Friday, August 9, 2019

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

Source of book: I own this, but we listened to it on audiobook

Years ago, in my teens, The Moonstone was the first Wilkie Collins book I read. After that came The Woman In White, because we owned it. A few years later, I was given two additional books by my violin teacher’s husband. (He had extra paperbacks he didn’t need - and introduced me to P. G. Wodehouse and Anthony Trollope as well.) Those two were Armadale, and my favorite Collins, No Name

We had a couple of long road trips planned for this year, so I got the audiobook version (narrated by Peter Jeffrey, who does a good job of making the Victorian language flow, as well as distinguishing between the different narrators and characters.) The reviews from the kids were mixed. Some found it interesting, others not so much. Win some, lose some.

First a bit about the book itself. The Moonstone is generally considered the first true detective novel. True, Poe wrote a couple of short stories which had many of the elements. And Sarah Burney’s novel, The Hermitage lent some key elements to Collins’ plot. But it really was The Moonstone that brought all the elements together, and would go on to influence detective stories from the Sherlock Holmes books on down. 

The Moonstone follows a common Collins pattern in that the story is told by multiple narrators. In this case, the story is set up by the hero, Franklin Blake, who asks the other characters to tell the part of the story they have personal knowledge of. He himself contributes a section as well. No knock on Franklin, but he is the straight man, so the other narrations are more amusing than his, although all of them serve to illuminate the plot - and eventually the mystery. 

The plot itself is a classic: a mysterious diamond, the Moonstone, is stolen from its Hindu shrine by an unscrupulous British officer. From then on, it appears to be followed by a curse, with evil (and often death) pursuing those who possess it. This history is told through the eyes of close associates of the thief as well as those who inherit the diamond. When the main story opens, the reclusive owner of the stone leaves the diamond to his niece, Rachel Verinder, and Franklin is tasked with delivering it to her. She wears the diamond at a party, and it is seen by all, including the three mysterious Indians who are undoubtedly determined to return it to India. 

That night, the diamond disappears, and the best efforts of the local police are insufficient to solve the mystery. Franklin calls in the renowned detective, Sergeant Cuff (a precursor of both Holmes and Joe Friday, so to speak), who presents his theory, but cannot completely solve the case. 

 Sergeant Cuff investigates...

Later, it becomes clear that the moonstone has been placed in a bank vault in London, pledged by an unknown person to a shady moneylender. But who? And how did he or she get the diamond? 

The story is told in turn by three main narrators. The first section is told by Gabriel Betteridge, the Verinder’s head servant, and one of the most delightful characters in Victorian fiction. He is obsessed with Robinson Crusoe, which he believes to be an oracle, a cross between the Bible and Nostradamus. It is his comfort, his guide, and his inspiration. Which he is eager to inflict on those around him. He is also a bit of a misogynist, having had a rather unpleasant marriage, and finding relief in his wife’s death. But, he is loyal, perceptive, and observant, which makes him an excellent servant and a useful narrator. He isn’t exactly a reliable narrator, as he is openly biased, but his attention to detail allows Collins to set the stage with most of the clues needed using just his story. 

The narrative next shifts to Drusilla Clack, Rachel’s impoverished cousin. Miss Clack is a puritanical sort, who pushes her religious beliefs on others with a rather assaultive fervor. 

The final narrator is Franklin Blake, who gets to explain his own investigation into the mystery. He has a particularly personal interest, as he is in love with Rachel, yet she appears to hate him - while refusing to explain why. 

There are other, shorter sections, essentially narrated by other characters: Mr. Bruff, the family attorney; Ezra Jennings, the doctor’s assistant; and Mr. Murthwaite, an adventurer who tells the epilogue. 

While it is pretty tough to spoil a 150 year old book, I will refrain from revealing the solution to the mystery. Suffice it to say that the essential elements of the British tradition of detective story are mostly in place. The “inside job,” the red herring, the bumbling local police, the celebrated investigator, the least likely suspect, and the final twist. It is in bringing all of them together - and in the skillful plotting and writing - that Collins came to be considered the first to do it. 

A couple of things only marginally related to the plot itself stood out. The most notable is the use of opium and addiction. Collins himself became an opium addict, and wrote certain sections of this book from experience. This may have contributed to its sales, as dramatic and lurid opium dreams were all the rage at the time. 

Second, although Victorian literature as a rule (and English Victorian literature in particular) tends to be colonialist and casually racist, I was struck by how little stereotyping Collins did. (For its era - obviously it would have been written very differently today.) The Indians - the three Brahmans tasked with recovering the Moonstone - may be “exotic” in some ways, but they are not savages. Rather, they are skilled at blending in, shapeshifting as necessary to accomplish their goals. Collins also portrays their goals as noble: it is the British officer who has stolen the gem, after all. Sure, the Indians may be ruthless and even murderous, but they are morally consistent and admirable in their own way. 

