‘Do you feel an uncomfortable heat at the pit of your stomach…and a nasty thumping at the top of your head?…I call it the detective-fever.’
(Betteredge, The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins)
I must have been eight or nine when I first encountered The Gem (which is curious, considering I am only six and a half now, as we speak …): I don’t believe I was able to quite finish the whole of it at first go – but that same battered, tattered copy, gently foxed and browning at the edges, with its Turner sunset cover depicting the Temeraire, has never since been far from me. From African jungle to Europe to Asia back to Europe again, it has had a lifetime journey of its own, as varied almost as its content. I cannot be quite certain as to the reasons I found it so appealing at first – I suspect it was the range of characters and voices (it is a narrative shared by ten separate characters; a ploy that could founder but for Collins’s command of voice and characterization), and its sheer eccentricity: it is a colourful book, after all – something of a mosaic, all the tiles at odd angles to each other, different sizes, with irregular edges: the sum of parts producing a magnificent whole, equivalent to the trompe d’oeil asaraton of a Roman villa; a mass of tasty tit-bits, left-overs and the occasional red herring …
The Moonstone, a magnificent diamond torn from the eye of a Brahmin statue during the Storming of Seringapatam, ends up, by a somewhat sinister sequence of events, pinned to a young woman’s bodice at her birthday dinner in Yorkshire some twenty years later. The evening is briefly interrupted by Indian jugglers, adding Oriental mystique to an atmosphere already heavy with premonition. That same night the diamond vanishes, and it falls to Sergeant Cuff, accompanied by family steward Betteredge in an acute attack of detective fever, to discover what really happened.
Initial suspicions of the travelling Indians are quickly dismissed by Cuff, who goes so far as to state that Rachel Verinder stole her own diamond in concert with the maid Rosanna who, as a reformed thief, would have the necessary contacts required to dispose of it. While Cuff is later proven wrong, he still makes curious predictions which later fulfil themselves in remarkable circumstances and the hunt is picked up again with bewildering consequences. Discoveries macabre and stunning are made on a seashore, in a London tavern and in a quiet country house before the case is finally resolved in a way every bit as unexpected as the rest of the book.
It was the fourth in a series of particularly successful novels, the first of which, The Woman in White, had already established Collins as a household name, quickly followed by No Name and Armadale. Distinct and stand-alone as they are, they do share common themes: in particular, the plight of single women especially with regard to property laws, and the question of identity. These themes often overlap in plot structure: The Woman in White, for example, hinges on stolen identity to secure a fortune and to hide illegitimacy; No Name explores the social position of illegitimate children, and its main heroine adopts a series of theatrical disguises to pursue her lost position and inheritance, taking on each fresh identity with startling conviction; Armadale contains two main characters whose identity is challenged continuously: Miss Gwilt, femme fatale and ostracized Ozias Midwinter, at once both similar and opposite in their hidden pasts, their fatalism and their rootlessness. Wilkie Collins, living as he did in a complex private life filled with duality, had good reason at times to consider the effects Victorian society and its rules could have on women and children of precarious status: the Magdalene, the illegitimate, the guilty secret – all return, to a lesser or greater degree in these works.
Identity endangered, identity lost, identity mistaken, disguised, stolen, re-created, even doubled – In The Moonstone Rosanna, with her hidden past, is recognised immediately by Cuff and placed under suspicion accordingly, despite all the good offices of Mrs Verinder to give her a new life and new name. Ezra Jennings, an outsider, mistrusted by the local population, has been given position and identity by Dr Candy, who took him on as an assistant. Then there is identity in disguise, (as in No Name), with a shocking revelation in the Fifth Narrative of who the murdered sailor in the London public-house really is. It is a book where nearly everyone has a secret to hide: Mrs Verinder keeping her precarious heart condition from her daughter, Rosanna’s secret knowledge concerning the Moonstone, Rachel’s secret concerning Franklin Blake; Godfrey Ablewhite’s secret alternative live-style, and ultimately, pieced together, the secret of the Moonstone’s disappearance is outed.
