THE EYES OF WILKIE COLLINS
"Gout in the eyes" - and some optometric thoughts by Andrew Gasson
Contemporary illustrations of Collins invariably show him wearing the typical small, oval-eye frames of the time - very similar to those currently in fashion. We cannot be sure at what age he became short-sighted, but certainly from 1850 onwards, when he was 26, all portraits and photographs feature him wearing spectacles.
Myopia, however, was not Collins's only eye problem. For a great many years he suffered from rheumatic gout and this frequently affected his eyes with particular severity, causing him the most agonizing pain. On some occasions he was compelled to keep his eyes bandaged for days or even weeks at a time so that publishers' deadlines were met only by dictating to a secretary from his sick-bed in a darkened room.
This was the case during the magazine serialisation of The Moonstone in 1868 when he suffered one of his severest attacks. A report at the time described him as having eyes like 'enormous bags of blood'. Once, in conversation, he was heard to say 'I see that you can't keep your eyes off my eyes, and I ought to say that I've got gout in them and its doing its best to blind me.'
Apart from his own real-life eye problems, blind or visually handicapped characters appear in at least three of Collins's books. After Dark (1856), indeed, begins dramatically enough with 'The doctor has just called for the third time to examine my husband's eyes. Thank God, there is no fear at present of my poor William losing his sight, provided he can be prevailed on to attend rigidly to the medical instructions for preserving it.'
One of the main characters in The Dead Secret (1857) is blind, having rapidly lost his sight in his youth despite 'the doctor from London having blistered him behind the ears, and between the shoulders, and drenched the lad with mercury and moped him up in a dark room.'
In Poor Miss Finch (1872), the heroine, Lucilla, is blind with cataracts. Much of the plot is taken up with with the efforts of the eccentric but likeable German doctor, Herr Grosse, to restore her sight and his disagreement with the opinion of the conservative English oculist, Mr Sebright. The operation, unfortunately, is only briefly successful, with Lucilla Finch again lapsing into blindness. Collins account of her early attempts at seeing represent the most careful research as well as an awareness of visual psychology and perception. His descriptions of her disorientation, lack of spatial judgement, dislike of dark colours, and her continuing ability to recognise shape and form only by touch all bear a striking resemblance to a 20th century case history recorded by Gregory of recovery from blindness written in 1966, nearly 100 years later.
So convincing was the character of Herr Grosse - described in the book as having 'a pair of staring, fierce, black goggle eyes with huge circular spectacles' - that Collins was inundated with letters from readers demanding the name of the real life doctor on whom he was modelled.
Some aspects of Collins's own ill health may have been hereditary in origin. He certainly considered that his rheumatic disease was inherited from both his grandfather and from his father, the famous landscape painter William Collins. Perhaps Wilkie's forced pre-occupation with his own eye problems explains in part the significant appearance of blind characters in his stories.
All material in these pages is © copyright Andrew Gasson 1998-2010