Tuesday night our mystery book discussion group, aka “the Usual Suspects,” met to discuss The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. I had read The Woman in White years ago but somehow had never gotten around to tackling Collins’s other masterwork. Actually for this discussion, I listened to it, as did several other members of the group.
[ The Moonstone is frequently referred to as a “novel of sensation.” We weren’t quite sure what that meant, but I have just now found a list of the genre’s main characeristrics onA Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection. Scroll down to “Sensation Fiction” and you’ll see the bullet points. ]
The Moonstone is the kind of great Victorian sprawling heap of a novel that I have always loved but gotten out of the habit of reading in my long years of working at the library and concentrating almost exclusively on hot-off-the-press new fiction. And although there are places where it slows to a snail’s pace, for the most part, the novel was a joy! It has an unusual construction: the story is handed off from one character to another, so that you get several different “takes” on what is actually happening. This sounds as if it would make for a choppy narrative, but somehow it doesn’t impede the flow at all; if anything, it enhances it.
The initial act of mischief, of course, is the theft of the jewel in the first place, a crime committed in India by the brutal John Herncastle. He later wills the diamond to his niece, the novel’s principal heroine Rachel Verinder. Is it a gift? a curse? both?
On the occasion of Rachel Verinder’s birthday celebration, she is presented with the gift of the moonstone, which promptly goes missing yet again. From this event, much mischief flows. For one thing, it would appear that Rachel must separate forever from the love her life, her cousin Franklin Blake. Around the agonies of these two struggling lovers swirl the fates of numerous secondary characters. Some of these are so entertaining that they nearly steal the show. Gabriel Bettteredge, the crusty old retainer of the Verinder establishment, clings tenaciously to his copy of Robinson Crusoe, a novel which, he is firmly convinced, contains the answers to all life’s most pressing and profound questions. Rachel’s mother Julia, Lady Verinder, tries desperately to hold home and hearth together while managing her headstrong, unruly daughter. Roseanna Spearman, a servant and a reformed (at least, such is the hope of her employer) thief, has a strangely deformed shoulder and a hopeless love tormenting her heart. On the basis of that love, she makes a disastrous miscalculation. Her error serves to advance the plot of the novel, albeit in the wrong direction. But that’s fine, one feels; in a novel of this length, many wrong turns must be made in order to maintain momentum – and to justify its length!. The resolution, of course, hovers hazily and tantalizingly in the distance.
The issue of Anglo-Indian relations came up, as it must when considering this novel, featuring as it does the intermittent appearance and disappearance of Indian nationals as well as their legitimate claim upon the diamond. In general, the agglomeration of Western attitudes of that era (and not exclusively that era) towards the people of Asia, the Middle East, and the Indian subcontinent is often referred to as Orientalism. “Excessive in their attachment to sensual pleasure, given to effeminacy and torpor, yet subject to fits of irrational violence, ‘Orientals’ were thought to be ruled by sweeping passions and given to treacherous, inscrutable plots and acts of unimaginable cruelty.” Charles J. Rzepka, in his book Detective Fiction, concludes his paragraph on this subject by commenting wryly that “This ‘Orient’ was and is, needless to say, a special place in the Euro-American collective imagination, not a region on the planet Earth.” (It may be needless to say, but it is just as well to come out and say it, as with all prejudices and preconceptions, it needs to be debunked over and over again.) It is to Wilkie Collins’ credit that he does not endorse this caricature in The Moonstone. As Catherine Peters observes in her introduction to the Knopf Everyman edition of the novel, “It is clear from everything Wilkie Collins wrote that he was always intrigued by, and sympathetic to, outsiders and outcasts, those branded as inferior by reason of class, race, gender, physical handicap or unusual appearance.” (How to account for the presence of not one, but two physically deformed/handicapped young women in this novel? one of our group wondered.)
