Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Moonstone: The First Victorian Detective Story

Wilkie Collins’ THE MOONSTONE is a lot of things: a traditional 19th Century British Victorian Novel complete with a marriage plot; the first detective novel in English; a commentary on the social condition of a changing England in the mid-19th century and of English Imperialism; and, for its time, a lurid and sensational thriller about of theft and murder.

Although a work of literature can certainly be judged by “universal” standards—on its ability to portray complex characters that somehow speak to the reality of our shared humanity, on the precision and appropriateness of its form and structure, on its use of metaphor and telling detail—it can also be quite telling, and of no little interest, to see it through the lens of the time and place which at least partially produced it.

England was changing in the mid 19th century—industrialization and urbanization had produced both a miserable abject working class and a growing middle one; THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO was followed by violent proletarian uprisings in France and Germany; calls for universal suffrage and equal rights were heard throughout England; and the traditional aristocracy and the clergy felt under attack by: the sensational press; calls for reform; protests against imperialism; demands for the vote; Oriental debauchery and godlessness imported by immigrants from conquered lands; the corruption of the gentleman’s code, which itself was threatened by a system not of a self-contained and semi-autonomous agrarian fiefdom but of one ruled more and more by government and where the voices of the lower and middle classes were now being heard; the city, where con man and card sharks, opium dens and workhouses and brothels and insane asylums seemed to be tearing at the foundations of the Empire….O, God Save the Queen!

The tale begins with one of those families, the Herncastles, who would make an admirable “upstairs” installment on a BBC show like Downton Abbey. We learn, through an unnamed cousin, that one of the five children of Lord and Lady Herncastle, John, a soldier in the British Army in India, has committed a war crime, not by massacring civilians, but by stealing a diamond sacred to the “Hindoos” and by killing fellow soldiers to keep it. So right off the bat we have the code of honor (or should I write honour?) of the British Gentleman transgressed.

The story is handed off to Gabriel Betteredge, a kind of head servant on the estate of Lady Verinder, and boy does he run with it. The technique of having different characters give testimony in this way mimics a courtroom, and seemed modern at the time, but it also allows, through the first person narration of the different characters, for a lot of irony and humor and insight. Betteredge is at one and the same time most loyal servant and one capable of scathing criticism of his betters.

Lady Verinder’s (sister of John) daughter Julie receives the diamond as a blessing/curse from her deceased uncle, who knew that “Hindoo” fanatics were willing to track the diamond to the ends of earth and time in order to return it to its sacred place in India. Two of her cousins, Godfrey Ablewhite (you’ve got to love some of these names) and Franklin Blake, along with a servant girl, Rosanna Spearman, are implicated in the inevitable disappearance of the jewel.

Betteredge is a curmudgeonly old guy who uses Robinson Crusoe as a Bible, and who does a kind of Bibliomancy with it, using it to understand everything that has happened and to divine everything that will. He tells us, when Franklin Blake asks him to recount, in written form, all he knows of the crime (in order to re-enact it, another trope of these detective stories) that he had just read in Crusoe the following “now I saw, though too late, the folly of beginning a work before we count the cost….”Betteredge takes this as a sign that the re-telling is going to be a waste of time, but being a good servant, he launches into the tale anyway. He goes on to comically observe that Blake, who has spent a lot of his formative years on the continent, has got a kind of frivolous and fractured personality, doing better when the British part of him is foremost, but getting lost when the French part (too emotional) or the German part (too rational) get the upper hand. Apparently, the French and the German represent two extremes, and the British character the proper synthesis of the two. It is funny, this, and the fact that Betteredge the servant is allowed by Collins to have the longest period of narration in the book is indicative itself of the changes going on in society at the time.

There is also outright, almost slapstick, comedy. Drusilla Clack (another narrator) is a poor relation and true believer who hangs around the family trying to make them more godly, more chaste and meek and pure, all the while missing the fact that she is monstrously prideful in her perception of herself as the savior of all mankind, and in her condescension to all those who don’t share her vision. I got a great laugh out of her loony proselytizing, some of which consisted of this: “Let your faith be as your stockings, and your stocking as your faith. Both spotless and ready to be put on at a moment’s notice.” Collins doesn’t really go so far as to ridicule good old Miss Clack—he lets us see the forlorn and hidden passions that manipulate her from below. She is as unlikely to ever get the man she loves (Godfrey) as Rosanna Spearman is to get Franklin Blake. She tries to tell herself that she loves him only for his virtue, although she is tongue tied and on the verge of fainting from desire whenever she is in his presence.

And so the Diamond goes missing. Enter Inspector Cuff, stage right, a kind of secular clergyman sent to look after the flock, but who also brings city ways to the country estate. He levels the traditional playing field by insisting on interviewing everyone, not just the servants, but the lords and ladies too, about the theft. Cuff is the ultimate outsider, a single man with no apparent emotional connection to anything, or anyone, except roses. And he is a kind of proto Holmes in his obsession with minute detail, with the inductive process, the reasoning from the effect back to the cause (more Baconian and scientific while being less deductive, less in the way of received and traditional wisdom, like that dispensed by the Church and the Aristocracy).

Throw in Ezra Jennings, a mixed race doctor with a mysterious illness and a mysterious past, who is up on psychology and mesmerism and the details of opium use and abuse (another threat to the old order, although a lot of those blue blood types dabbled in laudanum and paregoric, and their use was not yet outlawed, and a lot of the nouveau riche were newly rich because of the opium trade in China) and you have the two outsiders who threaten to, or are needed to, solve the mystery for their “betters.”

There are a lot of side plots here, and cliffhangers, mysteries within mysteries, and it is great fun. And there are great contrasts, some of them critical of the aristocracy, and some of them seeming to champion it. Rosanna Spearman falls in love with Franklin Blake, who of course doesn’t give her the time of day (she’s ugly as well as a servant), not because he is cruel, but because he doesn’t know how to deal with someone below his station, and in her envy of his love for Julie Verinder, she says “it does stir one up to hear Miss Rachel called pretty, when one knows all the time that it is her dress that does it, and her confidence in herself.”

Of course, there are blackguards involved, but in the nature of blackguards (love that word), they are disguised—disguised in a more conscious and ill-natured way than Julie hides her plain-ness with her clothes. The corruption of blackguards is concealed with a veneer of uprightness and piety, and of gentlemanliness.

Delightful is the contrast of the completely evil John Herncastle, who at least has the guts not to hide his true nature, with the members of the family who appear honorable, seem to be good lords and ladies, who look to be following the code. It is part of the fun of the novel to divine the true natures underneath the masks people wear.

Sergeant Cuff and Ezra Jennings exist outside both the older and new orders, and yet perhaps they can see people truly. For those who are lovers of the old order, see if it is upheld in the end, see who is really an aristocrat, and if being one is rewarded or punished. Either way, it’s a ripping good yarn as well as a surprisingly nuanced look at a time in history when it was a mystery to all what would become of the old values in a new world.

© 2015 Mike Welch


  1. Hi, Mike, I'd love to hear your comments on some of our current colleagues who are publishing as we speak.... maybe, huh? tjs

    1. Sure, Thelma, that is a good idea. I'll get right on it. And let me know if there is anyone in particular you would like me to address.

  2. I LOVE Wilkie Collins. I am especially fond of "The Woman in White" which Andrew Lloyd Webber had the temerity to make into a musical. And then there's Armadale which features the mysterious, deliciously named Lydia Gwilt.