Monday, July 26, 2010

365. The Moonstone – Wilkie Collins

History: Published in 1868, it is a 19th-century British epistolary novel, generally considered the first detective novel in the English language. The Moonstone was originally serialized in Charles Dickens' magazine All the Year Round. The Moonstone also represented Collins' social opinions by his treatment of the Indians and the servants in the novel.
The Moonstone of the title is a diamond (not to be confused with the semi-precious moonstone gem). It gained its name from its association with the Hindu god of the moon. Originally set in the forehead of a sacred statue of the god at Somnath, and later at Benares, it was said to be protected by hereditary guardians on the orders of Vishnu, and to wax and wane in brilliance along with the light of the moon.
Franklin Blake, the gifted amateur who eventually solves the mystery, is an early example of the gentleman detective. The highly competent Sergeant Cuff, the London policeman called in from Scotland Yard (whom Collins based on the real-life Inspector Jonathan Whicher who solved the Constance Kent murder),[4] is not a member of the gentry, and is unable to break Rachel Verinder's reticence about what Cuff knows to be an inside job. The social difference between Collins' two detectives is nicely shown by their relationships with the Verinder family: Sergeant Cuff befriends Gabriel Betteredge, Lady Verinder's steward (chief servant), whereas Franklin Blake eventually marries Rachel, her daughter.
The Moonstone represents Collins's only complete reprisal of the popular "multi-narration" method that he had previously utilised to great effect in The Woman in White. The technique again works to Collins's credit: the sections by Gabriel Betteredge (steward to the Verinder household) and Miss Clack (a poor relative and religious crank) offer both humour and pathos through their contrast with the testimony of other narrators, at the same time as constructing and advancing the novel's plot.
One of the things that made The Moonstone such a success was its sensationalist depiction of opium addiction. Unbeknownst to his readership, Collins was writing from personal experience. In his later years, Collins grew severely addicted to laudanum and as a result suffered from paranoid delusions, the most notable being his conviction that he was constantly accompanied by a doppelganger he dubbed "Ghost Wilkie".
It was Collins's last great success, coming at the end of an extraordinarily productive period which saw four successive novels become best-sellers. After The Moonstone he wrote novels containing more overt social commentary, which did not achieve the same audience.
Plot: Colonel Herncastle, an unpleasant former soldier, brings the Moonstone back with him from India where he acquired it by theft and murder during the Siege of Seringapatam. Angry at his family, who shun him, he leaves it in his will as a birthday gift to his niece Rachel, thus exposing her to attack by the stone's hereditary guardians, who, legend says, will stop at nothing to retrieve it.
Rachel wears the stone to her birthday party, but that night it disappears from her room. Suspicion falls on three Indian jugglers who have been near the house; on Rosanna Spearman, a maidservant who begins to act oddly and who then drowns herself in a local quicksand; and on Rachel herself, who also behaves suspiciously and is suddenly furious with Franklin Blake, with whom she has previously appeared to be enamored, when he directs attempts to find it. Despite the efforts of Sergeant Cuff, a renowned detective, the house party ends with the mystery unsolved, and the protagonists disperse.
During the ensuing year there are hints that the diamond was removed from the house and may be in a London bank vault, having been pledged as surety to a moneylender. The Indian jugglers are still nearby, watching and waiting. Rachel's mother dies, increasing her grief and isolation, and she first accepts and then rejects a marriage proposal from her cousin Godfrey Ablewhite, a philanthropist who was also present at the birthday dinner and whose father owns the bank near Rachel's old family home. Finally Franklin Blake returns from travelling abroad and determines to solve the mystery. He first discovers that Rosanna Spearman's behaviour was due to her having fallen in love with him. She found evidence (a paint smear on his nightclothes) that convinced her that he was the thief and concealed it in order to save him, confusing the trail of evidence and throwing suspicion on herself. In despair at her inability to make him acknowledge her despite all she had done for him, she committed suicide, leaving behind the smeared gown and a letter he did not receive at the time because of his hasty departure abroad.
