The Moonstone

In which I review The Moonstone, Wilkie Collins’ 1868 detective novel about the theft of a stolen Indian diamond and the race between a disparate cast of characters to recover it.

What it’s about: England, the 1840s. Colonel Herncastle, an English soldier posted in India, steals a valuable yellow diamond from a Hindu temple during the Siege of Seringapatam, and smuggles it to England, pursued by a trio of Brahmins intent on recovering it. On his death, Herncastle leaves the jewel, known as the Moonstone, to his niece Rachel Virinder. Franklin Blake, Rachel’s cousin and love interest, presents Rachel with the jewel on her 18th birthday; the next morning, it disappears. Sergeant Cuff investigates the case, accusing Rachel of hiding the diamond and using it as security for a loan, aided by the housemaid Rosanna Spearman. Rachel flees the house, while Rosanna disappears, later assumed drowned, and a dejected Franklin goes overseas. A year later, London is awash with gossip about the Moonstone, now thought to be lodged with a money-lender. Rachel accepts a proposal of marriage from her cousin Godfrey Ablewhite, a well-known philanthropist. Franklin returns from overseas, determined to solve the case. He discovers that Rosanna had been secretly in love with him, and hid a piece of evidence that incriminated him in the theft. Rachel admits that she witnessed Franklin stealing the Moonstone in the night, but has kept silent to protect his reputation. Franklin and Rachel return to Yorkshire and stage a reconstruction of the birthday dinner, proving that Franklin took the jewel under the influence of an opiate. Godfrey is discovered murdered in a London hotel room. It is revealed he was given the jewel by the drugged Franklin, and used it as security for a loan to repay embezzled funds, before being murdered by the Brahmins. With the mystery solved and Franklin exonerated, he and Rachel reconcile and announce their engagement. In an epilogue, we learn that the Moonstone has been returned to the Indian temple, adorning a sculpture of a four-armed Hindu deity.

Why it’s a classic: Wilkie Collins was one of the most commercially successful novelists of the Victorian age, rivalling his friend Charles Dickens in popularity. His earlier novel, the Gothic mystery The Woman in White was a colossal Da Vinci Code sized success, making him rich, famous and widely beloved. He followed it some years later with The Moonstone, a story that palpated with a more modern energy, referencing contemporary anxieties about the pillaging of the British Empire, class warfare, drug addiction and the then-fashionable interest in mesmerism and the unconscious mind. Originally published in serial form, it was a wild success, with readers queuing outside the newspaper offices to receive the next instalment.

As well as achieving huge popular success, The Moonstone also introduced a new sub-genre of fiction – the detective novel, in which a charismatic sleuth coolly applies logic and intuition to apparently unrelated facts to solve a crime. Literary critics have since pointed to a number of conventions of detective fiction that originated in The Moonstone: a mysterious English country house setting; a number of red herrings; a bungling local constable who is upstaged by an urbane detective; a number of false suspects; a forensic reconstruction of the crime; and a final plot twist in which the least likely suspect is revealed as the culprit. In his introduction to a 1928 re-edition of The Moonstone, T S Eliot named The Moonstone as “the first and best detective novel“, arguing that the genre had been created by Collins, not by Eliot’s fellow American Edgar Allan Poe. Collins’ influence can be clearly seen in subsequent generations of celebrity detectives, notably Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie’s Hercules Poirot.

Unsurprisingly, The Moonstone has been adapted multiple times for the stage, screen and radio, and seems to be on permanent rotation at the BBC, adapted for TV every 20 years or so. Disappointingly, most of the TV versions are dull dutiful affairs, laying out Collins’ plot with little sense of drama and danger, though often with some very good character acting. (The 1996 BBC version stars a young and very dishy Greg Wise as Franklin and the wonderful Anthony Sher as Sergeant Cuff). It’s also been turned into a comic book by Marvel, and in 2018 became a (rather bizarre and not very good) web series on YouTube.

Bouquet or Brickbat: A yellow diamond-sized bouquet. I devoured The Moonstone like Mr Jennings knocks back opium, staying up late to read chapter after chapter, and then panicking that my stash would run out and trying to slow down my daily dosage so as to prolong my high.

Once I’d finished it and recovered from the (not terribly surprising) ending, it’s interesting to consider how a novel written over 150 years ago can still be so ridiculously gripping for readers in the digital age, now well-accustomed to the conventions of detective fiction. Much of this is due, I think, to Collins’ brilliant control of his narrative. As in The Woman in White, he dispenses with the omniscient third-person narrative so characteristic of Victorian fiction, and adopts a more piecemeal structure, recounting the plot via a series of written testimonies delivered by different characters. This creates tremendous narrative tension: since each character’s understanding of the crime is limited, we get given clues but no one is in possession of the full story.

