Oct 14, 2009

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

Legend has it that anyone who removes the Moonstone, a sacred diamond from India, from its shrine will have the moon god's revenge fall on them and their descendants. With that in mind, readers and characters alike have reasons to suspect Colonel Herncastle, a former army officer who served in India, when he leaves the Moonstone to his estranged niece Rachel Verinder for her eighteenth birthday. The morning after Miss Verinder’s birthday party, the Moonstone is discovered to be missing, and so our mystery begins.

Like The Woman in White, The Moonstone is divided into several parts, each narrated by a different characters. I was very interested in the way the story is framed—once again, we have a character who takes the role of editor, and each of the narrators provides an explanation for how their section of the story came to be. Memory wrote an excellent post on framing or context last year, so instead of repeating her points I’ll just point you towards it. What I'm trying to say here, though, is that I notice that nineteenth century authors seem to pay a lot more attention to how they frame their narratives than contemporary ones do. Do we take fictionality for granted? Is it because the novel is more established now? These days, a novel that provides a careful explanation for its existence seems rather forced more often than not. But not so with The Moonstone. Why is this, I wonder?

One of the reasons why the different narrations work so well is because they provide an opportunity for the characters to interact through their narratives; to make their opinions of one another perfectly clear, as Miss Clack and Mr Franklin Blake do. And that’s a source of much of the book’s humour. Humour, you ask? Isn’t this a Victorian detective novel? Yes, yes it is. But it's also absolutely hilarious. I’m not quite sure why, but this really surprised me. Gabriel Betteredge's and Miss Clack’s narrations had me laughing out loud.

I’ll let you discover Miss Clack for yourself if you haven’t yet, but let me tell you a little about Gabriel Betteredge: Betteredge is the steward of the country house where the theft occurs, and he has been in the family’s service for most of his life. His defining trait, if we can call it such, is his unshakeable faith in Robinson Crusoe. Gabriel firmly believes that there is no question in life that can’t be answered by this novel, and this gives rise to episodes such as this:
“Betteredge!” I said, pointing to the well-remembered book on his knee, “has ROBINSON CRUSOE informed you, this evening, that you might expect to see Franklin Blake?”
“By the lord Harry, Mr. Franklin!” cried the old man, “that's exactly what ROBINSON CRUSOE has done!”
(…)
“Here's the bit, Mr. Franklin!” he said, as soon as he had recovered the use of his speech. “As I live by bread, sir, here's the bit I was reading, the moment before you came in! Page one hundred and fifty-six as follows:--‘I stood like one Thunderstruck, or as if I had seen an Apparition.’ If that isn't as much as to say: ‘Expect the sudden appearance of Mr. Franklin Blake’--there's no meaning in the English language!” said Betteredge, closing the book with a bang, and getting one of his hands free at last to take the hand which I offered him.
This is from Franklin Blakes’ narration, though, and I want to share Betteredge’s voice too. I absolutely loved it, particularly his penchant for addressing the reader:
Here follows the substance of what I said, written out entirely for your benefit. Pay attention to it, or you will be all abroad, when we get deeper into the story. Clear your mind of the children, or the dinner, or the new bonnet, or what not. Try if you can't forget politics, horses, prices in the City, and grievances at the club. I hope you won't take this freedom on my part amiss; it's only a way I have of appealing to the gentle reader. Lord! haven't I seen you with the greatest authors in your hands, and don't I know how ready your attention is to wander when it's a book that asks for it, instead of a person?
Oh Betteredge—you’re wrong. I have the embarrassing habit of letting my attention wander exactly when a person asks for it. But I love you still. Yours has joined my mental list of All-time Favourite Narrative Voices.

When I read The Woman in White, I commented that much of it was grounded in a decidedly Victorian social structure. Likewise, some important plot points of The Moonstone are very much grounded in Victorian notions of science (which isn’t to say, of course, that social structure isn’t also important). I cannot go on at length about this without giving too much away, and so I’ll refrain from doing so. But my main point is that what I’m sure Wilkie Collins thought of as a perfectly believable explanation for the mystery no longer reads like one. However, this dated aspect only makes the story more interesting in my view.

