The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins


There is a special magic in number three, isn’t it? Welcome to the third stop of the Wilkie Collins tour! It is the first tour on The Classics Circuit and it plans to follow Mr. Collins as he visits a few of the book blogs in the blogosphere, in hopes of making new acquaintances. Feel free to visit the previous stops (1, 2) and the full list of the stops planned for the future. And, of course, enjoy this one!


Genre: Mystery
Main characters: Miss Rachel Verinder, Mr. Franklin Blake; Mr. Gabriel Betteredge, Sergeant Cuff
Time and place: 1799, India; 1848 – 1849, London and Yorkshire
First sentence:I address these lines—written in India—to my relatives in England.

Summary: The Moonstone is a large diamond, originally stolen from an Indian shrine and said to be cursed. Brought in England by a soldier of noble birth, John Herncastle, it is bequeathed by him to his niece, Rachel Verinder, on her 18th birthday. When she receives it she is childishly delighted by it — but the precious stone disappears over night and no one knows what to make of the disappearance. A famous detective, Sergent Cuff, is summoned from London, but his enquiries meet with resistance in the area he would have least expected, as Miss Rachel herself seems to be opposing the inquest with all her might.

Ever since first opening the book I was amused at the shape it way written in: letters and descriptions of events by various characters, in order to record a certain story “in the interest of truth“. The very same way The Woman in White was written, and, as I liked that book, I readily prepared to like this one in turn. At first it started out a bit slowly, but once things got rolling I could hardly put it down.

Were I to name a most amusing narrator, I would certainly choose Miss Drusilla Clack, a single woman dedicated to her faith and her charitable causes, so much so that she became a caricature of such a character instead of a multifaceted human being. Among her quirks we should note the fact that she considered sympathy for the sick a very un-Christian reaction and takes pride in giving tracts to people because that’s her idea of doing them good. A funny scene involving her is when she tries to force Lady Verinder into salvation by hiding books on religious topics all around the Lady’s house (and then she goes home so convinced she did good that she feels like a young girl again).

Another narrator that I have liked was Mr. Gabriel Betteredge, Lady Verinder’s house stewart. Despite his age (somewhere around seventy and eighty) he takes pride in doing his job well and he treats the people under him as kindly as they deserve. In the course of the book he has quite a few fits of the “detective fever”, as he calls it, but always in the company of someone better acquainted with the situation and more likely to make discoveries (it can be said that Betteredge would make a wonderful Watson while never being capable of being a Sherlock Holmes himself). Although I have mostly liked him he did have at times moments of feeling superior to other people (usually women), and then I usually got annoyed at him. But then I remembered his most interesting quirk (he believed the truth, the life and everything was to be found in the pages of Robinson Crusoe) and it made me smile again.

Here’s one of his “superior” quotes, just to form an idea:

“[...] it is a maxim of mine that men (being superior creatures) are bound to improve women—if they can. When a woman wants me to do anything (my daughter, or not, it doesn’t matter), I always insist on knowing why. The oftener you make them rummage their own minds for a reason, the more manageable you will find them in all the relations of life. It isn’t their fault (poor wretches!) that they act first and think afterwards; it’s the fault of the fools who humour them.”

Ugh.

Looking back I realize I have only mentioned things I have found amusing in the book. Don’t expect this to be a funny volume though — on the contrary, it is a very serious one as the happiness of the members of a whole family is at stake. Not any members of any family, but a cast of characters that the reader grows to like and root for, and as such their happiness becomes important (or at least that’s what happened with me). The atmosphere of the book is also rather gloomy, what with everyone suspecting everyone else of theft, with even a few deaths and illnesses thrown into the bargain. It is not a happy reading in any way, but it’s definitely a captivating one.

Here is a quote from the book’s preface by the author, illustrating an interesting side of the book:

“In some of my former novels, the object proposed has been to trace the influence of circumstances upon character. In the present story I have reversed the process. The attempt made here is to trace the influence of character on circumstances. The conduct pursued, under a sudden emergency, by a young girl, supplies the foundation on which I have built this book.”

The young girl in question is, of course, Miss Verinder. She is a complex character, young, pretty, gentle, kind hearted, but with an easily excited temper. A temper that made me actually dislike her at first (way too overexcited by everything around her for my taste), but as the story progresses her strong nature begins to shine through, and the book ended with her as my favorite character of them all. As far as her way of seeing things influences the narrative, it is obviously after a while that her decisions influence the book throughout, but I think the mystery would have been just as complete even without her acting in a certain way. But, of course, I agree that the author knows best so I will say no more.

Last but not least, T.S. Eliot called this book “the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels“. It is hard to believe in this day and age, when detective novels are everywhere, that a little over a century ago the genre almost didn’t exist. And then Wilkie Collins appeared on the scene. While not entirely original (parts of it are inspired from real life), the book established the cornerstone of the genre, and some of its elements are still used to this day (large number of suspects, amateur detectives, the person who did it was the least likely of all, a local policeman who does a bad job at solving the case and more).