Collins has some fun with his characters’ lack of omniscience, especially Betteredge the house-steward, forever quoting Robinson Crusoe and dropping passive-aggressive comments his (now-dead) wife, and the fabulously-named Drusilla Clack, a spinster cousin who seizes on every opportunity to evangelise for Jesus. As a trained lawyer, Collins understood the fallibility and unreliability of human nature, and the ways in which our prejudices blind us to the truth. Only Sergeant Cuff – a man without family, connections or passions, apart from rose gardening – has sufficient distance and objectivity to unravel the mystery. Even Franklin, the story’s purported hero, is in the grip of atavistic forces beyond his control, transformed via narcotics into a sleepwalking criminal. This push-pull tension between Victorian ideals of the triumph of order and reason (as represented by Cuff) and pre-Freudian anxieties about the chaotic realm of the subconscious gives The Moonstone an uncanny power and addictive readability.

That said, the fractured narrative has mixed results. After the droll comedy of Betteredge and Miss Clack, things fall rather flat when Franklin takes over the narrative. Though meant to be the hero, he’s rather uninspiring character, never quite deserving of the admiration he seems to attract. Even more puzzling is Collins’ underuse of Rachel, who’s never allowed a turn at the narrative, and melts meekly into the background while the men smoke their cigars and solve the case. This is surprising, given Collins’ interest in and sympathy for women: Rachel is nowhere near as compelling as Marian Halcombe, the fearless heroine of The Woman in White, or Lydia Gwilt, the brilliant arch-villain of Armadale. For all its hints of radicalism, The Moonstone adheres to a very conventional Victorian morality. The twin fortunes of Rachel and Franklin are brought together in marriage, while the opium-smoking villains get their comeuppance and the “fallen woman” Rosanna discreetly drowns herself after daring to fall in love with a gentleman.

The narrative picks up again when we’re passed to Ezra Jennings, a mixed-race man on the margins of good society and in the grip of an opium addiction. Though he’s only in the story briefly, he’s a hugely compelling presence, to the point where we temporarily forget about the Moonstone and focus on his David Copperfield-like misfortunes. “What is the secret of the attractive that there is for me in this man?“, Jennings muses about Franklin. “Does it only mean that I feel the contrast between the frankly kind manner in which he has allowed me to become acquainted with him, and the merciless dislike and distrust with which I am met by other people? Or is there really something in him which answers to the yearning that I have for a little human sympathy – the yearning, which has survived the solitude and persecution of many years; which seems to grow keener and keener, as the time comes nearer and nearer when I shall endure and feel no more?” This incredibly poignant passage feels even more sobering when we consider Collins’ own struggles with opium addiction, which, like Jennings, hastened his early death. Sadly, we never quite return to this note of Dickensian social realism – Ezra’s character is sacrificed in service of the driving plot. This feels like the kind of missed opportunity that, had Collins followed it up, might have elevated The Moonstone from a ripping yarn into a great work of literature.

Much has been made of The Moonstone as an anti-colonialist tract, in which a jewel obtained by violent force illuminates the corruption of the Victorian colonial project. Collins composed the novel during a period of social turbulence in England, as liberals were expressing concerns about the rape and pillage carried out in the name of Empire and the barbarism of the opium trade. The Moonstone itself is very clearly based on the Koh-i-noor, a giant Indian diamond that was “gifted” to Queen Victoria after the British annexation of the Punjab in 1849. The uncut diamond went on public display in the Great Exhibition of 1851, attracting hundreds and thousands of visitors, where it became known as “The Mountain of Light”. Rumours circulated that it was under a curse, bringing bad luck to anyone who wore it. This moral unease and waft of superstition finds its way into Collins’ work, where the Moonstone exerts a similarly sinister force. It’s suggested that the Colonel Herncastle bequeaths the jewel to Rachel as an act of revenge for being snubbed by the family, knowing that it will cause its new owner grief – which it certainly does. Within a year of the fateful dinner, Lady Virinder dies, Mr Candy loses his mind, Rachel and Franklin quarrel and part, and Godfrey becomes corrupted by greed and ends up murdered. Peace only seems to be restored when the Moonstone is removed from England and restored to its “rightful” place in the temple of Vishnu.

Personally, I’m not quite convinced the novel or Collins are this woke. Collins is certainly sympathetic to the injustice of the theft, and seems to admire the Brahmins for their life-long mission to recover the Moonstone. That said, I’m not sure we can hail him for being a radical critic of Empire. “The Indians”, as they are referred to (never by the real names) fulfil the exoticised role of the “Noble Savage”, an excruciatingly common feature of much Western literature. Never permitted their own voices or control of view, they function instead as a quasi-magical presence in the mystery, even hypnotising a young vagrant boy whom they keep as a servant. Even the Moonstone’s restoration to the temple is overshadowed by a hint that it may be stolen again: “What will be the next adventures of the Moonstone? Who can tell?” At first glance, this is a well-crafted tease by a highly successful serial writer, hinting to his fans about the possibility of a sequel. It also represents, I think, the ultimate disposability of the Moonstone and its cultural significance to the “savages” who worship it – for Collins, it’s simply an exotic prop for another Boys Own Adventure story that isn’t meant to rock the social order.

This is, to some extent, the tragedy that befalls books as successful as The Moonstone, ripping yarns written to thrill that become weighed down by generations of literary criticism and speculative re-interpretation. That said, it was still a thrillingly good read, and kept me company on a long train journey to the Cornwall coast. Highly recommended.

Quotable Quote: “There is a wonderful sameness in the solid side of the English character – just as there is a wonderful sameness in the solid expression of the English face.”


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