The answer to the mystery of who stole the Moonstone is not very difficult to guess, but Collins leaves you waiting for the “how” and the “why”, and those are just as interesting, if not more. The final answer reinforces one of The Moonstone’s most obvious themes: that an appearance of respectability should not be taken for the thing itself. This is also visible in characters like Ezra Jennings, who was treated with a kindness that surprised me. Overall, I found The Moonstone to be kinder, warmer, more open, and less rigid and respectful of propriety than The Woman in White. Another example of this is the very ending, which I of course won’t give away. But I was very pleased to hear of the final fate of the Moonstone.

And I haven’t even told you about the characters yet. Other than Gabriel Betteredge, that is. I loved Rachel – I loved her spirit, her unapologetic determination. She was much more Marian than Laura, but without having to compensate for her independence by being described as “manly” or “ugly”. The Moonstone was written eight years after The Woman in White, so I’ll happily attribute this to a progression in Collins’ thought. Anyway, I won’t blab about this book all day (though I could!). I’ll end this by saying that I completely agree with Audrey Niffenegger, who says in her introduction to this edition that the characters are at the heart of what makes The Moonstone such a joy to read.

A few more bits I liked:
Thanks be to Heaven, we have arrived at the eve of the birthday at last! You will own, I think, that I have got you over the ground this time, without much loitering by the way. Cheer up! I'll ease you with another new chapter here--and, what is more, that chapter shall take you straight into the thick of the story.

People in high life have all the luxuries to themselves--among others, the luxury of indulging their feelings. People in low life have no such privilege. Necessity, which spares our betters, has no pity on us. We learn to put our feelings back into ourselves, and to jog on with our duties as patiently as may be. I don't complain of this--I only notice it.
Other opinions: S. Krishna’s Books, A Garden Carried in the Pocket, A Guy’s Moleskin Notebook, A Striped Armchair, books i done read, Farm Lane Books, The Indextrious Reader, ChainReading, Book Nut, BiblioAddict, third-storey window

(As always, please let me know if I missed yours!)

35 comments:

  1. Great review Nymeth! I'm really happy to hear that you liked the "The Moonstone." I think I liked "The Woman in White" more, but "The Moonstone" was definitely a fun read. A few days ago I started "No Name," the book Collins wrote after "The Woman in White" and I'm loving every bit of it. There's just something about Collins and this time of year that goes so well together.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I know they call Dickens and Collins as "classic"..but they certainly have stood the test of time haven't they?! wow.. glad to read a positive review since I plan on reading it myself !

    ReplyDelete
  3. I loved The Moonstone too! I'd love to read the introduction by Audrey Niffenegger. I saw her talk yesterday evening and she said how much she loved The Moonstone. She said she prefered The Woman in White though. I haven't read that yet and need to get round to it - great review!

    ReplyDelete
  4. I agree, The Moonstone's better than Woman in White. Though I don't know if I like The Woman in White less because of the societal thing (which definitely makes the climax a bit anticlimactic), or because I just like the narrators in The Moonstone better. Count Fosco is fun, but not nearly as fun as Miss Clack. (Bless her.)

    ReplyDelete
  5. J.S. Peyton, No Name is going to be my next Collins too. I'm not sure when I'll get to it, but I bet I'll love it too!

    Deslily: And the good news is that The Moonstone has a faster pace! The story takes a bit to pick up too, but not nearly as long.

    Jackie: Click the link, then! The introduction is available in its entirety online. Audrey Niffenegger has great taste! I hope you enjoy The Woman in White.

    Jenny: Despite everything, I can't decide which one I like better! When I finished this, I thought it was The Woman in White just because it's more Gothic. But the more I think about The Moonstone, the more I like it.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Jason has always said this was just meh for him, so I'm not as excited about it as I was for The Woman in White, but I've been reading so many good reviews lately that I"m becoming more excited.

