An introduction to The Moonstone

Robert McCrum considers how Wilkie Collins combined plot, character and the imperial drama of India to create the first Victorian detective novel.
Wilkie Collins was a friend, occasional collaborator, and contemporary of Dickens, but always somewhat overshadowed by ‘The Inimitable’. However, in the composition of Collins’s finest novel, a tale which, in my opinion, surpasses both The Woman in White (1860) and the less well-known No Name (1862), Dickens’s role as literary mid-wife was essential. The Moonstone, indeed, was originally serialised by Dickens in his magazine All The Year Round between 4 January and 8 August 1868. During the writing, Collins suffered a severe attack of a lifelong rheumatic illness whose pain he relieved with doses of opium. Collins’s opium habit found its way into the narrative, and certainly contributed to the frisson that accompanied publication. Like many great Victorian novels, The Moonstone was first published as a ‘three decker’ -- in three hardback volumes, on 16 July 1868, (the year of the second Reform Bill) -- by the Tinsley Brothers of Catherine Street, in Covent Garden.

Perhaps it was the opium that bewitched his readers. The Moonstone became Collins’s last great literary success, published at the end of an extraordinarily productive period which saw four successive novels become best-sellers. After The Moonstone he wrote novels with more specific social commentary, which did not achieve the same audience. Henceforth, however, his reputation was secure.

Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone

Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone [page: frontispiece and title page]

Selected pages from an 1868 edition of Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone.

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The first Victorian detective story

The Moonstone, the first Victorian detective story, had extended the boundaries of popular crime fiction – the genre would never be the same again. Later writers, Bram Stoker in Dracula, for instance, would hark back to Collins’s fictional technique, described by Anthony Trollope as something that ‘gives me no pleasure.’ Trollope went on that ‘When I sit down to write a novel I do not at all know and I do not very much care how it is to end.’ Collins, by contrast, always seemed ’to be warning me to remember that something happened at exactly half-past two o’clock on Tuesday morning; or that a woman disappeared from the road just fifteen yards beyond the fourth milestone’.[1]

This is unfair. Collins’s meticulous method makes important but also quite legitimate demands on the attentive reader. Accordingly, The Moonstone is often said to be the godfather of the classic English detective story, its founding text. In the 1920s, T S Eliot, claiming that the genre had been ‘invented by Collins and not by Poe’, declared it to be ‘the first, the longest and the best of modern English detective novels’.[2] Dorothy L Sayers, a queen of crime in the 1930s and 40s, echoing Eliot, pronounced it ‘probably the finest detective story ever written’.[3] Its influence continues to animate the work of crime writers like P D James and Ruth Rendell.

There’s no question but that Collins adheres faithfully to what soon became the rules of detective fiction: a mysterious and compelling crime takes place in an English country house; a large cast of potential suspects is assembled, each with plenty of motive, means and opportunity; an incompetent constabulary is replaced by a celebrated sleuth/investigator who, after a ‘reconstruction’ of key elements in the crime, comes up with a satisfying explanation of the puzzle, based on a brilliant analysis of the clues. Finally, there’s a denouement replete with surprise, excitement and a plausible solution. The Moonstone has this, and more, all of it brilliantly executed.

The sinister mystery of the East

The original crime in The Moonstone, the theft of the Tippoo diamond after the fall of Seringapatam, is probably Collins’s masterstroke. It connects every detail of the plot to the great imperial drama of India, the society over which Queen Victoria would eventually declare herself ‘Empress’. From the outset, the Indian factor imbues the tale with the sinister mystery of the East. Mid-century, this ‘moonstone’ is given to a young Englishwoman, Rachel Verinder, on her 18th birthday, and then mysteriously disappears. A quest ensues in which, after murder and marriage, the Moonstone is restored to its Indian source.

The Illustrated Exhibitor: Guide to the Great Exhibition

Illustration and description of the Koh-i-Noor diamond from India which fascinated visitors to the Great Exhibition in 1851; its ownership became hotly contested when Punjab was proclaimed part of the British Empire.

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Characters and storytelling

However, although this is classic detective fiction, its greatness lies in its qualities as a novel. Collins himself signalled his ambitions for the book in the preface to the first edition, in which he wrote, ‘In some of my former novels, the object proposed has been to trace the influence of circumstances upon character. In the present story I have reversed the process’. So it’s the enthralling interplay of character (18 year-old Rachel Verinder; the hunchbacked servant girl, Rosanna Spearman; Sergeant Cuff, the great detective; and compelling Franklin Blake, Rachel Verinder’s cousin) that will hook the interest of most readers. Rosanna’s tragic obsession with the adventurer Franklin Blake is among the most poignant renderings of thwarted love in Victorian literature. The fascinating, and eccentric figure of Cuff (based on Scotland Yard’s real life Inspector Whicher) introduces a figure central to the unravelling of the mystery on whom most readers come to dote, not least because (in an amusing twist) Sergeant Cuff gets it wrong.

A second, crucial element to the success and longevity of The Moonstone is less about detection than storytelling. This is Collins’s virtuoso exploitation of the narrative viewpoint. Drawing on the English tradition of epistolary fiction, Collins uses first garrulous Gabriel Betteredge, then meddlesome Miss Clack, then the solicitor Matthew Bruff, and finally the opium addict Ezra Jennings (inspired by his own opium habit) to elucidate a highly-wrought plot. The narrative dividend for Collins is that he can use these different voices to vary the tone and tempo of a complicated (but not impossibly so) plot.

The novel’s legacy

The upshot is his masterpiece, a brilliant marriage of the sensational and the realistic. The first edition was an immediate hit and a second, revised edition was issued in 1871. Hoping to exploit his breakthrough, in 1877, Collins adapted the novel for the stage, a production that ran for about two months. Subsequently, there have been many film, radio and television adaptations. 1934, The Moonstone was made into a critically acclaimed American film. In 1959, the BBC made the novel into a TV serial; in 1972, it was remade for Britain and the United States. In 1996 it was remade again, also in the United Kingdom, for television by the BBC, starring Greg Wise as Franklin Blake and Keeley Hawes as Rachel Verinder. It continues to earn its reputation as the founding text of the classic English detective story.

Footnotes

[1] Anthony Trollope: An Autobiography ( London: The Trollope Society, 1999), p.159.

[2] Cited in Ronald R Thomas, “Detection in the Victorian Novel”, in The Cambridge Companion to the Victorian Novel, ed. by Deidre David (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), pp.169-191 (p.179).

[3] The Atlantic Companion to Literature in English, ed. by Mohit K. Ray (New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers & Distributors, c.2007), p.104.

  • Robert McCrum
  • Robert McCrum is Associate Editor of the Observer, and the author of several books including Wodehouse: A Life (2004), My Year Off (1998) and seven novels. He is also the co-author of the BBC TV series, The Story of English (1986) and was for many years editor-in-chief of the publishers Faber & Faber.

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