Wilkie Collins (1824-1889) was a prolific British writer who was famous for his contributions to the genre of “sensation fiction” including the popular novels The Woman in White (1860) and The Moonstone (1868). Hide and Seek (1854), from which this passage is excerpted, one of his early novels, was centered on the mysterious parentage of its deaf character Madonna Blyth. Madonna, who was found as an orphaned infant by circus performers, was raised in the circus where, during a performance, she fell from a horse and was deafened. Eventually, an artist, Valentine Blyth, and his “invalid” wife Lavvie, adopt Madonna and raise her as their daughter. The mystery of the novel is eventually solved by Mat Grice, a character who enters the Blyth’s lives when he is looking for answers about the seduction and death of his sister Mary.
While the plot of Hide and Seek centers on detection, intrigue and other sensational elements, Collins inserted a note to chapter seven explaining that he wished to “represent the character of a ‘Deaf Mute’ as literally as possible according to nature” (431). When Collins describes Madonna’s communicative and sensory experiences in detail, then, he typically relies on his source material, John Kitto’s The Lost Senses (1845), an autobiographical work by a deaf writer. In this passage, Collins suggests that Madonna has extraordinary visual abilities as a kind of “compensation” for her deafness and this notion that there must be a sensory compensation for a sensory impairment had enormous currency in Victorian writing about both deafness and blindness. When Collins describes Madonna’s skill at, and pleasure in, looking, he borrows from Kitto’s assessment of his own acuity; while Kitto disputes the idea that his sight must be better than the sight of people who can hear in compensation for his deafness, he nevertheless contends that his deafness led to his “passionate love” of “the beautiful in nature and art” (Kitto 51) and a “habit of seeking the character and passing sentiments of persons in their countenance” (Kitto 61). As Flint argues, in attending to the compensations of a sensory impairment in his novels featuring disabled character, “Collins is offering… a commentary on the role played by the senses in perception in general—something which was very much a live issue for many commentators in the mid nineteenth-century in the rapidly consolidating field of psychophysiology” (Flint 157).
However, when Collins describes Madonna’s deafness as having “sharpen[ed] her faculties of observation and her powers of analysis to…a remarkable degree,” he is not only representing deafness in a way that he believes is realistic, nor simply commenting on her lip-reading abilities, but also is developing an important feature of characterization in a mystery novel. The fact that Madonna’s visual prowess enables her superior judgment is invaluable in a novel where looks can be deceiving and mysteries require solving. While, as Martha Stoddard Holmes has noted, Madonna’s sensitivity to visual pleasure may be read as a “dangerous” quality in a woman (Holmes 80), Madonna is also celebrated in the novel as a model of perceptiveness.
Collins, who includes disabled characters in many of his works, explains that he has a “moral purpose” in introducing Madonna Blyth, who is deaf, and Lavvie Blyth, who is an “invalid”:
I know of nothing which more firmly supports our faith in the better parts of human nature, than to see – as we all may—with what patience and cheerfulness the heavier bodily afflictions of humanity are borne, for the most part, by those afflicted and also to note what elements of kindness and gentleness the spectacle of these afflictions constantly developes [sic] in the persons of the little circle by which the sufferer is surrounded. Here is the ever bright side, the ever noble and consoling aspect of all human calamity…(Introduction to Hide and Seek 431)
Despite Collins employment of the rhetoric of “affliction” and “calamity,” his depictions of disability, as Kate Flint notes, tend to “collapse the boundaries between the able-bodied and the impaired” (Flint 154), suggesting perhaps a more positive portrayal of disability in his novels.