Saturday, January 06, 2007

Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone

[ A review for the Winter Classics Challenge ]

Title: The Moonstone

Author: Wilkie Collins [ biographical entry, Wikipedia ]

Copyright: 1868 (novel falls into public domain); I was reading the Everyman's Library 1992 edition (Random House/Knopf)

Length: 473 pages

Genre: Mystery/Suspense

Summary: With a certain malicious intent, a British officer bequeathes a trophy of his service in India (a valuable yellow diamond) to his niece on her eighteenth birthday. However, because of the diamond's history, a curse follows it and evil touches the lives of those connected with the lovely young heiress, Rachel Verinder. The diamond is sought by various individuals with an interest in its financial and spiritual value. The story is told in first person, narrated by eight characters in different walks of life with differing perceptions of people and events. These include Gabriel Betteredge, a 70-something family retainer with a fondness for his pipe and book; Miss Drusilla Clack, an earnestly-sermonizing spinster sourpuss; Franklin Bates, a cosmopolitan young man who is also the suitor of Miss Verinder, and Ezra Jennings, a medical assistant. Mystery readers may figure out the logical suspect without a great deal of difficulty, but it's much more enjoyable to sit back and enjoy the twists that Collins constructed so carefully. The pacing is what one ought to expect of a Victorian novel as each narrator has particular points to make about the habits and relationships of each person observed. I found it satisfying, but others may not.

Extract: (From Gabriel Betteredge's narrative)

Looking back at the birthday now, by the light of what happened afterwards, I am half inclined to think that the cursed Diamond must have cast a blight on the whole company. I plied them well with wine; and being a privileged character, followed the unpopular dishes round the table, and whispered to the company confidentially, "Please to change your mind and try it; for I know it will do you good." Nine times out of ten they changed their minds--out of regard for their old original Betteredge, they were pleased to say-- but all to no purpose. There were gaps of silence in the talk, as the dinner got on, that made me feel personally uncomfortable. When they did use their tongues again, they used them innocently, in the most unfortunate manner and to the worst possible purpose. Mr. Candy, the doctor, for instance, said more unlucky things than I ever knew him to say before. Take one sample of the way in which he went on, and you will understand what I had to put up with at the sideboard, officiating as I was in the character of a man who had the prosperity of the festival at heart.

Also Relevant: My first exposure to The Moonstone was through the Classic Comics Illustrated that were popular back in the early 'sixties. The comic book didn't impress me at the age of eight or nine, which explains why I never felt particularly compelled to read this novel until now. It's a pity because I have thoroughly enjoyed this novel; on the upside, I can now look forward to reading other of Collins' works to see if they are as good. This was (if I may borrow The Bluestalking Reader's description of the Collins novel she read) a "truly RIPPING YARN". There were twists and turns, people dropped dead or went missing at interesting junctures, and went into seclusion or left town exactly at that point when amateur and professional sleuths were most anxious to meet with them. There was humor in the narrative as well as suspense, and a certain amount of satirical jabs (usually in the direction of Miss Clack who invited abuse by handing out Evangelical tracts at ill-chosen times).

Even early on, there were intriguing questions posed by the story. Had the diamond been stolen? Or was it put in hiding by someone with Rachel's best interest at heart? Who was in league with whom? Were they working to help the police or divert them? Was the upstairs maid really dead?

Imagine a strange petite woman suddenly grabbing you by the elbow, thrusting a volume into your hand, and stressing most emphatically that you just have to read this! That's me -- not Miss Clack --and how I feel about The Moonstone. You've just got to read this book. I very nearly called in sick to the office this week because I thought Moonstone was far more interesting than work could possibly be. I read long past the hour when I normally would go to sleep at night in order to find out what happed next. I neglected most everything today in order to finish it. Now I know why the Victorians called it sensation literature (and why they thought it was bad for female readers...)

Note: If you want further depth into the historical context of the novel, I can point you in the direction of these two educational sites that offer interesting background:

However, understanding the historical context isn't really critical to a happy enjoyment of the action.

One Additional Thought: I was not overly fond of the romance element in this, chiefly because Collins portrayed his heroine with a certain amount of sentimentality as the story reached its climax. At that point, I thought she was drippy and uninteresting; previously she had held some interest for me. But, as previously mentioned, this is a Victorian novel and one must be prepared to deal with some of the baggage that comes along with that.