The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

The Moonstone is a novel published in 1868. Written by Wilkie Collins it is considered to be the first detective novel in English. It was serialized in Charles Dickens’ magazine All the Year Round.

I read The Moonstone for the first time some 8 years ago.  As a fan of detective stories and classics in general, I had expected to enjoy the book. But I didn’t like it as much as I thought I would. I re-read it last year to see if I had been wrong in my opinion of it but no, nearly a decade later my thoughts remained exactly  the same.

‘The Moonstone’ is the name of a large diamond which once belonged to a Hindu temple. Rachel Verinder, an heiress, receives it as a birthday gift. The stone goes missing that very night. The hunt for the diamond thief and to find the whereabouts of the diamond forms the core of the story. In this book Collins used the multi narration style for the second time after The Woman in White.

It is very obvious that the story was published in installments. To keep up the suspense the story is provided with too many characters with different voices crowding over each other and too many red herrings to baffle the readers.

Wilkie Collins certainly knew how to get the audience hooked. His narrative is gripping from the start and he never lets up. Even at nearly 500 pages long the book holds interest.

But he seemed to be in two minds about how to portray certain characters. On one hand he is very keen on providing social commentary on various subjects (the rights of women, the class system, the racial issues etc, etc,). But on the other hand, he was writing for a mid-Victorian audience. So, he puts in a good amount of Victorian melodrama into the narrative.

For instance, the character of Rachel Verinder is not your typical Victorian heroine as Mr. Bruff, the lawyer, says,

The first instinct of girls in general, in being told anything which interests them, is to ask a multitude of questions, and then to run off, and talk it all over with some favorite friend. Rachel Verinder’s first instinct, under similar circumstances, was to shut herself up in her own mind, and to think it over by herself…

This makes her seem like a modern heroine. But when she meets Franklin Blake, her estranged lover, face to face for the first time after a year she promptly goes into hysterics and wrings her hands and cries out with fury and rage any time she receives a little provocation. The only consolation is, she doesn’t faint.

Comparisons between Charles dickens and Wilkie Collins are inevitable. They were contemporaries and very close friends. I feel that Collins was less sure about what he wanted to do. He seems kind of preachy to me. Sometimes his social commentary overshadows his narrative and sometimes the light, entertaining side of his writing comes out. It’s like a play of shadows and lights. Dickens seemed surer about how he wanted to deal with the issues important to him (child labour, the condition of prisons, the judiciary system etc, etc,) and how and when to entertain. With Dickens the characters are such a big part of the plots that long after the book is over one remembers their personalities. With Collins the characters are memorable but seem kind of undermined by the central themes that he wanted to enlarge upon. To me at least, Dickens is superior of the two in those aspects.

Among all the characters I liked Lady Verinder the best. She has a certain dignity and integrity about her that is hard to find in many female characters of that time. I found Ezra Jennings interesting. Collins’ understanding of his plight and his mixed race origins is moving. I wish we got to know more about him.

I don’t like the character of Gabriel Betteredge. He is an opinionated old man, definitely not as lovable as we’re led to believe. It is typical of him to say things like,

I was something dissatisfied with my daughter- not for letting Mr. Franklin kiss her; Mr. Franklin was welcome to that

when Mr. Franklin kisses his teenaged daughter Penelope Betteredge. Another thing is, Collins says Gabriel is a man who is between 70 to 80 years old and yet he acts like a much younger man (for instance, when he collars Sergeant Cuff).

Sergeant Cuff has been portrayed as an archetype of the modern detective but he isn’t even present for most of the book. He is kept in the shadows while very mediocre characters occupy the narration and do the entire detective work instead of him. I would have liked to have seen more of him and his detection skills.

Rachel Verinder is a nothing more than a spoilt heiress. She is intelligent but refuses to see reason or take any advice from anyone. She behaves irrationally and unpredictably for most of the story. Franklin Blake, her (equally rich) persistent lover, is so many things at so many different times that he fails to take any distinguishable shape at all. The same goes for Godfrey Ablewhite. He’s bland and not properly fleshed out.

Rosanna Spearman’s character has more depth than many of the other characters. Her love is treated like dirt by the object of her affection who is only mildly surprised by it. The only one really sympathetic to her is surprisingly Sergeant Cuff, who says,

“Hadn’t you better say she’s mad enough to be an ugly girl and only a servant?’ he asked. ‘The falling in love with a gentleman of  Mr. _______’s manners and appearance doesn’t seem to me to be the maddest part of her conduct by any means…You think Mr. _______ hasn’t got a suspicion of the girl’s fancy for him? Ah! he would have found it out fast enough if she had been nice looking…

For me, the narrations of Gabriel Betteredge and Miss Clack dragged on a bit. Miss Clack is supposed to be funny and ridiculous but she is so negatively portrayed that I felt like I was being forced to hate her. Well, she is right on one account. Her estimation about the character of the elder Mr. Ablewhite turns out to be quite true.

I don’t like romance of any kind. And this book contains some very mushy romantic blabberings of Victorian love and unrequited yearnings. In fact it even overshadows the mystery for most of the time. I love mystery and didn’t like it being side tracked at all but it will probably not bother any one else.

Even though Collins is sympathetic towards the Indians they are portrayed as some kind of strange, vicious, magic loving people. But this is a Victorian novel so it is just a product of the time.

The Moonstone is a really good page turner, highly entertaining. But to any modern reader of mystery it would seem obvious who the criminal is. It should be read for what it is, a big piece of the history of mystery/detective stories. No more, no less.

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