Years ago, when I was commencing my foolish sprawl through life, beginning my collection of interesting-but-unwise decisions, my wife in that life read a couple of novels by a writer I had never heard of. She liked him, which would have given me reason to read him as well, and yet it has taken me several more decades to get around to Wilkie Collins, who lived from 1824 to 1889. I don’t mind the wait, as it’s good to know that all our life, marvelous discoveries are still possible, and the novel The Moonstone is one of them.
There are various things I could say about Wilkie Collins and this novel, one of his two most well-known (the other is The Woman in White). Let’s start with the ephemeral nature of fame. Have you ever read Wilkie Collins? Have you even heard of him? There’s a good chance the answer is no, yet here is the second sentence from the Wikipedia article on Collins: “He was very popular during the Victorian era and wrote 30 novels, more than 60 short stories, 14 plays, and over 100 non-fiction pieces.”
In other words, he was very famous and successful, and where is he now? But there are much better things to say about Wilkie Collins than to hold him up as an example of famous-then-not-famous. The world is filled with that, including many fabulous writers who most people don’t read anymore. Here’s the main thing about The Moonstone: It’s fun to read. You don’t need to know about Collins himself (his interesting—to say the least—romantic life; his very close friendship with Charles Dickens; his father who was a well-known painter). And you don’t need to know what other people say about this book (one of Collins’ best novels; considered to be the first detective novel in English).
You only need to know that reading the book is a pleasure. It’s written in a technique called “epistolary”, which originally meant a story told in a series of letters written by various characters to others. In this case, the term “epistolary” may be stretched a little thin, as the story is indeed told by different characters, but they are all writing long documents telling what they know about incidents related to the theft of a huge diamond (the Moonstone). All of the documents, and thus the novel itself, are intended to be a kind of legal record.
One of the most entertaining things about the book is the different narrators. Collins is able to create distinctive voices for the people writing, though he is better at the more eccentric or lower-class characters. The more upper-class the character, the more the voice sounds like an educated and refined Victorian such might be found in other novels as well. The Moonstone begins with the delightful, slightly curmudgeonly head servant of a country estate, who is the first narrator. Here is a sentence from his section: “Every thing the Miss Ablewhites said began with a large O; every thing they did was done with a bang; and they giggled and screamed, in season and out of season, on the smallest provocation. Bouncers—that’s what I call them.” The second narrator makes a fine contrast to the elderly head servant: a young woman who is fanatically religious, and who reveals things about herself without knowing she is doing it, as though there is a joke between the reader and Wilkie Collins that the narrator herself doesn’t understand. Here is a sentence from that narrator: “Even that simple appeal—so absolutely heathenizing is the influence of the world—appeared to startle my aunt.”
In telling the story of the giant diamond, The Moonstone uses a number of literary devices that show up in many later detective novels. Most prominently, we find the experienced detective (though called a Sergeant in this book) called in to examine the case, who carefully questions everyone in sight and tries to put pieces together, to puzzle out what happened.
There are also subplots related to the main puzzle, with worship of Hindu gods, secret identities, betrayal, mistaken love, and even, briefly, cultivation of roses. Working out what happened takes a couple of years in the plot, which doesn’t go in the direction we might expect. As with many things, surprise is part of the pleasure, and even now a good detective novel has a goal of trying to fool the reader until the end.
Collins did not entirely invent this genre, as there were some examples before him, including stories by Edgar Allan Poe, but Wilkie Collins was the first to put it all together in a long novel form. Since then we’ve seen plenty of novels so popular they’ve created an entire category, and detective stories have moved on into movies and TV shows that people will be watching this very week.
I paused while I was writing this blog entry to practice yoga, but you probably already suspected that. Back up the page where you said to yourself, “Hmm, this discussion of a Victorian novel suddenly seems peaceful and healthy and centered with the Earth.” That’s where it was. And now it’s time for peaceful, healthy leftover beans and rice for lunch. With hot sauce, to be centered with the Earth.
For those of you who celebrate it, I wish you a good Easter. Find an egg for me too. Any color is fine.