Despite being a keen detective fiction fan, until recently I had never read any of the works of Wilkie Collins: Victorian author and early pioneer of mystery and detective fiction. This year’s Reading the Collections theme provided the perfect opportunity for me to delve into one of Collins’ most well-known novels, The Moonstone.
Like one of Collins’ other popular books The Woman in White, The Moonstone was first serialised in 1868 in the weekly journal All the Year Round published by Collins’ friend Charles Dickens. As is the case with many serialised Victorian novels, The Moonstone is quite lengthy which rather than being wearisome, is perfect for drawing out all the twists and turns in this slow-burn mystery. The edition I looked at was from our Hargreaves collection published in 1894 (Har PR4494.M7 1894) with illustrations by George du Maurier and F. A. Fraser.
The main plot tells the story of the theft of the moonstone or yellow diamond from the house of Lady Verdiner in 1848. The prologue reveals that the diamond made its way to England from India having been taken by John Herncastle, while serving in the British Army. The stone was under the protection of three guardian priests in the service of the god Vishnu who follow the stone to England, set on recovering it at all costs. Herncastle, perhaps knowing the danger associated with the diamond and full of malice towards Lady Verdiner, bequeathed the diamond to her daughter, his niece Miss Rachel Verinder. On the night of her eighteenth birthday the diamond goes missing from her room. The account which follows covers the next two years and the attempt to solve the mystery as to who took the Moonstone diamond.
The novel is divided into eight personal narratives. The first is the account of Gabriel Betterage, steward to Lady Verdiner and my favourite character for his eccentric belief in the prophetic nature of the book Robinson Crusoe and its ability to cure nearly all ills:
I left the two together, and went out with a heavy heart. This was the first trouble I remember for many a long year which wasn’t to be blown off by a whiff of tobacco, and which was even beyond the reach of Robinson Crusoe.
Under the encouragement of the lawyer Mr Bruff and Rachel’s cousin Franklin Blake, as a means of clearing the family from suspicion, Gabriel begins a full written account of the mysterious disappearance of the moonstone. It is in Gabriel’s account that we first meet renowned Detective Cuff, brought from London to investigate the disappearance after local Sergeant Seegrave’s investigative skill is found wanting. Cuff is an interesting character; a serious professional detective with fondness for growing roses.
To the gardener’s astonishment, and to my disgust, this celebrated policemen proved to be quite a mine of learning on the trumpery subject of rose-gardens.
Despite Detective Cuff’s keen observations, the mystery of the diamond remains until the final chapters as Collins diverts the reader with the perspectives of Franklin Blake, the local doctor Mr Candy, his assistant Ezra Jennings, the family lawyer Matthew Bruff and the loathsome Miss Clack, niece of Lady Verdiner. The complex plot takes many engrossing turns including the story of the tragic housemaid Roseanna and her doomed end; the two suitors, Franklin Blake and Godfrey Ablewhite vying for the hand of Miss Rachel; the disguised Indian priests determined to recover the moonstone and the unpopular opium-addicted Ezra Jennings’ attempts to retrace the steps of the thief.
The novel has all the classic elements of an English detective story: a crime set in an English Country house with a number of false suspects; distinguished investigator called in to solve the case and a final twist in the ending. While I had my suspicions of who the thief was, like Miss Rachel my suspicions turned out to be false. If you want to know ‘who done it?’ you will have to read it and find out!
Reading Room Administrator