by Wilkie Collins
556 pages, Simon & Brown
Review by Bill Kirton
One of the narrators of this cleverly constructed story sees a collection of books and journals and identifies them as classics, a label which, rather than suggesting they be elevated to some superior cultural level, notes that they have “the one great merit of entraining nobody’s interest, and exciting nobody’s brain”. The Moonstone is a classic, but one which trampled over all my preconceptions. I didn’t approach it with reverence, but, for some reason, I anticipated that it would be one of those worthy, dense Victorian narratives anchored in the self-satisfaction that so many late 19th century authors exhibit.
How wrong I was. It’s funny, varied, very subtle in its characterisations and its analyses of the protagonists’ perceptions of events and of one another and, yes, it’s even a page turner. It has plenty of melodrama, with the legend of the diamond, the mysterious ‘Hindoos’, unrequited love, misunderstandings, revelations, disguises and more besides, but far more interesting than all that is the sequence of narrators, each bringing his or her own idiosyncratic perspective to bear on the events they’re recounting.
There are, if I’ve counted properly, seven narrators in all and, remarkably, Collins gives each an entirely separate, coherent persona, revealed as much by what they don’t say as by what they say and by the subtle contrasts between them. After the prologue, the tale is taken up by the wonderful Gabriel Betteredge, trusted family servant, who won’t hear a thing said against his mistress and her daughter. His Bible is Robinson Crusoe and at moments of stress, he always turns to it and invariably finds a quotation to ‘explain’ what’s happening to him. It’s actually a pleasure to be in the company of such a well-drawn, entertaining character, whose asides are as interesting as the central narrative for which he’s responsible.
And he’s very aware of his role as narrator, excusing those asides by remarks such as “I wonder whether the gentlemen who make a business and living out of writing books, ever find their own selves getting in the way of their subjects, like me?” And yet he can’t resist interpolating observations such as “Study your wife closely, for the next four-and-twenty hours. If your good lady doesn't exhibit something in the shape of a contradiction in that time, Heaven help you! – You have married a monster.” Or, when his daughter is brushing his hair and getting rather excited about what they’re discussing, “my daughter had got the hairbrush by this time, and the whole strength of her feelings had passed into that. If you are bald, you will understand how she sacrificed me. If you are not, skip this bit, and thank God you have got something in the way of a defence between your hairbrush and your head.” They’re typical examples of the one-to-one relationship he establishes with the reader.
Then there are his (nowadays, terribly incorrect) aphorisms such as ‘a drop of tea is to a woman’s tongue what a drop of oil is to a wasting lamp’, but they’re all tongue-in-cheek observations by Collins who clearly enjoyed inhabiting such a person. Betteredge’s reaction, for example, when his daughter expresses her distress at overhearing certain “dreadful words” is to write “my daughter Penelope said she didn’t know what prevented her heart from flying straight out of her. I thought privately that it might have been her stays. All I said, however, was, ‘you make my flesh creep.’ (NOTA BENE: women like these little compliments.)”
It’s almost a shock when the narration’s taken over by Miss Clack, a poor relation of the family Betteredge serves. Her Bible is The Bible and she quickly labels Betteredge “a heathen old man – long, too long, tolerated in my aunt’s family”. Her insistence on plying everyone with religious tracts to bring them to righteousness is caricatural and she would quickly have become a tiresome presence if Collins hadn’t so skilfully shown how the religion was compensation for her psychological deficiencies as well as getting some good gags out of it. For example, she works for several charities run by women and inspired by one of the story’s gentlemen who’s famed for his persuasive tongue. One such is the “Mothers’-Small-Clothes-Conversion-Society” which collects unredeemed father’s trousers from pawnbrokers and cuts them down to fit the men’s sons. Apart from the innately funny idea of such a specialised organisation, it gives Collins the chance to put into her mouth little gems such as “‘Dearest Rachel,’ he said, in the same voice which had thrilled me when he spoke of our prospects and our trousers.”
She’s an insufferable character at times, but still funny, even though she’s totally unaware of the humour. One long sequence listing the ‘qualities’ of believers such as herself ends with her saying that it is a privilege to be ridiculed because they “are the only people who can earn it – for we are the only people who are always right”.
The distinctiveness of her voice and lexicon exemplifies Collins’ gift for parody and each narrator benefits from the same detailed care. If I’ve lingered rather a lot on these two, it’s because they’re quick, easy examples of the real narrative tensions that keep the story moving – i.e. the different perceptions of incidents, the explanations revealed by different characters’ reactions to and interpretations of what’s happening. It’s a lively, textured novel whose central plot – the disappearance of the Moonstone – unfolds through half-glimpses of truths and supposed truths. It’s all about opinions and their unreliability and the implication that the ‘curse’ of the diamond, rather than being part of some sinister Eastern mysticism beyond our powers of explanation, is simply the workings of subjective observations and interpretations.
I’ve not even mentioned the fact that this is said to be the first English detective novel and that the character of Sergeant Cuff is as intriguing and attractive as that of Sherlock Holmes. Indeed, there are as many approaches to reviewing such a book as there are narrators and plot strands. It’s about love, class, intrigue, mystery, crime, hypocrisy, strength and weakness – all revealed through the characters, feelings, settings and circumstances of Victorian England and yet with a wit that often feels very modern.