue discoloration of the skin. Like the “cunning preparation” of phosphorus in Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles, this treatment colors a merely unusual body with gothic effects. When Oscar’s fiancée regains her vision, the sight of him terrifies her.

Behind the narrative necessity of Oscar’s “black-blue complexion,” I suspect there’s a desire to render the condition of epilepsy visible by saturating (and implicitly racializing) Oscar so that the inside shows through. The novel is marked by a climate of suspicion concerning epilepsy—in particular over the possibilities of simulation. Can an afflicted body “pass” as healthy? Can healthy bodies perform affliction? These are questions that Oscar’s story raises, with the help of a twin brother who exchanges identities with him in order to retain Miss Finch’s affections.

In the Karason post, I was surprised to find how often commenters invoke race. From jokes about Karason claiming status as a “person of color,” to suggestions that his moment in the spotlight was just another instance of affirmative action, the least empathetic comments consistently collapse skin-color and race, as if uniformly resentful towards bodies that openly display their difference.

13 thoughts on “Tangled Up in Blue

  1. Thanks for posting this, Gregory. I just finished reading Poor Miss Finch and was actually wondering whether or not nitrate of silver was still in use to treat epilepsy or other ailments, such as skin conditions.

    Oscar’s blue skin interests me very much because of Collins’s preoccupation in his fiction with the accidental qualities of bodies. There seems to be a wholesale assault in his fiction on the idea of the self as substance. Instead all we find are bodies with various accidental attributes, in an Aristotelian sense.

    I’m interested in your thoughts for a project on epilepsy. Is it for a postdoc?

  2. Daniel,
    I’m with you on Collins’s bodies. I’d say that his techniques of characterization tend to adulterate substance with substances. Rather than providing his characters with internally consistent motivation, he just has them spiked or poisoned, and they end up performing in ways they never would otherwise. His Armadale is probably the best/worst instance of this, where the plot’s every turn is effected by the drugging of one character by another. It’s like the novel was authored by a chemist.

  3. Oh, and yes – the epilepsy project is for a post-doc. In terms of fiction, I’m looking at PMF, Silas Marner, Braddon’s Thou Art the Man, and bits and pieces of Dickens. At the moment, I’m most curious about the persistent association between epilepsy and economics. I love that Oscar’s home invasion brings on his seizures. He’s robbed of his silver, but, in terms of the narrative, it just ends up being absorbed into his affliction. (Though now it’s no longer Oscar who works on the metal in his shop, but the metal that performs its work upon his body).

    Now that I’ve started listing, does anyone know if I’m missing any Victorian novels where epilepsy plays a role (even a seemingly minor one)?
    In addition to what’s above, I’ve looked at Oliver Twist (his brother suffers from seizures), Headstone in Our Mutual Friend, Guster in Bleak House, Carmina in Heart and Science, Gaskell’s “Lois the Witch,” and Tennyson’s “The Princess.”

  4. Not sure if you’ve seen this, but I happened to come across a Punch article from 1867 on “Epileptical Kleptomania.” I remembered coming across it after reading about your thoughts on epilepsy and economics. I’ll email it to you, or you can find it in Google Books. Punch volume from 1867 page 217.

  5. I believe there’s also an interesting account of an epileptic fit in Charles Reade’s Griffith Gaunt. Google Books again.

  6. I’m reading Vanity Fair right now and I’ve noticed more than one reference to epilepsy in minor characters. In chapter 33, for instance, the narrator notes that “My Lord Southdown, her late husband, an epileptic and simple minded nobleman, was in the habit of approving of everything which his Matilda did and thought.”

  7. I don’t know if you’re planning to address faked illness, but Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Adventure of the Resident Patient” features a sham cataleptic who manages to convince an expert physician.

  8. Thanks Constance! The Doyle is new to me too.

    And yes, any project on epilepsy has to address malingering. Epileptic seizures seemed to arouse the same kind of suspicions that hysterical episodes always had. John Hutton Balfour Browne’s The Medical Jurisprudence of Insanity (1880) confronts the problem of “feigned epilepsy” (from which many dishonest beggars make their living), warning that simulated epilepsy is often “the means of inducing an accession of the disease feigned.”

  9. I can’t believe silver of nitrate is still in use as a treatment for epilepsy! I wrote a paper on Poor Miss Finch in grad school and researched where Collins got his information on this kind of treatment at length…. It seemed odd to say the least.

    I would add that Collins brings up the question of race in his treatment of disability and visibility. Oscar’s treatment makes him blue–and Lucinda has a horror of dark people. But of course she can’t see him because she’s blind. I’m not sure what to make of this aspect–perhaps Collins is showing Lucinda’s racism to be silly since she doesn’t detect the blueness and her horror of dark people is in her imagination? Not sure…

  10. If you’re interested in looking at epilepsy, there is a character in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s ‘Thou Art the Man’ who suffers from the condition. I’m really sorry I can’t remember his name, but from what I can remember, he’s a rather central character!

    Hope that helps!

    1. Thanks Carley,
      Valancourt Books has a nice new edition of Braddon’s novel. I received a copy this past Christmas, but haven’t actually found the time to read it just yet.

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