The Moonstone: Amusing. Infuriating. Entertaining. Largely recognised as a precursor to the mystery and thriller genres, it is appropriately dramatic and suspenseful, displaying elements of classic detective fiction, from various locked room mysteries to incompetent local constabulary outfaced by a professional investigator (albeit one with a passion for horticulture). The Moonstone unfolds over a breadth of time and geography unusual in the genre, traveling from an genteel country estate to the social thickets of London and the beaches of Frizinghall.
The Moonstone is narrated in an epistolary style; several different characters recount the events that they were privy to surrounding the mysterious affair of the Moonstone, their personal opinions colouring the occurrences. The first stage of the narrative is taken up by fussy, misogynistic, intensely loyal house steward to the Verinder family, Gabriel Betteridge, at the request of a Mr. Franklin Blake, some time after the conclusion of the events of The Moonstone, the better to understand the sequence of unfortunate events surrounding the titular jewel. The setting is the eve of the young Miss Rachel Verinder’s 18th birthday, and her cousin Mr. Franklin Blake seeks out the advice of Betteridge as to a certain stone and letter that he has been instructed to give to Miss Rachel Verinder as part of a will. The stone is the Moonstone, a fabulously valuable diamond stolen from a temple in India by her mother’s disreputable elder brother, the wicked Colonel Herncastle.
Herncastle, youngest of three sons, entered the army and was bounced from regiment to regiment before returning home with heat stroke and a reputation black enough to make all members of his family close their doors against him, Lady Julia Verinder (his younger sister) leading the charge; “(i)t was said he had got possession of his Indian jewel by means which, bold as he was, he didn’t dare acknowledge.”
Misgivings aside, it is Miss Rachel Verinder’s legal inheritance. On Betteridge’s advice, the stone is duly presented to Miss Rachel Verinder, who wears it for one brief night during her birthday party, before it disappears the next morning. Who did it? How? The disappearance of the stone is followed by a mysterious absence of one of the household staff, and a series of inexplicable actions taken by Miss Rachel Verinder herself.
There is an array of potential perpetrators of the crime – the maid Rosanna Spearman, a reformed criminal; Mr. Franklin Blake, a slapdash, money-burning cousin; Mr. Godfrey Ablewhite, a suitor; the vast array of household servants, and a trio of disguised Brahmins seeking to reclaim their stolen property – are examined throughout the novel.
The tale is riveting, particularly due to the depth and breadth of characterisation which Collins was able to channel into the narrative voice of each character. You know them, when you read their words; and largely they are flawed, complex, interesting, amusing people. Not that one would like a Betteridge of one’s own acquaintance (he is a misogynistic bore), nor a Miss Clack (she is a tireless, fanatical proselytizer); but they each add a brilliant sense of personhood to the stories that they tell.
Betteridge is a favourite of mine, despite his misogynistic attitudes towards all women barring his mistress and her daughter; a kind of Madonna/Whore dichotomy without the lasciviousness of sex. He recounts early on in the novel with a sense of satisfaction of marrying his housecleaner so that he would no longer have to pay her. “Selina, being a single woman, made me pay so much a week for her board and services. Selina, being my wife, couldn’t charge for her board, and would have to give me her services for nothing.” He comes out with many such gems, as does the reprehensible, pitiable Miss Clack, though she is censuring of her richer cousin’s wilfulness, indicative as it is of her fallen, heathen nature (jealousy would have nothing to do with it, nor a desire to meddle and control, if one is to trust her words). She believes that, “knowing Rachel’s spirit to have been essentially unregenerate from her childhood upwards, I was prepared for whatever my aunt could tell me on the subject of her daughter…Here surely was a case for a clergyman, if ever there was one yet!”
I would have liked to hear the story unfolded from Miss Rachel Verinder’s point of view. Throughout much of the novel she is talked about and around; but when she is quoted and observed directly, the personality communicated is one of a forthright, intelligent person pursuing her own course despite public opinion or attempts to influence her. The interfering cousin Miss Clack communicates this as she observes old Mr. Ablewhite trying to genteelly (and then not) bully Miss Rachel Verinder into agreeing to marry his son, thus securing her fortune. Miss Verinder responds to him:
“ “Mr. Ablewhite, I have either expressed myself very badly, or you are purposefully mistaking me. Once and for all, it is a settled thing between your son and myself that we remain, for the rest of our lives, cousins and nothing more. Is that plain enough?” …preserving her composure in a manner which (having regard to her age and her sex) was simply awful to see.”
The slower evolution of the story, unfolding over a couple of years as it does, allows the reader to observe the effects of the theft of the Moonstone, and the machinations of people in and around the Verinder family. It is an admirable work in many ways, not least of which is the humanity Collins sought to show in his characters, and which they saw in each other – exceptions existing in Betteridge’s attitudes towards women, and Miss Clack’s disregard for the servants. Even in the personage of Miss Rachel Verinder, her lack of a first-person narrative does not prevent her personality from being fully realised.
Unfortunately, The Moonstone falls prey to the casual racism of the day, alternatively portraying the three Indian gentlemen trying to reclaim their stolen religious relic as examples of the superstitious savage, then as cold-blooded cutthroats completely willing to stalk the possessors of the Moonstone patiently for years, waiting for their chance to strike, and finally as well-dressed and well-spoken sorts who, aside of their skin-colour, could hardly be told apart from a “normal” person.
“He was carefully dressed in European costume. But his swarthy complexion, his long lithe figure, and his grave and graceful politeness of manner were enough to betray his Oriental origin to any intelligent eyes that looked at him.” It is an awful set of assumptions to unpack in a paragraph. After all, the foreign gentleman could not naturally nor comfortably dress in tweeds; he has to wear it as a costume, a part which he is playing. But clever white men, if they look closely, will see that he is still a “Hindoo” in disguise, despite his “excellent selection of English words” and ability to interact politely and normally in a social context. His mysterious Otherness is too exotic to be concealed, and every aspect of his being betrays him, from his skin (too dark) to his figure (too long and slender), to his composure and his very language. He is unable to simply sit in an office and speak to someone about business; he must move with a dancer’s grace, and act out his part with an obviousness that salves the assumed male, European reader’s ego – no foreigners will fool him. He will be able to pick them out, if he looks carefully. The white male will keep Europe safe from infiltration.
Ugh. And – despite knowing who the three Indian gentlemen are throughout the entire novel, and knowing exactly what they are after – there is no suggestion made by any members of the supporting cast to, maybe…give them back their stolen property? Naive of me to suggest, possibly. But only if the reader denies the agency and moral rights of the non-white characters, as surely as Collins did.
If you can move past the sexism and racism explicit in Collins’ work, then I strongly recommend reading The Moonstone. I enjoyed it, even though it made me fume regularly, and would read it again.
K.L gives The Moonstone 5 out of 5 interfering busybodies hiding religious tracts in other peoples’ houses.
SPOILER ALERT! DANGEROUS WORDS AHEAD!
One more dose of Betteridge, who doesn’t approve of anything:
“Gentlefolks in general have a very awkward rock ahead in life—the rock ahead of their own idleness. Their lives being, for the most part, passed in looking about them for something to do, it is curious to see—especially when their tastes are of what is called the intellectual sort—how often they drift blindfold into some nasty pursuit. Nine times out of ten they take to torturing something, or to spoiling something—and they firmly believe they are improving their minds, when the plain truth is, they are only making a mess in the house.”
Like K.L.’s writing? They’ve recently published their first eBook, The Loaded Brush, a collection of poems.