The Godfather: Peter Corris on The Moonstone
I can’t remember when I first read Wilkie Collins’s ‘sensational’ (to use the contemporary term) novel The Moonstone (1868). It would have been at some time in that ten-year-long period of intensive work as an undergraduate and postgraduate student, when I turned to historical novels for escape and relief.
I read it and The Woman in White (1859) and am now ashamed to say that I viewed them as entertaining period pieces and nothing more. Having now listened to an excellent reading of The Moonstone by Patrick Tull I have come to a new understanding. As well as being a rattling good mystery yarn of theft, intrigue and retribution, it is a subversive work, satirising the social, political and religious underpinnings of Victorian society.
Outwardly a respectable journalist, novelist and clubman, a friend and colleague of Dickens and other literary figures, Collins maintained two mistresses within walking distance of each other (thanks to Lucy Sussex for her correction below) and had three illegitimate children. A frequenter of brothels in London and Paris, he may have contracted venereal disease and used laudanum, to which he became addicted, to relieve the symptoms. Thus, ostensibly an insider, he was privately an outsider and this affected his outlook on the world and writing.
The several first-person narratives that make up the book are masterpieces of characterisation. Gabriel Betteredge is the very essence of the loyal servant, devoted to his mistress and duties but wryly aware of the shortcomings of the upper class and able to make use of them. His turning to a well-thumbed, battered copy of Robinson Crusoe for a common-sense guide to conduct contrasts pointedly with the behaviour of the next narrator, Miss Drusilla Clack. Collins’s portrait of the sexually frustrated, religiously deluded Miss Clack, scattering tracts and consulting ‘improving’ works, is brilliant, at once hilarious and pathetic.
Other characters, the competent policeman Sergeant Cuff, the dry lawyer Bruff, the tortured soul Ezra Jennings, the doomed Rosanna Spearman and the ‘hero’ Franklin Blake are equally well depicted with touches of irony, compassion, approval and disapproval as required. If the heroine Rachel Verinder is somewhat pallid, that was a convention writers struggled for a long time to overcome.
Having long forgotten how the mystery of the theft of the precious diamond was resolved, I was held by the twists and turns of the story and the way Collins served up the evidence in the form of testimonials from various characters. It was a method adopted by later crime writers from that time to this.
Importantly, with the exception of the boy nicknamed Gooseberry on account of his peculiar goggling eyes, Collins’s characters are fully rounded and convincing and not the caricatures which, to my mind, disfigure so many of Dickens’s books.
Along with The Woman in White (commonly regarded as the first detective novel in English), with the added ingredients of theft, suicide, love tangles, police involvement, humour and an exotic historical sweep, The Moonstone ushered in the elements that have made crime fiction the dominant genre in popular writing that it is today.