Our discussion leader noted that the fame of The Moonstone made it relatively easy to find criticism and commentary. A good part of that fame is due to the presence of the laconic, rose-loving Sergeant Cuff. (His arguments with Lady Verinder’s gardener over the virtues of lawn as opposed to gravel in a rose garden were utterly irrelevant and most entertaining!) Cuff is widely considered a highly influential prototype of the detective protagonist in crime fiction.
(Cuff’s predilection for roses brought to mind one of my favorite passages from the Sherlock Holmes stories. It is from “The Naval Treaty:”
[Holmes] walked past the couch to the open window, and held
up the drooping stalk of a moss-rose, looking down at
the dainty blend of crimson and green. It was a new
phase of his character to me, for I had never before
seen him show any keen interest in natural objects.
“There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary
as in religion,” said he, leaning with his back
against the shutters. “It can be built up as an exact
science by the reasoner. Our highest assurance of the
goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the
flowers. All other things, our powers, our desires,
our food, are all really necessary for our existence
in the first instance. But this rose is an extra.
Its smell and its color are an embellishment of life,
not a condition of it. It is only goodness which
gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to
hope from the flowers.”)
The solution to the mystery of the diamond’s theft hinges on the influence of opium on the defenseless, unsuspecting mind of Franklin Blake. We wondered whether the drug would, or could, have that specified effect, mimicking so closely that of auto-hypnotic suggestion. In fact, Collins shows the opium acting on Blake in this peculiar manner not once but twice, the second time with his full knowledge of having taken it. This second instance is what my son in his young years used to call a “do-over.” But can a valid conclusion be fairly drawn, given that this time, Blake knows exactly how he is supposed to act – and react?
This scenario is devised by a character I have not yet mentioned, Ezra Jennings. Even though we were not convinced of the soundness of his method in carrying out this experiment, we did all agree that in other ways he was a fascinating character – possibly the most memorable one in the entire novel. Some terrible injury done to his reputation in his youth had blighted his life and cost him the woman he loved. He had been able to scrape a living together by assisting Lady Verinder’s physician, the kindhearted Dr. Candy. At the time that his role in the events of the novel becomes crucial, he is already dying of cancer. He has been treating his pain with opium, to which he himself has become addicted. It is this fact that makes him believe that he possesses sufficient expertise to be able to use the drug to help solve the mystery of the theft of the moonstone. In effecting this solution, he will enable Rachel and Franklin Blake to reconcile. He desires this to happen from completely unselfish motives. He had long ago lost his own chance at happiness, and was soon to lose his life as well. Jennings’s death scene is anguished and poignant in the extreme. Dr. Candy is attending him:
“A few minutes before the end came he asked me to lift him on his pillow, to see the sun rise through the window. He was very weak. His head fell on my shoulder. He whispered, `It’s coming!’ Then he said, `Kiss me!’ I kissed his forehead. On a sudden he lifted his head. The sunlight touched his face. A beautiful expression, an angelic expression, came over it. He cried out three times, `Peace! peace! peace!’ His head sank back again on my shoulder, and the long trouble of his life was at an end.”
There is so much more to discuss where The Moonstone is concerned, but I think I’ll wrap it up here. Just two more things: First, we were given some notes on the life of William Wilkie Collins. These came from The Victorian Web, a great site for those who are interested in this era of British history, art, and literature. We learned that Collins himself was an opium addict, having first use the drug to ease the pain of gout. It was also noted in our handout that he was “distressed by his corpulence,” a phrase which elicited gales of laughter, as which of us had not been similarly distressed at one time or another!
The discussion was intense and focused; it last for an hour and a quarter and was interspersed with relatively few digressions. (I actually love the digressions in book discussions, as they are sometimes as much fun as the actual matter at hand!) The turnout was small; there were seven of us. It is August in the Washington D.C. area, after all, and just about anyone with the means to do so has fled in order to avoid melting. It was still an excellent, stimulating get-together, with a great group of mystery aficionados. May we grow ever more mysterious as the years pass!