Monday, November 29, 2010

In The Spotlight: Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Modern crime fiction owes much to those who originated the genre; a lot of the character types, plot devices and other elements used in much crime fiction can be traced to those founders. One of them is Wilkie Collins. So it only seems appropriate to spotlight a Wilkie Collins novel for this feature. Today, let’s take a closer look at The Moonstone, which many people feel is one of the first crime fiction novels.

The novel begins with the storming of the Palace of Seringaptam in India in 1799. During that siege, Colonel John Herncastle’s cousin witnesses him commit what seems to be murder, along with the theft of a valuable yellow diamond called the Moonstone. From that moment, his cousin refuses to have anything to do with Herncastle. Much later, Herncastle bequeaths the Moonstone to his niece Rachel Verinder, to be given to her on her eighteenth birthday. Franklin Blake, whose father was named executor of Herncastle’s will, has been dispatched to the Verinder residence with the diamond to carry out the terms of the will.

This bequest, though, isn’t all that it seems. Herncastle and his sister Lady Julia Verinder have not been on good terms, and one belief is that the Moonstone is a curse on the Verinder family for not welcoming Sir John. Certainly there are stories that the diamond curses anyone who takes it from its rightful place, and even if the curse isn’t real, it seems that several groups of people have been after the diamond. One of them is a group of three people from India who seem to be charged with getting the diamond back and returning it to its home. Another is a group of shady people from London who’d like nothing better than to have the stone.

Trouble soon befalls the Verinder family. The diamond is duly given to Rachel Verinder on her birthday, but that night, instead of locking it away safely, Rachel determines to keep it in her room. The next morning, it’s gone. Then, second housemaid Rosanna Spearman, who has her own troubled history, disappears and is later found to have committed suicide. The diamond itself is traced to London, and seems to have been pledged to a money-lender. Now, the task is to find out who stole the diamond, who pledged it to the London moneylenders, and where the diamond is now. Sergeant Richard Cuff is put in charge of the investigation, and slowly, over the course of two years, he solves the mystery.

It’s not just Sergeant Cuff who does the detection work in this story, though, and that’s one of the very important elements in this story – point of view. We learn about the fate of the diamond through the eyes of more than one. In fact, the novel is told through several points of view, including the point of view of Gabriel Betteredge, head of the household staff at the Verinder residence; Franklin Blake; Drusilla Clack (a cousin of Rachel Verinder’s); Sergeant Cuff; and the family attorney, Matthew Bruff. Through each of these narratives, we learn what happened to the diamond, and we gradually learned how it came to be stolen and by whom, and what’s happened to it. These multiple points of view give the reader a fascinating perspective on the events in the story and solid sense of each storyteller’s personality. Each narrative is clearly identified, too, so that we can easily see who’s telling the story at any given time.

Another element that runs through this novel is the social structure of the time. There are very clear class-based differences among the characters in the novel, and those differences are reflected in all sorts of subtle and more obvious ways. To take just one example, Sergeant Cuff believes that a missing article of clothing may hold the key to the missing Moonstone. So he asks that everyone’s possessions be searched. At first, Lady Verinder objects, saying that she doesn’t want to cast aspersions on her staff, who have already been under suspicion for the theft. Cuff says,

“‘If I can tell them I am going to examine the wardrobes of EVERYBODY – from her ladyship downwards – who slept on Wednesday night. It’s a mere formality,’ he added with a side look at my [Betteredge’s] mistress; ‘but the servants will accept it as even dealing between them and their betters; and instead of impeding the investigation, they will make it a point of honour of assisting it.’”

It’s interesting, too, how all of the characters in this novel accept the social status quo.

There’s also a strong element of sexism that runs through this novel. There are many assumptions made about women throughout this novel, most especially by Gabriel Betteredge. Here's just one example of the things he says and thinks:

“But it is a maxim of mine that men (being superior creatures) are bound to improve women – if they can….The oftener you make them rummage their own minds for a reason, the more manageable you will find them in all relations of life. It isn’t their fault (poor wretches!) that they act first and think afterwards; it’s the fault of the fools who humour them.”

While Betteredge is the most outspoken in his views of women, all of the other characters seem to accept the social status of women in this novel as natural. Today’s readers wouldn’t likely tolerate that sort of blatant dismissal of women; however, the book does provide a fascinating look at relations between the genders at the time it was written.

We see a solid element of ethnocentrism in this novel, too. It’s true that John Herncastle is regarded as a “blackguard” by his peers and relatives. His cousin won’t even speak to him because he knows that Herncastle has killed an Indian and stolen the diamond. However, the Indian characters in the novel are certainly not seen as equals. They’re viewed as dangerous threats, or as superstitious. Even Mr. Murthwaite, a “celebrated Indian traveler,” who has more respect for the Indians he meets than the other characters do, seems to see them more as objects of curiosity than as real people, even though he describes them as “a wonderful people.” You could argue that a complacent sense of the superiority of Whites runs through the story, although it’s not always obvious.

