Nineteenth-Century Disability:  Cultures & Contexts

Hide and Seek

Wilkie Collins.jpg


Millais's oil painting shows Wilkie Collins seated wearing a brown velvet jacket, and looking downwards pensively with his hands clapsed in front of his chest. Wilkie Collins (1850) by John Everett Millais.  Courtesy National Portrait Gallery under a Creative Commons License (NPG 967).


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.

Primary Source Text

As the course of her education proceeded, many striking peculiarities became developed in Madonna's disposition, which seemed to be all more or less produced by the necessary influence of her affliction on the formation of her character. The social isolation to which that affliction condemned her, the solitude of thought and feeling into which it forced her, tended from an early period to make her mind remarkably self-reliant, for so young a girl. Her first impression of strangers seemed invariably to decide her opinion of them at once and for ever. She liked or disliked people heartily; estimating them apparently from considerations entirely irrespective of age, or sex, or personal appearance. Sometimes, the very person who was thought certain to attract her, proved to be absolutely repulsive to her--sometimes, people, who, in Mr. Blyth's opinion, were sure to be unwelcome visitors to Madonna, turned out, incomprehensibly, to be people whom she took a violent liking to directly. She always betrayed her pleasure or uneasiness in the society of others with the most diverting candor--showing the extremest anxiety to conciliate and attract those whom she liked; running away and hiding herself like a child, from those whom she disliked. There were some unhappy people, in this latter class, whom no persuasion could ever induce her to see a second time.

She could never give any satisfactory account of how she proceeded in forming her opinions of others. The only visible means of arriving at them, which her deafness and dumbness permitted her to use, consisted simply in examination of a stranger's manner, expression, and play of features at a first interview. This process, however, seemed [end page 119] always amply sufficient for her; and in more than one instance events proved that her judgment had not been misled by it. Her affliction had tended, indeed, to sharpen her faculties of observation and her powers of analysis to such a remarkable degree, that she often guessed the general tenor of a conversation quite correctly, merely by watching the minute varieties of expression and gesture in the persons speaking--fixing her attention always with especial intentness on the changeful and rapid motions of their lips.

Exiled alike from the worlds of sound and speech, the poor girl's enjoyment of all that she could still gain of happiness, by means of the seeing sense that was left her, was hardly conceivable to her speaking and hearing fellow-creatures. All beautiful sights, and particularly the exquisite combinations that Nature presents, filled her with an artless rapture, which it affected the most unimpressible people to witness. Trees were beyond all other objects the greatest luxuries that her eyes could enjoy. She would sit for hours, on fresh summer evenings, watching the mere waving of the leaves; her face flushed, her whole nervous organization trembling with the sensations of deep and perfect happiness which that simple sight imparted to her. All the riches and honors which this world can afford, would not have added to her existence a tithe of that pleasure which Valentine easily conferred on her, by teaching her to draw; he might almost be said to have given her a new sense in exchange for the senses that she had lost. She used to dance about the room with the reckless ecstasy of a child, in her ungovernable delight at the prospect of a sketching expedition with Mr. Blyth in the Hampstead fields.


Collins, Wilkie. Hide and Seek. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Pages 119-20.



Further Reading

  • Carpenter, Mary Wilson. Health, Medicine and Society in Victorian England. Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2010. 
  • Esmail, Jennifer. Reading Victorian Deafness: Signs and Sounds in Victorian Literature and Culture. Athens: Ohio UP, 2013. 
  • Flint, Kate. “Disability and Difference.” The Cambridge Companion to Wilkie Collins. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007. 
  • Holmes, Martha Stoddard. Fictions of Affliction: Physical Disability in Victorian Culture.  Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2004.


Jennifer Esmail



Collins, Wilkie, “Hide and Seek,” Nineteenth-Century Disability: Cultures & Contexts, accessed July 14, 2024,