Employing inventive plot devices, unusual settings, the unexpected, the dramatic, Collins brings together a wide array of possible suspects and witnesses who in turn bring forward the gradual unravelling of the mystery. By turns entertaining and bizarre, even occasionally tinged with melancholy, as in the voice of Ezra Jennings, the tale draws to an oddly phantasmal denouement, through a re-enactment of the eventful night itself. This too, is treated with Wilkie Collins’s own particular brand of humour mixed with sobriety, as Betteredge the family steward is entrusted by Ezra Jennings with the task of opening up the Verinder home for the scene in question:
‘”I wish certain parts of the house to be reopened,” I said, “and to be furnished, exactly as they were furnished at this time last year.”
Betteredge gave his imperfectly-pointed pencil a preliminary lick with his tongue. “Name the parts, Mr. Jennings!” he said loftily.
“First, the inner hall, leading to the chief staircase.”
“‘First, the inner hall,’” Betteredge wrote. “Impossible to furnish that, sir, as it was furnished last year—to begin with.”
“Because there was a stuffed buzzard, Mr. Jennings, in the hall last year. When the family left, the buzzard was put away with the other things. When the buzzard was put away—he burst.”
“We will except the buzzard then.”
Betteredge took a note of the exception. “‘The inner hall to be furnished again, as furnished last year. A burst buzzard alone excepted.’ Please to go on, Mr. Jennings.”
“The carpet to be laid down on the stairs, as before.”
“‘The carpet to be laid down on the stairs, as before.’ Sorry to disappoint you, sir. But that can’t be done either.”
“Because the man who laid that carpet down is dead, Mr. Jennings—and the like of him for reconciling together a carpet and a corner, is not to be found in all England, look where you may.”
“Very well. We must try the next best man in England.”
Betteredge took another note; and I went on issuing my directions.’
After several more similar ‘notes’ made by Betteredge, the steward has a point he wishes to bring up: ‘”As to the second corridor,” he went on. “There having been nothing in it, last year, but the doors of the rooms (to every one of which I can swear, if necessary), my mind is easy, I admit, respecting that part of the house only. But, as to Mr. Franklin’s bedroom (if THAT is to be put back to what it was before), I want to know who is responsible for keeping it in a perpetual state of litter, no matter how often it may be set right—his trousers here, his towels there, and his French novels everywhere. I say, who is responsible for untidying the tidiness of Mr. Franklin’s room, him or me?”
Mr. Blake declared that he would assume the whole responsibility with the greatest pleasure. Betteredge obstinately declined to listen to any solution of the difficulty, without first referring it to my sanction and approval. I accepted Mr. Blake’s proposal; and Betteredge made a last entry in the pocket-book to that effect.’
The detail with which Betteredge notes down all necessary refurbishment mirrors the equally precise attention Wilkie Collins paid to research generally; by closely studying criminal records he set the example for future detective writers, applying a strict regard for factual accuracy.
‘Incident and dramatic situation only occupy the second place in your favour …’
Already during his lifetime Collins suffered from the suggestion that he wrote purely for the sensationalist audience, that he was a ‘plot-merchant and puppet-master’ (J.I.M. Stewart, Introduction, Penguin 1966); he rebutted this in more than one preface, reminding the reader of how it was their demand for ‘Character and Humour. Incident and dramatic situation only occupy the second place in your favour …’
Collins states clearly in his original preface that Moonstone was based around character affecting circumstance, rather than as previously, circumstance influencing character; it could seem even the stone itself, with its reputation for luring men to destruction, is allowed its own influence on circumstance:
‘The other guest, who sat on my young lady’s right hand, was an eminent public character—being no other than the celebrated Indian traveller, Mr. Murthwaite, who, at risk of his life, had penetrated in disguise where no European had ever set foot before.
… Except what he said to Miss Rachel about her jewel, I doubt if he spoke six words or drank so much as a single glass of wine, all through the dinner. The Moonstone was the only object that interested him in the smallest degree… After looking at it silently for so long a time that Miss Rachel began to get confused, he said to her in his cool immovable way, “If you ever go to India, Miss Verinder, don’t take your uncle’s birthday gift with you. A Hindoo diamond is sometimes part of a Hindoo religion. I know a certain city, and a certain temple in that city, where, dressed as you are now, your life would not be worth five minutes’ purchase.” Miss Rachel, safe in England, was quite delighted to hear of her danger in India. … My lady fidgeted in her chair, and changed the subject.