Now believing that Rachel suspects him of the theft on Rosanna's evidence, Franklin engineers a meeting and asks her. To his astonishment she tells him she actually saw him steal the diamond and has been protecting his reputation at the cost of her own even though she believes him to be a thief and a hypocrite. Now thoroughly bewildered, he continues his investigations and learns that he was secretly given laudanum during the night of the party (it was given to him by the doctor Mr. Candy who wanted revenge on Franklin for criticizing medicine and who wanted to sleep more easily due to quitting smoking); it appears that this, in addition to his anxiety about Rachel and the diamond and other nervous irritations, caused him to take the diamond in a narcotic trance, in order to move it in a safe place. A re-enactment of the evening's events confirms this, but how the stone ended up in a London bank remains a mystery only solved a year after the birthday party when the stone is redeemed. Franklin and his allies trace the claimant to a seedy waterside inn, only to discover that the Indians have got there first: he is dead and the stone is gone. Under the dead man's disguise is none other than Godfrey Ablewhite, who is found to have embezzled the contents of a trust fund in his care and to have been facing exposure soon after the birthday party. The mystery of what Blake did while in his drugged state is solved - he encountered Ablewhite in the passageway outside Rachel's room and gave the Moonstone to him to be put back in his father's bank, from which it had been withdrawn on the morning of the party to be given to Rachel. Seeing his salvation, Ablewhite pocketed the stone instead, and pledged it as surety for a loan to save himself temporarily from insolvency. When he was murdered, he was on his way to Amsterdam to have the stone cut; it would then have been sold to replenish the plundered trust fund before the beneficiary inherited. Cuff realized all of this independently after being dismissed from the case, but was reluctant to accuse Ablewhite without evidence or an official mandate.
The mystery is solved, Rachel and Franklin marry, and in an epilogue from a traveller the reader learns of the restoration of the Moonstone to the place where it should be, in the forehead of the idol.
Review: The book is widely regarded as the precursor of the modern mystery and suspense novels. The Moonstone is the perfect introduction to the Victorian novel. Written in the day of serialized fiction, when reading was still a primary form of entertainment, The Moonstone is a gem. Full of cliffhangers, written from multiple points of view, it's the tale of a stolen jewel whose original owners will stop at nothing to get it back. In the hands of a lesser author, The Moonstone would be confusing and rambling, but Wilkie Collins so adeptly drew his characters and gave his narrators such distinctive voices that the reader is drawn deeper and deeper into the story, anxious to read on to see what is going to happen. The tale is liberally strewn with clues, but it's the description and the characters who make it so readable. Who could ever forget the ominous and deadly Shivering Sands or Miss Clack's cheerful and relentless distribution of improving 'little tracts'?
Unrequited love, greed, jealousy, hypocrisy; valiant heroes, romantic heroines, exotic villains, comic relief and a mystery to tie them all together-everything we love to read about is present in lavish measures. The Moonstone is a book to curl up with on a winter weekend and get lost in. One of the best of Victorian novels, when a precise turn of phrase was appreciated and families eagerly gathered by the fireside each week to hear the latest installment read aloud, The Moonstone has been in print since 1868 for good reason. It's a great story told by a master storyteller and puts most romantic suspense novels to shame.
Opening Line: “In the first part of ROBINSON CRUSOE, at page one hundred and twenty-nine, you will find it thus written: "Now I saw, though too late, the Folly of beginning a Work before we count the Cost, and before we judge rightly of our own Strength to go through with it."
Closing Line: “So the years pass, and repeat each other; so the same events revolve in the cycles of time. What will be the next adventures of the Moonstone? Who can tell?”
Quotes: “The horrid mystery hanging over us in this house gets into my head like liquor, and makes me wild."
“Your tears come easy, when you're young, and beginning the world. Your tears come easy, when you're old, and leaving it.”
Rating: Extremely Tedious.

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