The Moonstone
by Wilkie Collins

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

All the Year Round, 4 January 1868 - 8 August 1868

Tinsley Brothers: London, 1868
315 + 297 + 309 pages

revised, with additional preface —
Smith, Elder and Co.: London, 1871
434 pages

Harper and Brothers: New York, 1876

223 pages; 68 illustrations January 2012

A multi-voiced mystery

The Moonstone, published in 1868 and revised in 1871, is the pioneer of the modern mystery-detective novel. Wilkie Collins (1824-1889) develops so many of what we would now recognize as familiar genre elements that we should appreciate his originality.

Warning: most websites about Wilkie Collins or The Moonstone feel obliged to summarize the entire story and spoil all the plot surprises. I don't do that here, and I recommend that you read the novel before pursuing background material.

The distinctive feature of The Moonstone is the quality of the multiple narrative viewpoints. These characters come alive, all quite distinctive, each in turn writing of that span of events for which he or she has a participant's first-hand knowledge, while neither criticizing nor anticipating the others' reportage.

An important virtue of Collins' characters, and the plot they inhabit and motivate, is that they are not suffused with the cloying Victorian sentimentality which dismasts so many Nineteenth-Century three-decker novels, and sinks entire squadrons of them for posterity. Collins' folks do have the values and reactions of their place and time, but more naturally so than those of his friend Charles Dickens, for instance. Later generations of writers took thoughtful notice. You may see character types who suggest people in A. Conan Doyle and Dorothy Sayers; while their entanglement in a locked-room mystery in an English country house would be developed classically by Agatha Christie.

The Moonstone of the title is a fabulous jewel, a striking yellow diamond, acquired a half-century earlier under doubtful circumstances in British India. Such an accidental treasure has been used by a number of later novelists to provide a springboard into the British landed gentry for a fellow not born to it, as well as to driving more sinister activities. In The Moonstone the jewel's effect is decisively sinister.

The diamond lures and bedevils gentry both rich and poor, other English folks related or not, and pursuers from India. There's a scary seashore near the country house, and scenes in London. A nice feature is that we see a lot of working England, a goodly range of occupations.

I believe you'll like, and remember, Gabriel Betteredge, recorder of the longest section of the novel, setting the scene as it appeared at the time. He is the house steward, and guides his life through perplexities by Robinson Crusoe as a kind of personal holy writ. While his successor in narration, Miss Clack, is a worldly-poor but faith-rich charity worker and tract dispenser in London. Succeeding narrators zigzag closer to the eventual solution and explanation.

The Moonstone is a pioneer rather than a masterpiece, but it is a worthy survivor of its time, still enjoyable reading.


© 2012 Robert Wilfred Franson

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