Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Moonstone

The Moonstone – Wilkie Collins

I wonder whether the gentlemen who make a business and a living out of writing books, ever find their own selves getting in the way of their subjects, like me?

As I said in my review of the Peter Ackroyd book, I feel a bit false describing myself as a Wilkie Collins fan, as though I loved The Woman in White and what short stories of Collins' that I'd read, I hadn't yet read any of his other novels. Well, I bit the bullet and picked up The Moonstone, mainly because it was the one about which I had heard the most, but also because it was the only one available from the library at the time. It was a very enjoyable read and a page-turning mystery. I had also forgotten how genuinely funny Collins can be. However, I have to say I did not feel it measured up to The Woman in White.


I doubt I have anything original to say about it, as the introduction by Sandra Kemp (which I read after I finished the book to avoid spoilers) has pretty much said it all. However, I will briefly add my 2 cents.

The story is one of the first detective novels; Sergeant Cuff pulls out all the stops when he examines with a magnifying glass, to be sure. All joking aside, it's interesting to see all the steps we take for granted—checking for clues, questioning people—are in their infancy here. Cuff has to work a lot harder than some modern-day detectives. It's a bit disturbing how easily Rachel is able to disrupt the investigation just as being a gentlewoman with the prerogative to do so. In both this case and in North and South, it was good girls lying for good reasons, but it's still pretty iffy that Rachel and Margaret both confound the law and use their social status to do so.

I think it's safe to say, however, that with The Woman in White, The Moonstone is also a sensation novel. There are many excellent cliffhangers, but none more so than when a character finds himself implicated-- “I found the mark, and read--
MY OWN NAME” (314)--in the robbery of the Moonstone. Even though I confess from having watched the TV show Wishbone (all you need to know about classic literature can be learned from Wishbone!) that I knew more or less what had happened. I still didn't know HOW, and Collins takes his sweet time in getting us there, through a variety of narrators in a delicious Victorian melange.

I told you before that I objected to Ackroyd saying that Collins' characters were secondary to his plots. That may be so, but that implies that his characters are not interesting, which is not true. As Kemp suggests in her introduction, Collins was one of the few Victorian novelists to treat women with unconventionality and to make servants living, breathing people rather than plot devices. In fact, it could easily be said that very few of the upper class characters of The Moonstone are more interesting and more realistic than their social “inferiors.” As Kemp suggests, the splendidly-named Rachel Verinder is, despite the author's best efforts, not worthy of heroine status1. Her courage, fortitude, and love for Franklin Blake cannot be doubted, but the constant admonishing that she is different from other girls of her age by the likes of Gabriel Betteredge get repetitive and annoying. Show me, don't tell me! Franklin Blake, while not unsympathetic or lacking charm, is also a bit wooden and dull. Perhaps, as Betteredge suggests in his discussion of gentlefolk with no occupations, it's their lot in life to be dull.

If ever there was a Victorian triple-decker crying out to be reworked by post-Sarah Waters NeoVictorians, surely it's The Moonstone! Rosanna Spearman, a wonderful character, should probably have a revised version of the novel written from her perspective, and perhaps we would find that the truth has actually been manipulated by Franklin Blake, Gabriel Betteredge, and even Sergeant Cuff, the white males in positions of authority, and those whose voices we get to hear first-hand (I'm thinking in terms of Dracula now, which some have subversively argued could be told differently with Dracula as the victim and the Crew of Light as patriarchal fanatics, as only they possess the means of reaching the reader and could be unreliable narrators). Rosanna is wonderful because she was a thief, sent a Reformatory, then lives a content but unhappy life as a respectable domestic servant in a grand house in Yorkshire, her life disturbed irreparably when she falls in love with the aristocratic gentleman Franklin Blake. Not only has Collins suggested that thieves can be good people and that felonious women can reform (which seems pretty impressive in 1868), Rosanna represents herself as deserving of love, to the point that she tries several times to declare her love to Franklin. I would have loved to have seen a further cat-and-mouse between Rosanna and Cuff. Cuff, despite being her adversary, has a lot of sympathy for her and understands her far better than the other characters. “Hadn't you better say she's mad enough to be an ugly girl and only a servant? . . . The falling in love with a gentleman of Mr Franklin Blake's manner and appearance doesn't seem to me to be the maddest part of her conduct by any means” (123). Rosanna is also bold enough to admit she hates Rachel and is jealous of her; she even suspects, when she finds evidence that Franklin was in Rachel's bedroom after midnight, what would at that time be considered “the worst.” Furthermore, a NeoVictorian could easily see a suggestion of the Sapphic in Rosanna's relationship with “Limping” Lucy, who would have saved Rosanna and taken her to a better life far away from Franklin Blake.

