Moonstone (Collins)

The Moonstone 
Wilkie Collins, 1868
Penguin Random House
528 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780140434088

When you looked down into the stone, you looked into a yellow deep that drew your eyes into it so that they saw nothing else.

The Moonstone, a yellow diamond looted from an Indian temple and believed to bring bad luck to its owner, is bequeathed to Rachel Verinder on her eighteenth birthday.

That very night the priceless stone is stolen again and when Sergeant Cuff is brought in to investigate the crime, he soon realizes that no one in Rachel’s household is above suspicion.

Hailed by T. S. Eliot as "the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels," The Moonstone is a marvellously taut and intricate tale of mystery, in which facts and memory can prove treacherous and not everyone is as they first appear.

Sandra Kemp’s introduction examines The Moonstone as a work of Victorian sensation fiction and an early example of the detective genre, and discusses the technique of multiple narrators, the role of opium, and Collins’s sources and autobiographical references. (From the publisher.)


Author Bio
Birth—December 8, 1824 
Where—London, England, UK 
Death—September 23, 1889 
Where—London, England 
Education—studied law at Lincoln's Inn, London

Wilkie Collins has long been overshadowed by his friend and collaborator Charles Dickens—unfortunately for readers who have consequently not discovered one of literature's most compelling writers.

His novels are ceremonious and none too brief; they are also irresistible. Take the opening lines of his 1852 story of marital deceit, Basil:

What am I now about to write? The history of little more than the events of one year, out of the twenty-four years of my life. Why do I undertake such an employment as this? Perhaps, because I think that my narrative may do good; because I hope that, one day, it may be put to some warning use.

It's a typical Collins opening, one that draws the reader in with a tone that's personal, but carries formality and import.

With his long, frizzy black beard and wide, sloping forehead, Collins looked like a grandfatherly type, even in his 30s. But his thinking and lifestyle were unconventional, even a bit ahead of his time. His characters (particularly the women) have a Henry James–like predilection for bucking social mores, and he occasionally found his work under attack by morality-mongers. Collins was well aware of his books' potential to offend certain Victorian sensibilities, and there is evidence in some of his writings that he was prepared for it, if not welcoming of it. He writes in the preface to Armadale, his 1866 novel about a father's deathbed murder confession...

Estimated by the clap-trap morality of the present day, this may be a very daring book. Judged by the Christian morality which is of all time, it is only a book that is daring enough to speak the truth.

Collins began his career by writing his painter father's biography. He gained popularity when he began publishing stories and serialized novels in Dickens's publications, Household Words and All the Year Round. His best-known works are The Woman in White and The Moonstone, both of which—along with Basil—have been made into films.

Collins often alludes to fantastic, supernatural happenings in his stories; the events themselves are usually borne out by reasonable explanations. What remains are the electrifying effects one human being can have upon another, for better and for worse. His main characters are often described in terms such as "remarkable," "extraordinary," and "singular," lending their actions—and thereby the story—a special urgency. In one of his great successes, 1860's The Woman in White, Collins spins what is basically a magnificent con story into something almost ghostly: The fates of two look-alike women—a beautiful, well-off woman and a poor insane-asylum escapee—are intertwined and manipulated by two evil men. One of those is among the best fictional villains ever created, the kill-'em-with-kindness Count Fosco. Fosco is emblematic of another Collins hallmark—antagonists who manage to throw their victims off guard by some powerful charm of personality or appearance.

The Moonstone, published in 1868, is regarded by many to be the first English detective novel. Starring the unassuming Sergeant Cuff, it follows the trail of a sought-after yellow diamond from India that has fallen into the wrong hands. Like The Woman in White, the novel is told in multiple first person narratives that display Collins's gift for distinctive and often humorous voices. Whether it is servants, foreigners, or the wealthy, Collins is an equal-opportunity satirist who quietly but deftly pokes fun at human foibles even as he draws nuanced, memorable characters.

Though The Woman in White and The Moonstone are Collins's standouts, he had a productive, consistent career; the novels Armadale, No Name, and Poor Miss Finch are worthwhile reads, and his short stories will particularly appeal to Edgar Allan Poe fans. Fortunately in the case of this underappreciated writer, there are plenty of titles to appreciate. (From Barnes & Noble.)

Discussion Questions
1. Sitting near the Shivering Sand with Betteredge early in the story, Rosanna says, "It looks to me as if it had hundreds of suffocating people under it—all struggling to get to the surface, and all sinking lower and lower in the dreadful deeps!" What does she mean? Who are the people who can’t escape, and why can’t they?
2. Near the end of the first period of the novel, Sergeant Cuff makes three predictions. How do they affect your expectations of what will happen later? How do you account for Miss Rachel’s continued silence at this point?
3. When The Moonstone was first published, the narrative of Drusilla Clack was one of its most popular sections. The titles of the tracts she so profusely distributes ("Satan under the Tea Table," etc.) are in fact only slightly parodied from those that Collins encountered in his father’s religious circle. How does Collins allow the reader to see the vanity, greed, and pettiness beneath the model of piety and propriety she portrays in her story?
4. Collins had a lifelong interest in the inner workings of the mind, especially when it was under of the influence of "mesmerism" or opium. What does Collins’s treatment of dreams, drugs, and delirium suggest about the value of the subconscious and the subjective mind, especially as opposed to the more objective methods of Sergeant Cuff?
5. After a conventional happy ending in England, Collins shifts the setting to conclude with an epilogue in India. How does the portrayal of the Brahmins here compare with that of Betteredge and Miss Clack? How does the meaning of story change because of the Indian frame at its opening and closing?
6. Dickens was primarily a master of character, Collins of plot, argued T.S. Eliot. Yet each learned much from the other during their years of intense collaboration. (Dickens’s final novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, draws heavily on The Moonstone.) What do you think of Eliot’s assertion that "Dickens’s characters are real because there is no one like them; Collins’s because they are so painstakingly coherent and life-like"?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

top of page (summary)

Site by BOOM Boom Supercreative

LitLovers © 2020