Finally, there’s the element of humour. We see that humour reflected in several places in the story; I’ll just mention one. One of the characters, Drusilla Clack, is an avowed Christian who’s determined to “save” as many people as she can, including her aunt Lady Julia Verinder and her cousin Rachel Verinder. She contrives to leave several religious tracts and books in strategic places in the London house where the Verinders stay after the theft of the diamond. Lady Verinder sends all of the religious literature back to Miss Clack. Here is Drusilla Clack’s reaction:

“Once self-supported by conscience, once embarked on a career of manifest usefulness, the true Christian never yields. Neither public nor private influences produce the slightest effect on us, when we have once got our mission. Taxation may be the consequence of a mission; riots may be the consequence of a mission; wars may be the consequence of a mission: we go on with our work, irrespective of every human consideration which moves the world outside us. We are above reason; we are beyond ridicule; we see with nobody's eyes, we hear with nobody's ears, we feel with nobody's hearts, but our own. Glorious, glorious privilege! And how is it earned? Ah, my friends, you may spare yourselves the useless inquiry! We are the only people who can earn it—for we are the only people who are always right.”

She then decides that if the Verinders won’t read the religious books and pamphlets, they may read letters. So she sends all sorts of letters with religious messages in them. Those letters remain unopened. Drusilla Clack’s determination to sway her relations is welcome comic relief, even as it speaks to the views of religion at the time.

Along with the elements I’ve already mentioned, there are also lots of the elements that would later become staples of the crime fiction novel. There’s the wrongly-suspected “innocent” characters who later are cleared. There’s the “manor house” setting. There’s the stalwart Sergeant who’s trying to solve the crime. There’s romance, too. All of these elements have been refined by other authors, but we can see their seeds in this novel. But what’s your view? Have you read The Moonstone? What elements do you see in it?

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday 6 December/Tuesday 7 December – Tied Up in Tinsel – Ngaio Marsh

Monday 13 December/Tuesday 14 December – Mind’s Eye – HÃ¥kan Nesser

Monday 20 December/Tuesday 21 December – The Grave Tattoo – Val McDermid


  1. What a fine analysis of a classic mystery!

    I liked The Moonstone, but I think The Woman in White is even better (for the mysterious, female characters).

    I agree that class and gender are extremely important themes in this story. I know that novels of that time were long-winded, but I am sure a modern editor would have told Wilkie Collins to remove a hundred pages or so, and that might have made it easier for impatient, modern readers to get through it.

  2. Dorte - Thank you :-)! I had to laugh when I read your comment about editing! The length of the novel certainly does reflect the tastes of the time, and I agree; a modern editor would have no patience with some of these passages. Still, it is a "snapshot" of a different time and way of writing. It is also a portrait of a very different set of social attitudes...

    Interesting point, too, about The Woman in White. Maybe at some point I'll spotlight that one :-).

  3. This is one of the first books at 0.71 pence I have downloaded to my new Kindle, along with Bleak House! £1.42 [about a dollar] for these two classic books that I should have read years ago. It might take a while, but I intend to read them in between my normal stuff.
    Thanks for your insights Margot.

  4. It's been a LONG time since I read the Moonstone. I was young, and used to modern mysteries, and I was very impressed with it at the time. (Time to hit the Gutenberg Project for a copy!)

  5. Norman - Oh, I really do hope you'll enjoy your Kindle. How nice that some of those old classics are available at a real bargain. I think that's terrific! I hope you'll like this one. So much about modern crime fiction has its roots in these early ones.

  6. Daring Novelist - I just love the Gutenberg Project! So many fine, fine novels there, aren't there? And this one is definitely one of those classic mysteries.

  7. Collins was a personal favorite before I got around to Doyle in my youth. A sad fact is many people have only read the two books mentioned. Yet he wrote much more.
    I recently re-read Moonstone and found it as engaging as ever.

  8. John - It's interesting that you would mention Collins' other work. Very often most people remember a writer for one or two novels or, perhaps, for a series. And yet, many of them write lots of other things, too. It's rather like remembering a musical artist for one famous song, when s/he's done several other releases.

  9. Haven't read this one, although I read "Woman in White" and really enjoyed it. Thanks for putting this book in the spotlight! :)

  10. Elizabeth - My pleasure :-). Many people think Woman in White is one of Collins' best books, so I'm not surprised you liked it. I'm going to definitely have to put that one on my "spotlight" list :-).

