The Moonstone – Wilkie Collins

7 July 2010
First Period, Chapters 1-15
I’m enjoying this, in an audio version read by Peter Jeffrey. The voice he uses for the sentimental, slightly pompous old servant who narrates this first section is a perfect Yorkshireman: slower than Gervais Finn, not as self-regarding as Geoff Boycott. His Sergeant Cuff is the quiet, confidently modest London working man he ought to be – so the way he sees off the local police superintendent, who sounds like the blimpish ex-army man Collins describes, is perfect. And so on.

It’s an astonishing book, because in it detective fiction as a genre seems to have been created fully formed. There’s the isolated house, the closed room, the range of possible suspects, the forbidding landscape with its threat of death, the narrator who isn’t necessarily to be trusted, the incompetent local copper having his nose put out of joint by the capable outsider, the interested bystanders constantly trying (and, obviously, failing) to second-guess the investigation…. I could go on.

The narrator of this first half (I’m about two-thirds of the way through it) is Gabriel Betteredge, trusted retainer of an old family. There’s a black sheep who (in a prologue that might or might not be reliable) seems to have obtained the sacred Moonstone by murdering its Hindu keepers in India. He’s left it to his niece, in what could be construed as an act of penitent forgiveness or calculated mischief: there’s a curse that goes with the jewel – and besides, the uncle knows the priests want it back. A nephew, Franklin Blake, is the one charged with bringing it to the Yorkshire family seat, presided over by Lady Verinder. He doesn’t seem very happy to do it because of its bad reputation, and is easily persuaded to leave it at the local bank until his cousin’s birthday.

Mysteries start to pile in more or less from the start. Why does Rosanna Spearman, the hunchbacked servant-girl – and a penitent former criminal from London – seem so overjoyed when she sees Franklin for the first time? Why does she like to visit the Shivering Sands so often? Why are there three Indian jugglers, highly interested in his arrival and in something that, as Betteredge’s daughter overhears, he might have with him? (Ok, this one seems obvious – but Collins seems to have invented the red herring as well as everything else, so we quickly realise we ought to beware of the obvious.)

If the novel fairly quickly becomes a series of puzzles, Collins resolutely avoids making it only that. It was published weekly in Dickens’ Household Words, and there’s a Dickensian feel to a lot of the characterisation. Betteredge has rather self-consciously signalled traits: his reliance on a little drink, a little nap and Robinson Crusoe as a fount of all knowledge and succour; the pronouncements – often preceded by ‘Nota Bene’ – about other people, especially women. Lady Verinder is firm but fair – and is not immune from the family ‘temper’; Rachel, her daughter, ditto; Franklin, well, Franklin is the archetype, like Ladislaw in the early chapters of Middlemarch, of the dilettante who knows Europe but not himself; and there’s the pompous cousin Godfrey, favourite of Christian women’s societies, who seems to think he has a chance with Rachel. (He hasn’t.)

8 July
To the end of the First Period
I read on before I’d finished writing abut the first 15 chapters, but that’s ok. What becomes clear is how character isn’t a bolt-on feature; it’s integral to the workings of the plot. Rosanna’s joy when she first sees Franklin might simply be love at first sight, as one of the characters suggests, and her later (apparent) suicide and note seem to confirm it. But we know about detective novels, and there might be a different explanation – and we don’t know for certain that she’s dead. She probably is, because my guesses are nearly always wrong, but what looks like a girlish crush might be a cover for something else.

The character of the only feasible suspect, Rachel the daughter, is also a key component: if there’s one thing that the new vogue for the real-life detective stories in the newspapers had taught people in the 1860s – thank you Kate Summerscale in The Suspicions of Mr Whicher for this – it’s that however absolute your trust, there’s no art to find the mind’s construction, in the face or anywhere else. Betteredge is convinced that Cuff’s suspicions are wrong – he proudly tells us that in the face of overpowering evidence he is ‘superior to reason’ – and Lady Verinder appears to be as well. But… a) we’re not at all sure about the little rich girl – Collins knows his readers, b) it’s clear from a letter she later writes that her mother knows Cuff is largely right, and c) all Cuff’s predictions about her and the diamond come true within a few pages of his having made them. (It doesn’t mean he’s right about the girl’s motives, though: there’s still over half the novel to go yet.)

