Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone

The moonstone is an Indian diamond of great price plundered from a Hindu temple. It was left to Rachel Verinder by a spiteful Uncle who grudged the family for cutting him from visiting. What is vindictive in giving such a precious jewel? Along with it comes danger, intrigue, and confusion– and yes, he was well aware of it! Considered one of the first English mysteries (natural as the notion of what we consider a ‘detective’ really evolved in the Victorian era) unlike our modern stories, it’s far more character-driven than plot-driven. Surprisingly, Detective Sergeant Cuff does not figure as the main character, he’s almost a minor character! Swooping in and out, helping or hindering; guiding the mystery.

Collins creates a compilation of eye-witness accounts, each event related to the moonstone’s mischief. The epistolary-like format lets us learn about the characters through various impressions and points of view. Gabriel Betteredge with his trusty old pipe and Robinson Crusoe starts us off with charming (unintentional) humor on his inadequacy in writing. He’s the current butler of the house, which gives a stolid image of him– but such an image would be mistaken. He was the estate’s steward for many years and it’s clear he loved the outdoors and going about managing. Despite whatever he says about women he seems to be a softy who gives in more often than not to the wishes of them: Lady Verinder, his daughter Penelope, and presumably his wife. What a curious character Mrs. Betteredge must have been! He’s a delightful character, especially when he’s struck with ‘detective fever.’

Rachel Verinder doesn’t feel bound to portray herself with pretense; She says and does everything frankly and honestly. It’s the story of her romance with Franklin Blake that really drew me into the novel because there’s a drastic shift in her behavior. Is Betteredge deceived in his opinion of her? Is Cuff right? I felt the answers must be ‘no’ but  why was she suddenly reticent and cryptic? She must have a very good reason but as to what the reason is we are as lost and confused as Franklin.

Miss Clack, unfortunately, is our second narrator. Her sanctimonious interfering is very annoying because she does it with a Pharisee-like hypocrisy: false sympathy, condescending pity, and inopportune interjections. She lacks the understanding of what being a good Christian really means. Her feelings and motives prick out behind the shield of her pen. Collins’ statement is clear: Just because a person professes and appears to be religious doesn’t necessarily mean they are. He uses this idea again with Godfrey Abblewhite whose philanthropy is well-known and admired. He plays with appearances versus reality. It is such a relief when we move onto the next storyteller.

There’s also a dimension on Imperialism. The diamond rightfully belonged to the Indians it had been stolen. While that does not justify their actions it begs the question of whether at the time India, often termed the Jewel in the Crown, ought to have been under British rule? Does the moonstone symbolized the country? And I will stop there as I know very little on the history of that subject. But I imagine this hint wasn’t lost on all of Collins’ contemporaries.

Memorable Quotes

I am asked to tell the story of the Diamond, and, instead of that, I have been telling the story of my own self. Curious, and quite beyond me to account for. I wonder whether the gentlemen who make a business and a living out of writing books, ever find their own selves getting in the way of their subjects like me?

If you will look about you (which most people won’t do),” says Sergeant Cuff, “You will see that the nature of a man’s taste is, most times, as opposite as possible to the nature of a man’s business.”

“I was thinking of you.” The answer almost unmanned me. Something in the tone, even mroe than in the words, went straight to my heart. It was only after pausing a little first that I was able to go on.

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4 thoughts on “Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone

  1. I’ve read that, in his home, Borges had rather small collection of chosen books and ‘The Moonstone’ was one of them. That was recommendation enough for me but reading this makes it even more appealing..

  2. I love the way Wilkie Collins satirises sanctimonious fanatics like Miss Clack. Have you read a lesser-known work, The Law and the Lady? It features one of the early female detectives in Victorian fiction.

  3. I will be reading the Moonstone in November, so it was fun to read your thoughts and to know that the book has an epistolary format. I just read Dracula and liked reading the different points of view of the characters.

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