Third, Collins is a master of obliquely discussing female “purity” in subversive ways, even while maintaining plausible deniability. The Moonstone is a bit of an obvious stand in for virginity, and Rachel’s decision to refuse to defend her own honor is fascinating. Indeed, she feels insulted that she should have to. This is hardly the only Collins book to go there - indeed, the question of purity (and the hypocrisy and double standards of Victorian society) runs through many of his books. His heroines refuse to conform to nice submissive stereotypes. They fight for what is theirs, they pursue love - and money - as they wish. They take risks that only men were allowed to take. The decline to play the game. 

The fourth observation is that Collins had a real eye for the swindlers of his era. No Name skewers medical cons as well as financial. In The Moonstone, it is religious hucksterism in its fundamentalist form that Collins takes on. Collins was religious, but rather unorthodox in his personal life. (He eschewed marriage, choosing instead to live with a woman and raise her daughter as his own, while having a second mistress and three children with her.) He had no patience, however, for Puritans and their determination to create labyrinths of rules. To this end, he lets Miss Clack have enough leash to humiliate herself in her attempts to convert others. Here are some highlights from that. 

I sat down in the hall to wait for my answer--and having always a few tracts in my bag, I selected one which proved to be quite providentially applicable to the person who answered the door. The hall was dirty, and the chair was hard; but the blessed consciousness of returning good for evil raised me quite above any trifling considerations of that kind. The tract was one of a series addressed to young women on the sinfulness of dress. In style it was devoutly familiar. Its title was, “A Word with you on your Cap-Ribbons.”

Betteridge’s daughter, Penelope, to whom the tract was directed, gives an acid response:

She looked at the title. “Is it written by a man or a woman, Miss? If it’s written by a woman, I had rather not read it on that account. If it’s written by a man, I beg to inform him that he knows nothing about it.” 

Yep, the more things change...there is no end of the policing of female clothing. Hey, I wrote a whole series on that! It is pretty hard to disagree with Penelope’s response. MYOB. 

Later in the narrative, Miss Clack tries desperately to convert Rachel’s dying mother with more and more and more books and tracts and sermons. 

Here was a golden opportunity! I seized it on the spot. In other words, I instantly opened my bag, and took out the top publication. It proved to be an early edition--only the twenty-fifth--of the famous anonymous work (believed to be by the precious Miss Bellows), entitled The Serpent at Home. The design of the book--with which the worldly reader may not be acquainted--is to show how the Evil One lies in wait for us in all the most apparently innocent actions of our daily lives. The chapters best adapted to female perusal are “Satan in the Hair-Brush”; “Satan behind the Looking-Glass”; “Satan under the Tea-Table”; “Satan out of the Window”;--and many others. 
“Give all your attention, dear aunt, to this precious book--and you will give me all I ask.” With these words, I handed it to her open, at a marked passage--one continuous burst of burning eloquence! Subject: Satan among the Sofa Cushions.

One wonders if Bill Gothard and Jack Chick took inspiration from this. So many demons lurking in the corners of everyday life. I’d laugh a bit more heartily if I hadn’t had to live through too much of this - and hadn’t been handed the equivalent of these books to convince my wife of the joys of patriarchy. Sigh. Nothing new under the sun, though. 

One final observation. Collins has tremendous sympathy for the outcasts of society, and takes care to show that often our prejudices against people have to do with their appearances, or their socioeconomic status. Rosanna has done time for theft, but is hired by the Verinders, who look past her past. But she is never completely out of suspicion, in significant part because she is deformed. Her tragic end contrasts with the way Godfrey is assumed to be good because of his genteel birth, his charitable work, and his slick manners. Oh, and his handsome face. The lame Lucy is suspected of madness or malevolence because of her deformity as well. Ezra Jennings is a particularly good example. Jennings has a mysterious past which is hinted at, but not stated. Probably, he has an illegitimate child to support, but this is merely an educated guess. He is also of uncertain race, being apparently of mixed heritage. He also describes himself as having a “female constitution,” and being somewhere between male and female. Whether Collins means to hint at intersexuality, homosexuality, or merely some “defect” in “manliness” is unclear. Whatever the case, Jennings is ugly, and thus distrusted and hated by everyone. In each of these cases, though, appearances are deceiving. Rosanna has her demons, but she is ultimately more generous and kind than you would think. Lucy is fiercely loyal and good hearted. And Jennings turns out to be one of the most scrupulously moral and decent people in the book. Godfrey...well, you will have to read the book to find out his fate. 

You never truly know sometimes how a book you enjoyed as a kid or teen will age. There have been a few which were disappointing to re-read as an adult. (Looking at you, H. Rider Haggard…) Others turn out to be even better than remembered. (As in The Great Brain or anything by Beverly Cleary.) I can say, however, having re-read two Wilkie Collins books, that he has aged well. The plots are tight, the characters memorable, the writing good. And, while still of an era, they are less sexist and racist than I feared - Collins humanizes his characters too well for that. The Moonstone is rightly considered a classic. 

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