But I’m not telling you the plot. Girl gets diamond. Girl is thrilled by diamond. Diamond is gone. Indians? Red herring: they might want it, but they haven’t got it. Smear on paint on door – unfeasibly convenient, but we’re ok with it – must have been done by somebody in the room in the early hours. Find the smeared clothing. Can’t. Search everywhere, for diamond and clothing, nobody exempt. Daughter refuses. (Cuff’s motive for including everybody: to confirm a suspicion he has about her.) Rosanna implicated: Cuff pieces together a hypothesis involving buying material to replace stained petticoat, and this is confirmed. Rosanna has acquired a box and chains and has sunk something in the quicksands. Rachel and Rosanna must be in cahoots – Cuff recognises Rosanna as a former London crook with all the right contacts to have the diamond spirited away. Rachel’s motive: debts. One suitor (Godfrey) has got out quick; other suitor – the one with a chance, who helps the investigation – is practically chucked out by Rachel.

Betteredge is protective of Rosanna, and too sentimentally attached to Rachel to have a word said against her – but Collins smuggles the story past his firewalls because, basically, he’s too talkative to miss anything out. (It takes him about four chapters to get his narrative under way, he goes down so many blind alleys first.) Lady Verinder appears blind as well, but she has her own motives a) for keeping any possible scandal quiet and b), later perhaps, helping to get rid of the diamond. Cuff calls her the cleverest woman in England, presumably because her manoeuvre to make sure only she cross-examines her daughter ensures that only her version of Rachel’s response is heard. Motive, motive, motive. And what about Franklin? Is he really an innocent abroad, kicked out of Rachel’s good books by his efforts to get to the bottom of the crime? Are the Indians as ruthless as the dinner-guest, recently back from India, insists? (And do they have powers beyond our philosophy? I’m sure they don’t: highly questionable attitudes to Indians are a running theme.) And, surely, Cuff is wrong about Rachel’s motive even if he’s right about how the diamond was spirited away.

In other words, Collins has got us exactly where he wants us at the end of this first section. All we know for certain is that, just like the amateurs in the novel giving in to the ‘detective fever’ – an 1860s phenomenon – we can be certain of absolutely nothing. Bring on the next narrator.

9 July
Second Period – First Narrative
What we get are eight chapters by Miss Clack, and all of it is good. I haven’t mentioned Collins’s use of names, but this unmarried prattler is exactly as hers would suggest. She’s a poor relation of the Verinders, and she’s under the spell of Godfrey – surname Ablewhite, as in able to whiten himself and his motives as much as you’d expect. This section is to do with Miss Clack’s observations of him and Rachel, who has already rejected his offer of marriage. But he doesn’t give up. Her story hardly advances the Moonstone mystery plot at all, but what it does is allow Collins to satirise religious humbug and it’s great fun. (I’ve always used Mrs Poulteney in John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman as the model of Victorian religiosity, but not any more. Godfrey Ablewhite and his acolyte Drusilla Clack are the ones from now on.)

What Collins does is give his narrator more than enough rope not only to hang herself but a more important character at the same time. The crush she has on Godfrey, which she naively attributes to sisterly affection, is Collins’ route into his methods: as Miss Clack sees and hears his proposal to Rachel – we’re not a bit bothered by the implausibility of her accidental presence, obviously – she recognises every seductive trick he uses in his charity fund-raisers. Collins, just as in the main plot, allows the reader to see a lot more than the speaker does: we understand that Godfrey’s honeyed words to Rachel, in the face of her frank declaration that she doesn’t love him, are no more than a well-practised technique. Miss Clack thinks he’s forgotten himself and is shocked. We can see he’s revealing his true self, and I laughed out loud at the brass neck of it.

