While storms have raged, while at high tide waves have hit the sea wall with such force that the house shook, I have been spending the dark evenings re-reading ‘The Moonstone’, secure in the knowledge that out house was built not long after the publication of Wilkie Collins’ wonderful book and so it has survived many storms and was so solidly built that it should survive many more.
I think that ‘The Moonstone’ is pitched at the perfect point between crime fiction and sensation fiction, and it makes me wish that I could have been a Victorian reader, so that I could have read it when it was new, original and innovative, and so that I could read it with my mind uncluttered by more than a century of books that have come since then, and a few that I can think of that clearly have been influenced by this wonderful tale.
I am sure that Conan-Doyle read this book; I suspect that Victoria Holt had it in mind when she named her novel ‘The Shivering Sands'; and I am quite certain that Hercule Poirot’s retirement to the country to grow vegetable marrows was a tribute to Seargeant Cuff and his wish to see out his days growing roses ….. but I’m getting ahead of myself.
I’m not sure that ‘The Moonstone’ has stood the test of time as well as some of Wilkie Collins’ other work, but it is still a fine entertainment, and among the most readable of classics.
The moonstone – a fabulous Hindu diamond – is seized – some would say stolen – during the storming of Seringapatam. The taker of the diamond believes it to be cursed, and takes serious steps to ensure his own safety and the safety of his jewel. In his will he leaves it to his niece, the daughter of his estranged sister. And so the moonstone is given to Rachel Verinder on her 18th birthday. That night the moonstone disappears. The case is investigated by Seargeant Cuff, of the new detective force, and an extraordinary sequence of events will unfold before the truth of what happened that night, and the fate of the jewel, is made clear.
The tale is told by a series of narrators, because this is an account of the moonstone compiled some time after the events it describes by an interested party. He brought together family papers and accounts of events that he asked those who were best placed to report, to create a continuous narrative.
That device works wonderfully well, controlling what the reader knew without the reader having to feel manipulated, and adding depth to the characters by viewing them through different eyes. Fortunately the narrators are nicely differentiated. I loved Gabriel Betteredge, the indispensable steward to the Verinder family, a man of firm opinions who was nonetheless a model servant, who believed that all of the answers to life’s problems lay in the pages Robinson Crusoe. But I heartily disliked Miss Clack, a pious, sanctimonious cousin, blind to the feelings and concerns of others, but insistent that they must read her tracts. And I was fascinated by Ezra Jennings, a doctor who had been dragged down by his addiction to opium, but who was grateful for the chances he had been given and ready to play his part in uncovering the truth. And there were others; every voice, every character, was utterly believable.
Even more interesting than the narrators though were two women, at opposite ends of the social spectrum, who both chose not to speak out. Rosanna Spearman was a servant, and though I had reasons to doubt her, I could see that she was troubled and I feared for her. I nearly dismissed Rachel Verinder, as a spoilt madam, but in time I came to see that I had misjudged and underestimated with her.
The atmosphere was everything I could have hoped for, and the settings were wonderfully created. I especially loved the scenes set out on the treacherous ‘Shivering Sands’. And the story twisted and turned, and sprang surprises, very effectively. I remembered that broad sweep of the story from the first time I read ‘The Moonstone’, many years ago, but I had forgotten just how events played out, but even when I remembered it didn’t matter. Wilkie Collins was such a wonderful, clever storyteller that I was captivated, from the first page to an afterword that was absolutely perfect.
I loved almost everything, but I do have to say that the story is a little uneven, and that no character is as memorable as Marion Halcombe and Count Fosco in ‘The Women and White.’ But then, few characters are.
This is a very different pleasure. maybe a more subtle pleasure. And definitely a rattling good yarn!