The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins.
The Moonstone is deservedly one of the most famous novels of the Victorian age and has never been out of print since it was first published in 1868. The story burst upon the reading public, serialised in thirty-two parts in Dickens’s weekly magazine All The Year Round. A novel in three volumes appeared later the same year.
The serial was originally scheduled to run for twenty-six issues but proved so popular that Collins extended the story. Hailed then and now as one of the greatest mid-Victorian sensation novels, T.S Eliot famously described The Moonstone as ‘the first, the longest and the best of the modern English detective novels.’ It is all that and much more.
The Moonstone offers a lot of reading pleasure in addition to a gripping mystery. It’s satirical, witty and wise about human nature. The narrative tells us a lot about life on a mid-nineteenth century country estate and reveals much about the author’s own dark experiences and compassionate views.
In the story the heroine Rachel Verinder is bequeathed a rare yellow diamond of fabulous quality on her eighteenth birthday. The jewel known as The Moonstone was looted by her uncle, an army officer, at the Storming of Seringapatam in 1799. The bequest may be a gesture of family reconciliation or more likely a malicious gift.
A trio of mysterious Indian jugglers are hanging around the Verinders’ Yorkshire estate, bringing a feeling of lurking menace. In the night after the birthday celebrations The Moonstone is stolen. When the local police are baffled, a detective from London is called in to solve the mystery – thus beginning a great crime novel tradition.
The passionate rose-grower Sergeant Cuff is one of the earliest literary detectives, a character as engaging and idiosyncratic in his way as Sherlock Holmes. We know that Collins was thinking of the real detective Inspector Jonathan Whicher of Scotland Yard. He investigated the notorious Road Hill House murder where he suspected Constance Kent of murdering her infant brother. Wilkie Collins takes inspiration directly from that case for a significant clue to the solution of The Moonstone.
A great strength of the novel is its unusual structure. Multiple narrators relate their partial version of events in a lengthy document. Apparently Collins was influenced by attending a criminal trial – Dickens, his close friend and mentor, started out as a court reporter so they may well have discussed this. The novel is laid out as a record of events two years after the affair of The Moonstone has been resolved. Each narrator has been asked to write a record only of what took place in their personal experience. They bear witness just as in court and are not permitted to add details with hindsight.
It’s a very clever device whereby the reader is given fair-play clueing. Characters and events are viewed through several eyes, each with their own bias or prejudice. The reader must decide who is an unreliable narrator and there may be more than one.
It’s easy to understand why the Victorian readers were avidly awaiting the next instalment as the story is just as much of a page-turner today. Part of that must be down to Wilkie Collins’s skill at writing believable characters. They leap off the page. None more so than the lovable, elderly house-steward Gabriel Betteridge who narratives the First Period – The Loss Of The Diamond. Betteridge’s view is kindly towards underdogs and outsiders, echoing Wilkie Collins’s voice. He’s also delightfully eccentric, using Robinson Crusoe as his personal oracle and ‘catching’ detective-fever when he assists Sergeant Cuff.
The Second Period – The Discovery Of The Truth, begins with the narrative of Miss Drusilla Clack. A do-gooding spinster and that stalwart of Victorian fiction, a poor relation, she’s very funny and a joy to read. Wilkie Collins is equally good at writing both sexes and you get the impression he was thinking of real women he’d met – and real occasions when he’d been earnestly harangued in someone’s drawing-room.
Miss Clack is determined to improve people whether they like it or not. Her favourite way of helping others is to leave tracts everywhere she visits. When a maid at the door unaccountably declines to take ‘A Word With You On Your Cap-Ribbons,’ Miss Clack triumphantly shoves it through the letter-box. Collins satirises her hypocrisy with a skill every bit as good as Dickens’. In a scene where Miss Clack is invited to stay, she writes ‘the glorious prospect of interference was opened before me.’
Wilkie Collins’s sympathy for working-class people and outsiders is evident in the novel. He shared his home with his mistress Caroline Graves, who had kept a lowly junk shop. The other woman in his life, Martha Rudd, the mother of his children, had been a barmaid and housemaid. You can tell that he saw people as individuals and didn’t regard them as inferior based on low status. It’s apparent from all his novels that he liked and understood women.
Gabriel Betteridge says: ‘People in high life have all the luxuries to themselves – among others, the luxury of indulging their feelings. People in low life have no such privilege. Necessity, which spares our betters, has no pity on us. We learn to put our feelings back into ourselves, and to jog on with our duties as patiently as may be.’
And the maid-servant Rosanna Spearman says bitterly of her young mistress: ‘Suppose you put Miss Rachel into a servant’s dress, and took her ornaments off?’
Collins’s treatment of the Indians in the story is also more sympathetic than most of his contemporaries. There was a sort of fascination-come-horror about India after the Mutiny in 1857. This was a useful way of introducing a touch of the exotic and a sense of threat, a nice vicarious thrill for his readers.
The other aspect that makes The Moonstone such an enjoyable read is Wilkie Collins’s superb sense of place. Gabriel Betteridge describes the setting of much of the novel.
‘Our house is high up on the Yorkshire coast, and close by the sea. We have got beautiful walks all round us, in every direction but one. That one I acknowledge to be a horrid walk. It leads, for a quarter of a mile, through a melancholy plantation of firs, and brings you out between low cliffs on the loneliest and ugliest little bay on all our coast.’
He goes on to describe a quicksand known as The Shivering Sand. Collins evokes a desolate atmosphere that contrasts vividly with the ordered grounds of the house with their rose garden, hedges and safe gravelled walks.
The Moonstone has had a wide influence. It partly inspired Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds, which is a sort of light-hearted detective novel interlude in his wonderful series The Pallisers. And it’s likely that Dickens’s unfinished novel The Mystery Of Edwin Drood took some influence from a major plot strand (can’t be more specific without spoilers). It’s hard not to recall The Moonstone when reading the Sherlock Holmes stories with an Indian background such as The Sign Of Four and The Creeping Man.
The Moonstone has been praised by some of the greatest detective writers including P.D James and Dorothy L. Sayers. (Her novel The Documents In The Case, co-written with Robert Eustace has a similar structure, using letters).
It appears at No. 8 on the CWA list of the Top 100 Best Crime Novels of all time. I don’t really like the idea of such lists – much as we all enjoy scanning them – so many good novels get left out. Though it’s a testament to Wilkie Collins’s powers that his greatest works are as well-loved today as they were when first published in the 1860s.