Later, when Rachel (we have to assume) hears something detrimental about him from the lawyer and ends the engagement, there’s another set piece conversation. Godfrey explains to Miss Clack his easy acceptance of the decision, pretending the proposal was an aberration he was never comfortable with. Collins, in that way he has of making the reader feel clever, makes it clear that Godfrey is hiding something and is scurrying back to a life he had recently been all too willing to give up. (Miss Clack had heard him dismissing the ladies’ charity circles when he could see a different life opening up before him.) Before this Bruff, the lawyer, had always suspected Godfrey of involvement with the disappearance of the Moonstone, and is only persuaded otherwise by Rachel’s categorical rejection of this. Fair enough – although we wonder how wise he is to place so much faith in what she says, and we’re left wondering what he’s found out. Probably nothing to do with the Moonstone: maybe there’s a madwoman in Godfrey’s attic.

Before all this, Collins gets through the necessary bits of the Moonstone plot. Using the same stratagem each time, the Indians have tricked both Godfrey and the high-class pawnbroker Cuff has already mentioned as Rosanna’s probable contact (his name, Luker, sounds like Lucre in the audio version). They are lured into private houses and are searched ‘to the very skin’, a phrase that Miss Clack can’t help using at least twice. It gets into the newspapers in a way that sounds familiar from Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, and Rachel asks Godfrey all about it. She goes deathly pale when she realises that the slip of paper they’ve taken from Luker, a banker’s receipt for a precious gem, could well be for the Moonstone. If Cuff is right, she has good reason to be shocked: although the Indians can’t do anything with the receipt, things feel as though they’re closing in….

Anything else? Lady Verinder dies, from a previously undiagnosed heart condition that long pre-dates the dismal arrival of the Moonstone, so that’s her off the suspect list. (Was she really on it? Is she really off it?) Franklin is the one who is commissioning all these narratives. Rachel, in the care of Godfrey’s father following her mother’s death, goes to lodge with Bruff and his wife after old Ablewhite becomes apoplectic with rage when Rachel won’t tell him why she’s brought the engagement to an end. And… Miss Clack and her simple faith in worthless religious tracts – she feels triumphant simply to leave one in a cab after she gets a mouthful from the cabbie after she hasn’t tipped him, and others lying all over Lady V’s London house before she dies – is a million miles from self-knowledge and sees all her own judgmental pronouncements as Christian charity. And Collins does a whole riff on the Trousers committee, in which spinsterish ladies – sorry t be so sexist, but Collins is – have a lot more trousers than they know what to do with. In an ideal film version she’d be played by Joyce Grenfell.

10 July
Second Period – Second Narrative (Bruff); Chapters 1-4 of the Third Narrative (Franklin)
We get Bruff the lawyer next, and his job is to move a couple of threads on a bit. First, the Rachel/Godfrey thread – and it isn’t a madwoman in the attic, it’s money. It takes a lawyer to tell us that Lady V’s will contained a stipulation that should Rachel marry, neither she nor her husband would be able to raise money on the capital of the estate. In other words, as he spells it out for us, a gold-digger would be disappointed if he married in order to get money fast. And guess who sent a man to check the will at Doctors Commons a week after proposing to a certain young lady? Bruff tells Rachel, Rachel tells Godfrey she’s had second thoughts, and that’s that. Except that during the business with Rachel, her behaviour is always impeccable, and she is resolute (as she was with her mother) that she has done nothing to be ashamed of in connection with that other thread…