  11. I have not read Moonstone. I do like the innocent person being suspected or charged as a red herring that throws the reader for a loop. He's turning left while the author makes a sharp right tuen.

  12. Stephen - I know exactly what you mean about the innocent-person "red herring." In this novel, there are actually two cases of innocent people being "officially" suspected, and a few more of innocent people are suspected, but not "officially." It does make for some very effective plot twists.

  13. Excellent post, Margot. I haven't read Moonstone, but I saw the movie, which I thought was pretty good. I've heard a lot about Woman in White, too, but haven't gotten around to that title yet, either.
    Nice work you've done here ~ as usual, Margot :-)

  14. Kahleen - Awww....thanks :-). I have to confess, I didn't see the movie of The Moonstone, although I heard that it was good. I'm glad you enjoyed it. And actually, many people think that The Woman in White was even better than The Moonstone. Whether or not that's true, I do recommend it, and, wow! You're the third person to mention it. I think I'm most definitely going to have to put that one in the spotlight.

  15. I have this book but haven't read it yet. I didn't know it was so sexist but I think I will read it anyways. It's a classic and that's how many used to view women back then. Thanks for the review and the nice comment you left on my blog. Not sure I can get to commenting while I'm away but I'll do my best.


  16. I haven't read The Moonstone or Woman in White. But after this spotlight, I'm adding this classic to my must read list. The elements you pointed out - the social structure, the status of women, the superiority of whites and the view of religion - do give a good view of how things were seen and accepted when this book was written. Makes me wonder how readers 200 years from now will view novels we enjoy today. Another great spotlight.

    Thoughts in Progress

  17. Clarissa - It really is a classic, and it's a good mystery, too, with lots of little and big surprises and so on as the story unfolds. And as you say, sexism was an integral part of that culture, so it makes sense that it's in the novel.

    Mason - Thank you :-). You really raise a great question! When readers 200 years from now read novels that are being written now, what will they think? How will their lives and cultures be different. Now that's interesting! I'm not sure, of course, but novels really are "snapshots" of a culture. This one certainly is, and I think you'll enjoy it.

  18. Interesting that you should feature The Moonstone, Margot. Just yesterday I read the introduction to The Moonstone by T.S. Eliot, one of the most influential poets and playwrights of the 20th century. My copy is from a 1945 edition of the book.

    He starts off the intro saying "The Moonstone is the first, the longest, and the best of Modern English detective novels."

    And later, "We may even say that everything that is good and effective in the modern detective story can be found in The Moonstone. Modern detective writers have added the use of fingerprints and other such triffles, but they have not materially improved upon either the personality or the methods of Sergeant Cuff. Sergeant Cuff is the perfect detective. Our modern detectives are most often either efficient but featureless machines, forgotten the moment we lay the book down, or else the have too many features, like Sherlock Holmes. sherlock Holmes is so weighted with abilities, accomplishments, and peculiarities the he becomes almost a static figure; he is described to us rather than revealed in his actions. Sergeant Cuff is a real and attractive personality, and he is brilliant without being infallible.

    I also came across this from Dorothy L. Sayers where she said that in Collins is “genuinely feminist in his treatment of women.”

  19. Mack - Thank you for this terrific perspective!! Eliot's got quite a good point about the character of Sergeant Cuff. He is a real detective. He's a human being, so he's memorable. He's also got skills, so we respect him. He is, as Eliot says, "brilliant without being infallible."

    And I'm glad that Sayers saw Collins as being feminist. We see that in the character of Rachel Verinder, who's a strong, independent, capable person. So's her mother Julia. In showing the sexism of the times and creating strong female characters, there's certainly an argument that Collins is challenging the assumptions of his society. I'd actually thought of suggesting that in my post, but it was already getting rather long. I'm very glad you mentioned this point.

  20. I've never read this author. I don't think he's my type. :)

  21. Patricia - That's the thing about crime fiction. Not every book or author is for everyone. It's a good thing that there are so many different kinds of crime fiction out there. There's something for just about everyone.

  22. I read this book YEARS back, when I was about 13 or 14. To be honest, I didn't like it too much then, and never bothered to re-read it. Now I feel I should because I love those multiple PoV stories.
    I just hope the descriptions of India don't put me off as they do with most books set and/ or written in that period.

    Thank you, Margot, for another great spotlight.

  23. Rayna - You're very kind :-). The multiple POV's are really quite interesting in this book. They're quite well-delineated, too, so that it's quite easy to figure out whose POV it is, and the characters are different enough so that it's clear. I admit, the descriptions of India aren't detailed or culturally authentic. Hopefully, if you decide to re-read it, they won't put you off too much....