Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone (1868)

…seriously, how funny is that cover?  It would be worth tracking that edition down, if not for its unfortunate "modern abridgment."

This was Collins' second-most-popular novel, after The Woman in White, in its time, and these days, if the relative numbers of downloads on Project Gutenberg are any indication, it's eclipsed its predecessor in popularity.  Neither one is as good as No Name, but it's easy to see why they would be the best-received.  Like The Woman in White, The Moonstone centers around a mystery (and also has multiple narrators), and mystery novels seem to be the best suited for serialization.  It's easy to picture people eagerly awaiting the new installment in the latest number of All the Year Round and then gathering around the Victorian water cooler to discuss the latest developments and speculate on the answers.

During one of Britain's excellent imperialist adventures in the late eighteenth century, a large diamond known as take-a-wild-guess, a Hindu holy symbol, was stolen by an unscrupulous soldier, Sir John Herncastle.  A half century later, give or take, the diamond is to be inherited by a young relative, Miss Rachel Verinder.  But then--quel surprise!--it is stolen!  Oh no!  What happened?  What's the deal with this mysterious trio of Indian men hanging around on the periphery?  Why is it that some of the servants are acting so damned suspicious?  To say nothing of Miss Verinder herself?  WHAT'S GOING ON?!?  WHO TOOK THE MOONSTONE?!?  TELL ME!  NOW!  I REALLY WANT TO KNOW!!!

It's a solid mystery story.  It's not exactly sensational in the way that No Name and the best parts of The Woman in White are, but it's certainly better than that latter novel, or at least more consistent.  As expected from Collins, there are a lot of side-paths and red herrings, but it comes together rather nicely, and you're definitely propelled onward by a desire to know the whole story, even if you're pretty likely to guess the thief well in advance of the revelation.  There's some medical stuff which may from our perspective seems more than a little dubious, but I had no problem just going with it.  And, of course, there's a romance between Miss Verinder and another protagonist, Mr. Franklin Blake; it's not massively exciting, but it's fine, far removed from the gruesome Hartright/Fairlie pairing.

As usual, there are some solid characters here.  This was not, of course, the first mystery novel or anything like that, but Collins really does seem to have pioneered many tropes of the genre, and notable among them is the character of Sergeant Cuff, who is called in to investigate the disappearance.  Cuff's character plays on a lot of classic tropes, and thus may seem sort of unoriginal, until you consider that Collins basically invented a lot of these concepts: he is a quiet, unassuming enigma of a man who nonetheless effortlessly takes command of the situation and seems to be a deductive step ahead of everyone else, and in his spare time, he has a seemingly incongruous hobby (a passion for rose horticulture, in this case--he has vehement arguments with the Verinders' gardener on the topic).  He's cool, and under other circumstances, it's easy to see how he could have become a popular recurring  character.

The character who very nearly steals the whole show, however, is completely incidental to the scenario: part of the book is narrated by one Miss Drusilla Clack, a poor relative of the family who is absolutely the most pious, insufferable evangelical Christian you can imagine.  She likes to hand out Bible tracts (with titles like "A Word with You on Your Cap-Ribbons") to all and sundry, and when a cab driver gets mad when she tips him with a tract, she flings another one through the cab window as he's driving off and congratulates herself on her piety.  She also likes to get the better of people in arguments, and for her it's a double pleasure: not only does she get to feel gleeful about her victory, but she also gets to feel extra-holy about confessing to having engaged in such sinful, prideful behavior.  On the one hand, it's kind of cartoonish, sure; but on the other, it's pretty psychologically sharp.  When you think about it, I guess it's kind of obvious that this kind of obnoxious evangelism is far from a modern invention, but it was still surprising to see it represented in such full flower back in the day.  Collins' later works are sometimes accused of anti-Catholic bias, which seems surprising, given that characters like Miss Clack who go on about the evils of popery are always depicted as, at best, figures of fun.  One of the other narrators, Gabriel Betteredge, the Verinder family's long-time steward, has a strange obsession with Robinson Crusoe and loves nothing more than to nonsensically apply out-of-context quotes from it to the current situation; it's pretty clear that Collins is having a bit of fun here with people who do the same thing with the Bible.

THE BIG QUESTION, FROM A CONTEMPORARY STANDPOINT: hey, what about those Indians…?  Well, it's funny.  There's never any serious doubt that Herncastle was a huge asshole (everyone acknowledges this), and that he had no right to steal the diamond.  This does not, however, mean that anyone considers, even in passing, the possibility that it should be restored to its rightful owners.  As for the Indians trying to recover it, said to be high-caste Brahmins who sacrificed their positions in society for this quest (I have no idea whether that actually makes any sense in Hindu culture, but that's what the book sez), they're a presence in the background, but they are resolutely Others throughout the book.  We certainly never get into their heads; hell, we never even learn any of their individual names.  There's no question that Collins exoticizes them, and Hinduism in general.  Still, things could be a lot worse: they seem to be at least as sophisticated, in their own way, as any of the Europeans, and while they do kill a guy as part of their mission (a killing that really seems sorta kinda unnecessary, but that also isn't of someone we're any too sorry to see dead, so it evens out), but--SPOILERS!--the Moonstone does end up back in India, and to the extent that they're depicted at all, we see the Indians who effected the recovery as noble, tragic figures.  I think it might be a bridge too far to suggest that Collins is implicitly critiquing the Europeans for their obliviousness, but given the limitations of his society, he seems surprisingly not-wholly-unenlightened (boy, talk about hedging…).  I think it's basically okay.


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