…because now, a lot of weekly instalments after the Moonstone was last at the centre of things, Bruff takes us back to it. On the fairly transparent pretext of seeking a loan, the chief of the Hindu priests has found out that the precious jewel Luker has left at the bank cannot be redeemed until a year is up. So Collins has invented another trope: the ticking clock. He even has Bruff make a note in his diary for the end of June 1849, just under a year hence, to look out for the Indians again. Fine. Except we only been presented with circumstantial evidence that the jewel really is the Moonstone. Cuff, in Betteredge’s narrative, is presented as infallible – but he doesn’t get every detail right. The suggestion that Rachel is in debt is one of these, and although he seems right in his guess that she conveyed the Moonstone to Luker (etc. etc.) he might have been fooled. After all, all this seems to have been made clear within the first third of the novel. What is it about Rachel that Collins hasn’t told us? And we still don’t know why she’s so angry with Franklin before she leaves Yorkshire that she turns her back on him forever – having told her mother previously that he’s the one she would probably marry.

Along the way, Bruff talks to the Indian explorer we met in Yorkshire, the one who likes to show off about what he knows. He’s pompous and, I suspect, doesn’t know as much as he thinks he does. I might be wrong, but I can’t imagine Collins wants us to take everything he says at face value. To him, the Indians would stop at nothing, including ruthless murder, to retrieve their sacred object; they are almost childishly superstitious; and he has no sense of any rights they might have as aggrieved clerics attempting to put right a palpable wrong. Bruff could have reached his understanding of events without this man, but Collins has chosen to let him go on for pages, and I think it might well be another smokescreen. The Indians are interesting exotic colour and a convenient threat in a novel published only a decade after the Indian Mutiny. It doesn’t mean that Collins has the same prejudices as his pontificating explorer.

The third narrator in this Second Period is Franklin Blake himself, and he kicks the Moonstone thread properly into gear. He’s been away, in some unnamed eastern desert region – more exotic colour, though sketchy enough to be practically invisible in his description – until he hears he’s come into his inheritance and needs to get back to London. But that’s just detail. The real plot begins when he tries to see Rachel. He’s been able to forget her, sort of, until he’s heading homeward again… and then he can’t. But she refuses to see him, sends a curt reply to his letter that she isn’t interested in any correspondence. It’s that pesky Moonstone again, he thinks: if he can get to the bottom of the mystery he’ll be in her good books again. Hmm.

He goes to Yorkshire. There’s not so much exotic colour here, but there’s Betteredge again and, eventually, Limping Lucy. (What is it with deformed or disabled young women in this book? Collins lets us know how horrible everybody is about their disabilities without making any comment, but there’s an agenda in there somewhere.) She had been Rosanna’s only friend in Yorkshire and she’s still furious with Franklin for more or less murdering her. She doesn’t actually say this, but looks at him with hatred. He assumes she’s a nutter. Anyway, he gets Rosanna’s letter and – guess what? – it contains instructions for retrieving the metal chest from the sands, just as Cuff predicted….

He gets the chest, and it contains the missing nightgown with the paint-smear. But why? Why hadn’t she simply let it sink forever? (This was what Cuff assumed she’d done with it – so he also assumed the chest would contain something different.) Make sure you’re sitting down, reader, because – it’s not her nightgown at all, but Franklin’s own. By the time we get to the end of Chapter 4, he has read most of Rosanna’s long letter. He knows she was in love with him, that she knew it was hopeless – so far, so unsurprising – and then we get more unaccountable stuff to go with his nightgown. Rosanna had pieced together a story, and it was that Franklin had visited Rachel’s private sitting-room – for a reason she couldn’t possibly mention, obviously – and, therefore, he was the last person in the room. Therefore he must have stolen the Moonstone!

This is obviously nonsense, but it casts a whole new light on what Rosanna’s motives were for trying to speak to Franklin before he left. And this is what Collins loves to do: to lull us into believing we know why people are behaving as they do – and then showing us how wrong we’ve been. It’s not a new technique – Jane Austen does it, allowing us to misinterpret events along with her characters before some revelation proves everybody wrong – but Collins makes it an integral part of the entertainment. If we didn’t realise it before, we now know this author is playing games with us – and he’s good at it.