What I liked most: There is a certain scene where Rachel has a heated conversation with the guy she’s in love with. It’s my favorite scene and I liked Rachel at least twice as much afterwards.

What I liked least: I was less than enchanted by the “medical experiment” that helps solve part of the mystery. I found it quite hard to believe despite Ezra Jennings quoting from official (and I supposed real life) books. Sure, the author assures us in the preface that he had make sure this is what it would have happened, by consulting “not only [...] books, but [...] living authorities as well“. I do believe him of course, and yet that part of the narrative was decidedly the one I liked least.

Recommend it to? Anyone who likes classics and/or good mystery books.

See also
Audrey Niffeneger’s review of The Moonstone

Written by the same author:
Poor Miss Finch | Armadale

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Poor Miss Finch / Wilkie Collins

Genre: Mystery
Main characters: Miss Lucilla Finch, Madame Pratolungo, Oscar & Nugent Dubourg
Summary: Lucilla Finch has been blind ’till she was one year old. At the time our story begins a young man has just moved into the village and Lucilla is very interested in him. She actually falls in love with him on hearing his voice and luckily the feeling is mutual to the two start preparing for the wedding. Lucilla is very happy that her beloved has a fair complexion as she absolutely hates everything dark-colored. Only the poor guy becomes epileptic after getting hit in the head and his only chance to be cured was to take silver nitrate — which cured his illness indeed but also left him with blue-colored skin (like this). He is very afraid to tell Lucilla about the change in him, knowing of her aversion, and tries to postpone the moment as much as possible. The truth is on the verge to come out nevertheless when Oscar’s twin brother Nugent, having heard of the engagement and of the bride-to-be’s affliction, pays them a visit bringing with him a famous eye doctor that boasts of being able to give Lucilla’s sight back.

My favorite character in the book ended up being Madame Pratolungo herself. While at first I was afraid she’ll turn out to be an old spinster with high moral expectations from everyone around her. Luckily I was wrong: Madame Pratolungo (the widow of the late political “warrior” Dr. Pratolungo, whose ideas she absolutely shares) is quite the temperamental lady. While she does have high morals, she does not imposes them on people, nor she acts according to them without exception (due to the temperament I mentioned). Lucilla’s face looks like the Dresden Madonna to everyone that sets their eyes on her, but she is a bit temperamental too (especially when she thinks someone’s taking advantage of her blindness and hiding something from her — understandably enough I would say). The two brothers are as different as the sun and moon (aren’t twin in books always), both in the first impression they give (Oscar shy, Nugent voluble), but also deep down inside (with Oscar being the firmest of the two).

The book was a bit predictable (the way movies sometimes are): for example, ever since hearing about there being two identical twin brothers I just knew one of them will end up posing as the other (has there ever been a book with two main twin characters that do not take advantage of their “twinness” in some way?). Also, just when Lucilla was happy that her beloved’s complexion is light as she absolutely abhors everything dark, I couldn’t help thinking something will happen to poor Oscar to darken his complexion somehow (though I couldn’t think of a way this could happen and I congratulate the author for his idea). And so on. Nevertheless my vague ideas about what was going to happen did not detract in the least from my pleasure in discovering exactly how my prediction came true and how the people involved reacted to them. :)

At first I was a bit disappointed with Oscar’s behavior towards Nugent near the end. Up until seeing him he’s been threatening to kill him as he got angrier and angrier with him seeing how he had treated Lucilla while he (Oscar) had been away. But when he saw him he(Oscar) himself started making up excuses for the way he (Nugent) has behaved. Seemed a bit improbable to me plus I was sort of hoping Nugent will get what he deserved. However after a while it did became more plausible to me: not only Oscar used to worship Nugent, he also considered he owed him his life. So one cannot blame him that, after looking up at his brother for so long, he had a hard time accepting his betrayal and acting upon it. I now think he(Oscar) acted no more and no less than justly towards his brother, especially as, after all Nugent’s moments of kindness towards Oscar exceeded by far his brief episode of let’s call it insanity.

Here’s a quote I found interesting/a bit thought provoking:

It meant that modesty is essentially the growth of our own consciousness of the eyes of others judging us–and that blindness is never bashful, for the one simple reason that blindness cannot see.

What I liked most: the fact that the author didn’t give Lucilla perfect sight all of the sudden. He had her confront all the differences between reality and imagination (what’s white, what’s square, what’s round), he had her having difficulties when it came to assessing distances, he even had her mistaking a cat for a dog and viceversa (because her visual memory was not yet as strong as her tactile one). I find all of these realistic issues and I am glad the author chose to address them rather than ignore them.

What I liked least: There were some minor slips, such as Lucilla mimicking people and making faces in the mirror (but she lost her sight as an infant so she would have had no idea what faces to make), or Lucilla reading a letter moments after she declared she cannot read yet. Nothing too troublesome though and nothing that kept me from being captivated by the book.

Recommend it? Yes.

Written by the same author:
The Moonstone | Armadale