    ReplyDelete
  7. You just reminded me of why I loved The Moonstone when I first read it! It's certainly the characters. They are so distinctive that I actually remembered their personalities when I saw their names, while I've forgotten what actually happened to the Moonstone! I'm going to read Niffenegger's introduction, thanks. =)

    ReplyDelete
  8. There have been so many good Wilkie Collin's reviews lately -- I can't figure out why I didn't know about him. I'm reading 'The Woman in White' now and enjoying it, this one sounds fun too.

    I love the character that uses 'Robinson Crusoe' too; I have a nerdy love for that book myself, so I can relate :)

    ReplyDelete
  9. I loved this book! And I read back before blogging, based on the recommendation from Elizabeth Kostova in EW. The characters MAKE the book. They were quirky, idiosyncratic and a joy to meet. Excellent review!

    ReplyDelete
  10. Haven't read any Collins yet, but I do have a copy of The Woman in White sitting on my shelf which I think I might get around to reading very soon. I have heard this is one of the first detective novel, and seeing as I love a good mystery, I think I'll eventually read this one too. At first I was disappointed to hear that the perp was easy to guess, but I think that is ok if the reasons for the crime (and how it was committed) are still sufficiently interesting. I don't know why, but I'm always disappointed when I can guess who committed the crime when I'm reading mysteries!

    ReplyDelete
  11. You wrote: "nineteenth century authors seem to pay a lot more attention to how they frame their narratives than contemporary ones do. Do we take fictionality for granted? Is it because the novel is more established now?"

    Very good point. In my opinion, it may not be that we take ficitonality for granted, but our attention spans are too short for all that atmosphere guilding.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Thank you for your insightful review, Nymeth. I so love books like this and am looking forward to reading it.

    ReplyDelete
  13. First off, fantastic review Ana :) I really need to read some Collins!! Truth be told, I hadn't even heard of him before I started blogging and found the first RIP challenge. Thank God for that!! So what do you think I should read first? This one or The Woman in White?

    ReplyDelete
  14. I just read the Woman in White a month ago and know I'll be reading more by Wilkie Collins. I loved the different narrators in WIW because I think it helped to create that sense of suspense and who to trust so I'm glad to see he uses different narrators in this book as well. Great review!

    ReplyDelete
  15. Amanda: Really? How come he didn't like it? I hope you do when you get to it!

    Meghan: I know! I think they'll stick with me more than the plot itself too - and I loved the plot!

    Kim: I didn't know about him either for the longest time! I love that we're seeing so much of him in the blogging world, though.

    Sandy: Thank you! And yes, they really are!

    Steph: While it's mostly easy to guess, he does keep you wondering whether or not your guess is correct until the very end! And the plot is original enough that there are plenty of surprises other than the identity of the thief!

    Jill: It probably helps that we're impatient, yes! We want to jump straight into the story, without "wasting" time with justifications. They can add a lot to the story, though, as they do in this case!

    Wendy, I really think you'll like it!

    Chris, that was probably when I first heard of him too. And I think either one would be a good place to start!

    Iliana: I love that he used that technique again too. It makes both stories so much more interesting and complex!

    ReplyDelete
  16. Superb review, Nymeth!! Gabriel Betteredge is now one of my all-time favorite narrative voices, too. I will check out the link to Memory on framing and context. Thank you!

    ReplyDelete
  17. Nice review. I read this one a few years book, and I'm hoping to read The Woman in White soon.

    ReplyDelete
  18. All my Victorianist friends love this one, but I didn't really sit up and take notice until reading that you love it too--if so many different kinds of people are all recommending it, it's time to pay attention! It will go on my must-read list.

    ReplyDelete
  19. Excellent, excellent review! I have this book and have been thinking of reading it for the past few months, but you make it sound so appealing that I wish I could read it now! I had no idea that it was so humorous and that the characterizations were so three dimensional. I will definitely be moving this one to the top of my list. Thanks for your wonderful thoughts on this book.

    ReplyDelete
  20. I've been wanting to read this ever since I read DROOD since I just loved Collins as the narrator of that book.