If Collins' sympathetic treatment of servants and the disabled is surprising, then the way he treats the evangelical Christians in the book, those who purport to serve the poor and the helpless (as well as the spiritually bereft) is downright shocking for a mid-Victorian. Despite the fact that he gets a lot of humorous mileage out of Miss Drusilla2 Clack and Godfrey Ablewhite, I would think at least some of his audience would shrink from these quite critical portraits of people engaged, at least some of the time, in virtuous activity. Yes, I know Collins' work was read by all classes (though perhaps not by the Bible-bashers who he is depicting here), but the way he pokes fun at Miss Clack seems all out of proportion for the fact that he had some of her ilk harassing him for having two mistresses (as is suggested in one of the footnotes). I'm actually rather fond of Miss Clack, despite it all, for, like Miss Bates in Emma, it's all too easy to make her the object of fun rather than seeing her situation for what it is. I think she copes with it in the best way she can; I'm not sure she can help being ridiculous. You may argue the point3. It is enjoyable, I think, for Miss Clack to get the upper hand over Mr Bruff, the family lawyer, admirable as he is.

Cuff, too, is a splendidly idiosyncratic character, based on the now-famous Mr Whicher, whose brusque exterior conceals a love for roses. Betteredge, although occasionally annoying, and very fixed in his conventional (chauvinist) opinions, is actually rather adorable by the end of the novel and hilarious in his obsession with Robinson Crusoe. I expect Defoe would have been rather flattered. But Ezra Jennings is yet another very odd and distinctively Collinsian character; I would be very interested to see what Dickens would have done with him. Physically striking—Eurasian in background, it would seem—damned by opium, bad luck, money problems, and lost love, Jennings is a figure of great, almost Phantom-esque pathos who lends much momentum to the final act of The Moonstone. (Revisionists would also find a goldmine of Franklin/Ezra slash if they wanted.) I also confess to being quite hard-hit by the depiction of dementia in the character of the doomed doctor Mr Candy. It's a bit too close to the bone for my comfort. Mr Murthwhite, the English explorer of Asia, is more of a type than a character, but would do well to be fleshed out more.

Greater minds than mine have picked up on Collins' unusual treatment of India, which to me is particularly sensitive in the Prologue, the Storming of Seringapatam (1799), which floods the mind's eye like a sequence from Sharpe and which more learned critics have compared to the British Imperialist rape of India. Despite the Brahmins' ruthlessness, one is almost happy at the end of their success in retrieving their sacred stone. However, let's not get carried away: Collins took liberties in making the Hindu principal god that of the moon rather than the sun, which to me sounds a bit like making Mary Jesus' aunt rather than mother—not really that excusable by artistic license. Though The Moonstone is credited with indirectly inspiring Conan Doyle, it has to be said that Collins is less racist than the creator of the Great Detective4.

All of this made for an enjoyable read, though inevitably disappointing after my expectations being built up so high by The Woman in White. Nevertheless, I will definitely read more Collins before too long. 

1Though, to be fair, she is a better judge of character than this reader. Consider the way she resists her cousin, Ablewhite: “You are a very good fellow in your own way, Godfrey . . . But I am quite sure you are not great; I don't believe you possess any extraordinary courage; and I am firmly persuaded—if you ever had any modesty—that your lady-worshippers relieved you of that virtue a good many years since” (213).
2Yes, Drusilla.
3Surely it's from genuine loneliness that Miss Clack tries to get the orphaned Rachel to live with her: “ 'You are very kind, Drusilla . . . I shall hope to visit you whenever I happen to be in London. But I have accepted Mr Bruff's invitation, and I think it will be best, for the present, if I remain under Mr Bruff's care.' 'Oh, don't say so!' I pleaded. 'I can't part with you, Rachel—I can't part with you!'” (269). Though I suppose it could be avarice—Rachel is now an heiress.
4It is interesting to me that when people are theorizing that the Brahmins could have gotten into the sleeping manor house to steal Rachel's diamond from her room, no one thinks through the full horror of having any stranger “under the sofa while my aunt and Rachel were talking about where the Diamond was to be put for the night. He would only have to wait till the house was quiet, and there it would be in the cabinet, to be had for the taking” (92).

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