Fine. But how did the paint-smear get on Franklin’s nightgown? Collins has already closed down the possibility that it was simply taken beforehand, because Rosanna describes traces of paint in his room that must have come from it. In an earlier chapter Collins has had Meredith, the Indian explorer, put the idea of mesmerism into our heads in order to dismiss it. Not hypnotism, then, unless it’s a double-bluff. Sleepwalking, brought on by the strain – leading to a misunderstanding Rachel hasn’t forgiven him for? As if I know.

19 July
Chapters 5-10: to the end of Franklin’s Narrative
It takes Collins – or Collins makes it take – six chapters for us to get somewhere near the bottom of it. Not an impostor dressed in Franklin’s nightgown, because when Franklin finally tricks Rachel into seeing him – a lunch invitation to the Bruffs – she finally tells him she was awake in her room, with a candle, when he took the bloody diamond. So all that speculation about the plot between her and Rosanna is, as Rosanna has told us in the letter, a red herring. Rachel shows Franklin the door believing him to be a thief, because he hasn’t been able to convince her that her story is the first time he’s heard of his own actions that night. So is it hypnotism? What else is there to think? Franklin did it, and he didn’t know he’d done it….

We find out through two people I’ve cleverly forgotten to mention before. The first is Candy, who had been the trusted family doctor in Yorkshire until the fateful birthday celebration. Impulsively and unnecessarily – and there’s a clue in there – he went home in pouring rain in an open gig, got soaked, twice, and descended into a nearly fatal fever. The second person is someone that Franklin has met, or seen, during his trip to Yorkshire: the weird-looking assistant doctor who has stood in for Candy since his illness. Collins describes him so meticulously, particularly the marked signs of premature ageing in his face and hair, that he might as well have a sign around his neck telling us to pay attention to him. Ah well.

Betteredge has written a letter containing, as Franklin is at pains to tell us, nothing important. I.e. don’t pay attention to anything Franklin thinks, because it contains the message that the now semi-invalid Candy would like to speak to him about something. Pages go by. Franklin sees the doctor, with his memory in tatters after his illness, and it’s pointless. He obviously wants to say something, but can’t remember what it is or even that he wants to say it. This isn’t just Collins piling on the agony, although there’s some of that. In order to get any further we need to be properly introduced to the assistant, Ezra Jennings.

The weird-looking one has had a bad time, but has nursed Candy back to what health he still has. He is also, luckily for the plot, a researcher into the physiology of brain function. (He would probably be a great scientist were it not for the false accusation hanging over his head that means he can only find work in the most out-of-the-way places possible. Like Yorkshire.) He’s been analysing Candy’s disjointed jabbering during his fever and the upshot, after more pages and an increasingly bleak-sounding walk towards a moorland village, is – you’re not going to believe this – Candy spiked Franklin’s drink on the fateful night after the young man had been dismissive of the power of ‘medicine’ to cure his sleeplessness. He was having bad withdrawal symptoms after giving up smoking, remember? Didn’t you realise that was a clue? Where have you been? Anyway, the drug he’d used was opium.

The best way to prove this, Jennings decides, is to try an experiment. Recreate the circumstances in the big house, and see what happens. He’ll write to Rachel explaining everything and… and we’ll see.

20 July
More narratives – to the end of the novel
Rachel is all for the experiment – despite seeing with her own eyes, etc., she’s never been able to give up on Franklin – and we get Jennings’ report. Luckily, he writes like a novelist, so the suspense piles up alongside the reawakening romance – but not before the doctor and Franklin have to persuade the increasingly tiresome Betteredge, who has taken against Jennings, to put the house back to the state it was in on the birthday night the previous year. Bruff is also to be present, and he’s also taken against Jennings. (Remember what I said about Collins having an agenda about prejudices based on the way that people look?) Whatever… the experiment works, the young couple are reconciled – and that’s the end of that crisis. However. Franklin falls asleep before he can lead the watchers to where he must have hidden the Moonstone that night. Damn.

