The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins

First published: 1868.

Edition read: Oxford World’s Classics, 1985, ed. Anthea Trodd.

Provenance: purchased from Bookends in Carlisle.

Read: November 2014, sitting up in bed late into the night.


There are a few reliable old warhorse-facts you can trot out about Wilkie Collins and his novel The Moonstone: it was the first detective novel in the English language (dubious), he was friends with Dickens (true), he was a theatrical impresario, also much in the vein of Dickens (also true), he did not behave well to the various women in his life (perhaps this depends on your definition of “good behavior” but I am inclined to say “true” to this as well.) After you’ve mentioned these, you can add that The Moonstone is about the theft of a priceless Indian jewel, make some hrrrumph-ing noises about the legacy of colonialism, and turn the conversation to some more convivial topic. That’s usually as far as it gets.

If you actually read The Moonstone, you’ll notice, first of all, that the whole question of India and the “Hindoos” who seek the jewel is a bit of a red herring. English xenophobia is not the point of this novel at all; what Collins’s plot really does is allow him to examine the myriad ways in which the society he depicts fails to exercise imaginative compassion. It’s about power, usually economic power, and its warping effects on an individual’s judgment, morals, and behavior. It’s also about class differences, about which I think Collins is kinder, subtler, and more interesting than Dickens.

As per usual, though, Wordsworth Classics takes the prize for most-irrelevant-and-vaguely-alarming cover design.

The story is told by seven narrators, which understandably tends to alarm first-time readers. The actual events, however, are linear: each character is being asked to write down what he or she remembers about the events leading up to the theft of a diamond, and each character’s memories cease to be relevant quite conveniently at the point where the next character’s memories begin. The diamond in question is a yellow gem which was left to Rachel Verinder, the daughter of a prominent Yorkshire family, by her uncle, who is rumored to have done some rather unsavory things in military service in India. She is to receive the diamond on her eighteenth birthday. The day arrives; the diamond is delivered; she wears it throughout the evening and all through her birthday dinner; the guests retire; she puts the diamond away in a cabinet in her own room; the next morning, it’s gone. No one knows where it is. After a good deal of incompetence from the local police force, enter Sergeant Cuff from London, who is a celebrity in the vein of Sherlock Holmes and possesses the tenacity and implacability of a Poirot. (He is also, rather charmingly, a keen amateur rose grower.) It is Cuff’s idea to ask witnesses and guests to write down what they remember of the whole affair, in an attempt to get at the truth.

In this sense, of course, The Moonstone looks very much like a detective story, although whether it’s the first in the English language or not depends on your opinion of The Murders In the Rue Morgue (published twenty-seven years earlier) and Bleak House (published sixteen years earlier). The details of the plot, however, show how easily detective stories lend themselves to social commentary, especially on a microcosmic level. Much of the novel is concerned with the idea of privacy, particularly women’s privacy, and the violation of private female space. You don’t need to have read Freud to realize what kind of story this is: a young woman has a priceless jewel stolen from her bedroom in the dead of night after a celebration of her newly minted adulthood, and reacts with strong but inconsistent emotion to her loss. The men who busy themselves looking for her lost treasure–her cousins, the detective, the butler of the house–are bewildered by her response: “Why–having lost her Diamond–should she object to the presence…of the very people whose business it was to recover it?” The novel isn’t an allegory about lost virginity, I should add; there are too many other competing and contradicting themes for it to be so straightforward. But there are very intriguing resonances, as Rachel desperately tries to keep the theft a private or at least a family matter, and the men around her first annex for themselves the authority of “recovering” the jewel, and then insist on dragging all the details into the light, much against her wishes.

The question of female privacy also feeds into the heavy class focus that Collins brings to the novel. The Verinder family’s female servants are forced to submit to a police search of their bedrooms and personal belongings, which alienates them almost at once from any desire to be cooperative. The servants, most of whom have served the house faithfully for generations, are resentful and ashamed that the facade of their being “part of the family” can break down so easily, and that their masters can demonstrate how little they think of their inferiors. The lack of regard for the feelings of poor women is most painfully demonstrated in the subplot between Rosanna Spearman, a crippled servant at the house, and Franklin Blake, Rachel’s cousin and the family’s prodigal son. Rosanna falls in love with Blake instantly, and although he never looks at her twice, she forgets her place–as a poor woman and an unattractive one–so far as to dream about what would happen if he did. Her misery drives her to commit suicide. Her fate is viewed with sorrow, but without particular pity, by most of the characters, including the otherwise-sympathetic butler Gabriel Betteredge, and by Blake himself. The very idea of the loss of social hierarchy is absolutely inconceivable in the world of The Moonstone; the realization that Rosanna was aiming high, even if only in her imagination, prevents either of the men from mourning her death humanely, distracted as they are by the perceived impudence. Her love is described as “monstrous”. Only Lucy Yolland, the daughter of a local fisherman and one of Rosanna’s few friends, declares, “I loved her”, and refuses to call Blake “Mr. Franklin” (a deferential form of address) because of what she sees as his responsibility for Rosanna’s death. Betteredge, who despite being likable is also a pompous blowhard, is enraged by her disrespect in precisely the same way as he is disappointed by Rosanna’s. Both women fail to accept the codes of behavior and belief that more powerful members of their society use against them. It is not just that they are women who dare to express their feelings, although that is bad enough; it is that they are poor women who dare to do this. “People in high life,” Betteredge notes, “have all the luxuries to themselves–amongst others, the luxury of indulging their feelings. People in low life have no such privilege.”