    ReplyDelete
  21. Oh, Wilkie, how I wish we were friends! It sounds like such a cool concept-- I'm glad you liked it!

    ReplyDelete
  22. Fabulous review. I just ordered a few books by this author, based on so many rave reviews...including yours. thanks so much

    ReplyDelete
  23. My favorite is The Woman in White, but I liked The Moonstone, too!

    ReplyDelete
  24. Great review, Nymeth! I enjoyed reading your opinions on this book, it sounds awesome! I've this book and The Woman in White in my pile. I told myself I'd get to them once I've get over the fear of reading thick books, LOL!

    ReplyDelete
  25. Fabulous review, and it sounds like a good book. Much more accessible than The Woman in White.

    ReplyDelete
  26. I'm finally finishing up The Woman in White, but your review makes me want to pick up The Moonstone and read it again...immediately!
    I think Rhapsody in Books has it right when she says our modern attention spans have gotten to short for all the' atmospheric guilding.'

    ReplyDelete
  27. I tried reading this one a few years ago, but I just couldn't get into it. Timing, sometimes, is everything. It's one of those books I know I will like...but it just wasn't the right time to read it. I may dig it off the bookshelf around the holidays. When I have some time to give it it's due!

    Great review (as always!)

    ReplyDelete
  28. ds, you're welcome! Her post really got me thinking.

    Charley, I hope you enjoy The Woman in White!

    Jeanne: I confess that I have a slight obsession with the Victorians, but I think I'd have enjoyed this book a lot even if I didn't!

    Zibilee, thank you so much! I had no idea about the humour and great characterization either!

    Kathy: Drood is next on my list! I need some time to recover before I dare read another chunkster, though :P

    She: Mr Collins wishes you were friends too :P

    Diane, I really hope you enjoy them!

    Jenclair: I really can't decide which one I like best.

    Melody, there's really no reason to be afraid! It doesn't read like a chunkster at all :)

    Heidenkind: I thought they were more or less the same in terms of accessibility, though the fact that this one has a quicker pace might make it more reader-friendly!

    JoAnn: Oh, I can't wait to read your thoughts! And isn't that a pity? I love me some Victorian atmosphere.

    Stephanie: I'm sorry to hear it! Hopefully you'll be able to next time. The story does take a bit to pick up - though not as long as The Woman in White.

    ReplyDelete
  29. This is one of those books that I started and just couldn't get into. I put it down after 30 pages. I think I would like Woman in White more (at least from reviews I have read about it).

    This just wasn't my cup of tea. I did enjoy your review very much!

    ReplyDelete
  30. I love this review! I really should go read this book because I loved Woman in White so much.

    I too enjoyed how in WinW the book's narration was explained. I agree, we do take "fiction" for granted these days.

    ReplyDelete
  31. Excellent review! I am looking forward to reading this book!

    ReplyDelete
  32. Great review as always Ana. I've got Woman in White on my shelf and was thinking of picking this one up as well for a challenge I saw on the blogs somewhere. I think I may just do that now.

    ReplyDelete
  33. I still have not gotten around to reading The Woman In White (it might fall off my list... I'm in a strange reading mood) but this sounds good for a "someday" read. I love the title, at any rate!

    ReplyDelete
  34. Oh goodness--I had completely forgotten that this one was written in different perspectives. Even though I didn't like this one as much as The Woman in White you've got me wanting to re-read my copy!

    I think there's something to be said about the hows and whys of a mystery. I've noticed that a lot of Victorian sensationalism isn't as much about solving the actual mystery as trying to uncover the motives behind the transgression. Perhaps this has something to do with the Victorian intrigue of these more white collar crimes--it's not just the lower classes who are committing crimes for (sometimes sometimes not) petty reasons but the middle and upper classes are involved in crime. Am I blabbing? Well then... :)

    ReplyDelete
  35. I'm really looking forward to this one! It's on my tiny TBR wishlist, just waiting for the day when I can buy random stuff again.

    ReplyDelete

Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.