Bruff, who is now on board as one of the gang, reminds us that he’s set a watch on the bank where Luker has lodged his jewel, because the year is now up. Shall we all go to London, in case he’s right about the Moonstone being there, and not in the Yorkshire house? Yes, let’s. By now, Franklin is telling it again, and he’s self-deprecating about the ham-fisted way he and Bruff fall for Luker’s tricks when he passes the jewel to an accomplice. They follow an innocent man, and their assistant follows a different innocent man…. Luckily, there’s someone else on the case, the fourth and final odd-looking character in the novel. He is young Gooseberry – Bruff’s typically affectionate nickname – he of the bulging eyes and precocious talent for detective work and, eventually, we get to hear about the person he follows.

Before that, though: Franklin has written to Cuff, now in retirement – and Cuff arrives while he’s waiting for Gooseberry. Cuff immediately spots the boy’s talent, asks him his real name – it’s grandiose-sounding, but why not? – and they follow his lead. Which takes them to a boarding-house, and to the tall man they’d seen at the bank. As Cuff feared, they’re too late: he’s been suffocated, and all that’s left in the room is an empty jewel-box. It’s a good job Cuff is there now, because he recognises a disguise when he sees it. The dead man is – but first he asks Franklin to open the sealed envelope he gave him earlier, like the showman he is. The name is Godfrey Ablewhite, and the dead man is – the same.

There’s a lot of plot detail I can’t be bothered with now. Except…. It was the Indians who did it, with an accomplice who will probably never be found. Godfrey needed the money because he’d been living well off the capital entrusted to him as the executor of a will, but he’s run out. (He doesn’t only need this year’s money, a matter of hundreds: the heir is about to come of age and the capital is to be entrusted to him – £20,000!) That explains the marriage proposals. Anyway, the theft of the Moonstone was opportunistic: he was in on the opium trick because Franklin was getting up his nose as well as Candy’s – but nobody expected Franklin to be wandering about the house in the middle of the night carrying the thing. It’s Cuff’s narrative by now, and it’s the archetype of all the explanations in all the detective novels that followed this one. Except… all he knows about the Moonstone is that the police will be waiting for the Indians when they arrive in Bombay.

Whose narratives now? First, the ship’s captain, who explain how a convenient calm allows the Indians to make their escape by rowing-boat when they are near the coast of India. And finally Meredith, the bloody expert. He happens to be making his way towards a great Hindu shrine when he notices dozens, then hundreds and thousands of pilgrims making their way towards it. And – you’re not going to believe this – he is able to witness a twin ceremony: the three men he’d last seen in Yorkshire have forfeited their Brahmin caste and must now spend the rest of their lives wandering, forever separated; and the Moon-god now has its precious centrepiece in place again.

So Collins has tied up every single thread. Not only has one guilty man come to a bad end; three other guilty men are punished – but according to their own laws, not those of a different culture; Cuff has reminded us – actually, he’s reminding Franklin – that only detectives in books are infallible; young love finds a way; anybody who has been guilty of judging people by appearance has been proved wrong; and an ancient wrong has been put right. On the way, a few contemporary prejudices have been held up for scrutiny and some contemporary hypocrisies have been roasted…. Clever mysteries always take the reader to places where there are ideas lurking that don’t on the surface of it seem to be any part of the genre.

I suppose these other thoughts lead us to make allowances for the outrageous chances and coincidences that make up the plot – as when, as I mentioned at the time, Miss Clack is in exactly the right place for us to hear the humbug that Godfrey Ablewhite comes out with as he talks Rachel into accepting his proposal. I bet there are about a dozen other times when we simply allow Collins to get away with it – in a similar way that, for decades, readers would have been letting Dickens get away with it. (I’m just re-reading Our Mutual Friend, published earlier in the 1860s.) The Moonstone is the novel that takes that mid-Victorian author/reader contract – if you allow me this, I’ll beguile you like this – and turns preposterousness of the plotting into one of its main selling points: even the detective, as Cuff himself is happy to remind us, could never have got this one right.

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