It is, therefore, the duty of people in high life to exert themselves to imagine, and to empathize with, the feelings of people in low life: people, that is, who cannot indulge their feelings because they literally cannot afford to do so. The Moonstone abounds with relationships where this sort of imaginative empathy fails miserably between two individuals: Franklin fails to understand Rosanna, Rachel fails to understand Franklin. The most bleakly comic instance of this is the relationship between Drusilla Clack, a poor relation of the Verinders, and Lady Verinder, who is dying of cancer. Drusilla is an evangelical Christian; instead of trying to make Lady Verinder more comfortable, holding her hand, or even listening to her, Drusilla plies her with tracts about hell and salvation, right up to the point of the older woman’ s death. (These are not without comedy value; their titles are masterpieces of hyperbolic hysteria. My favorite is “Satan Among the Sofa-Cushions.”) The evidence of Ezra Jennings, meanwhile, is essential in understanding the irreparable damage that can be done to a person by failing to extend empathy towards them. He is mixed race, hailing from the colonies (probably Jamaica or another Caribbean island), shunned by the locals despite his evident skill as a doctor’s assistant, and we gather that his past is marred by the loss of a loved one and by the weight of unfair suspicion being cast upon him for his racial difference. The introduction to my copy of The Moonstone, written by Anthea Trodd of Keele University, suggests that the vagueness of Jennings’s sufferings is because his real value to the plot lies in his medical knowledge of opium, and that by “passing up prime opportunities for extended pathos,” Collins strengthens his story. Apparently, in other works, his tendency is to push the moral point too far; here, his “concise and inexplicit treatment of the character suggests that he understands that any competent reader needs few suggestions to take Ezra’s history as read.” I agree with her to a point, but I disagree that the purpose of Jennings is solely to provide information about opium (useful though that is). It may be his function within the plot, but within the narrative, he is perhaps the most tragic example of the obscurity that overcomes a kind and brilliant person when the imaginative empathy of his neighbors–fueled, in this case, by racism–does not reach him.

And equally, that imaginative empathy never reaches Rachel. Her male friends and relations are confounded by her; her mother does not understand her either; and any attempt to explicate her is met with the need for qualifications and contingency. Here is Mr Bruff, her lawyer, considering her attitude towards disaster: “Rachel Verinder’s first instinct…was to shut herself up in her own mind, and to think it over by herself. This absolute self-dependence is a great virtue in a man. In a woman, it has the serious drawback of morally separating her from the mass of her sex…I strongly suspect myself of thinking as the rest of the world think in this matter–except in the case of Rachel Verinder. The self-dependence in her character was one of its virtues in my estimation.” She can be made an honorary man; her “self-dependence” bestows that upon her, while the discussion of “virtue” situates her securely in the realm of the feminine, albeit a feminine characterized by special strength, like Britannia or Artemis. Yet she is never allowed to tell any part of the story in her own voice. It is as though the stories of the other men have to prove to us that she is worthy, but by the time they have done that, the story’s over. (Her virtue, in the masculine sense, is also at least partly cemented by the fact that the sole female narrator, Drusilla, disapproves of her.) The Moonstone, at the end of the novel, is found; I’m not sure that Rachel, despite her supposedly happy marriage, ever is.


For more by Collins, see:

The Woman In White, ed. John Sutherland (Oxford: Oxford University Press,  2001)

Armadale, ed. Catherine Peters (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

No Name, ed. Virginia Blain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

Basil, ed. Dorothy Goldman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

For more on Collins’s work and context, see:

Wilkie Collins, Peter Ackroyd (London: Chatto & Windus, 2012)

Wilkie Collins: Women, Property and Propriety, Philip O’Neill (London: Macmillan, 1988)

Wilkie Collins, Medicine and the Gothic, Laurence Talaimach-Vielmas (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2009)

‘In the Secret Theatre of Home’: Wilkie Collins, Sensation Narrative, and Nineteenth-Century Psychology, Jenny Bourne Taylor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006)

7 thoughts on “The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins

  1. Three or four years ago I set ‘The Moonstone’ as one of the novels that we read for a Summer School I run each August. I paired it up with Kate Summerscale’s ‘The Suspicions of Mr Wicher’, which, as I’m sure you know, is about a real case that happened a few years before ‘The Moonstone’ was written. It is fascinating to see what Collins takes from real life and how he weaves it into his own narrative. Detective fiction was still new enough to need a hand when it came to verisimilitude.

    1. Yeah, it’s interesting to see the early conventions and how they morphed into the detective novel as we would recognize it, with all the Agatha Christie-esque tropes. The Moonstone may have set the trend early on for country-house mysteries!

    1. The Woman in White is also on my list! The Moonstone is a pretty extraordinary novel. Definitely ahead of its time in many ways. Glad you liked the review 🙂

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