As the dinner got on, I became aware, little by little, that this festival was not prospering as other like festivals had prospered before it.
Looking back at the birthday now, by the light of what happened afterwards, I am half inclined to think that the cursed Diamond must have cast a blight on the whole company. I plied them well with wine; and being a privileged character, followed the unpopular dishes round the table, and whispered to the company confidentially, “Please to change your mind and try it; for I know it will do you good.” Nine times out of ten they changed their minds—out of regard for their old original Betteredge, they were pleased to say—but all to no purpose. There were gaps of silence in the talk, as the dinner got on, that made me feel personally uncomfortable. When they did use their tongues again, they used them innocently, in the most unfortunate manner and to the worst possible purpose.’
There are several characters in the Moonstone who owe not a little to fact, if only indirectly: the most successful of the two in ‘amusing the public …was the Narrative of Miss Clack …’ Written by dictation from his sick-bed (he was crippled with gout) while suffering the loss of his mother, Wilkie Collins based the character of that annoying religioso who relentlessly pursues Rachel’s mother on two real-life females with a mission; the form of persecution Mrs Verinder undergoes from Miss Clack mirrors the experience of Wilkie Collins in real life, and the invention of Miss Clack is his quiet revenge on them.
The gout required sturdy doses of laudanum – and here fact again mingled with fiction. Collins was familiar by now of the effects of laudanum and was able to speak from direct experience when it came to describing the sufferings of Ezra Jennings, in addition to its qualities as a hypnotic on the unsuspecting Franklin Blake. These two most dissimilar men are subtly linked by the use of laudanum, another example of Collins’s perfect novel construction.
‘He might have been a parson, or an undertaker – or anything else you like, except what he really was.’
Finally, that most celebrated example of the early prototype of detective in English Literature: Sergeant Cuff of Scotland Yard (in the days when it consisted of twelve men rather than departments).
As is quoted in almost any edition and blog regarding the Moonstone, Sergeant Cuff is, according to popular theory, none other than Inspector Wicher of the Road Hill House Murder. There is no physical resemblance between the two men; they are more connected with the business of a missing stained nightdress. There was a missing nightdress in the Road Hill case, which Wicher rightly assumed would bear evidence of the murder committed. There is a missing nightdress in The Moonstone – and according to Sergeant Cuff, the missing nightdress will bear evidence of having brushed against the door – when the paint was still wet (timing is crucial here). Wilkie Collins took a fact, modified it, reinvented it.
One extra detail however. Sergeant Cuff loves roses. Whistles to them, in fact. Which inspector Wicher most definitely did not. But, the real-life Inspector had a colleague: one Dolly Williamson. And Williamson loved to garden; his blooms ‘were famous in the neighbourhood where he spent his unofficial hours’ (A.Griffiths in The Suspicions of Mr Wicher by Kate Summerscale). Mr Griffiths does not mention whether Williamson whistled to his roses – even so, it seems possible that Wilkie Collins might have created Sergeant Cuff from two rather than one man…
An unlucky diamond, theft, suicide, murder, journeys both physical and mental, a range of characters, from clownish to conniving, that would not look out of place in a Commedia dell’Arte: in lesser hands this mixture could all end up little better than a Penny Dreadful of the time, but Collins knits them together with a mastery already distilled and honed down from his previous novels. He leads the reader a merry dance across continents, combining exoticism and human theatre with a hint of Gothicism; from ransacked Brahmin temples to quick sands in Yorkshire, from High Society London to a down-and-out inn in Shore Lane, distracting with humour in the form of personae such as Betteredge and the odious Miss Clack, or with drama as in the case of Rosanna, the maid from the reformatory whose worship of Franklin and subsequent fate becomes so tragically interwoven with the Shivering Sands. And at the heart of this silvery cobweb lies the Moonstone itself; cursed, hunted, vaunted, coveted, stolen and re-stolen, until it achieves its own destiny, remote, elevated, out of reach of mere humanity, as witnessed by the traveller Murthwaite : “There, raised high on a throne—seated on his typical antelope, with his four arms stretching towards the four corners of the earth—there, soared above us, dark and awful in the mystic light of heaven, the god of the Moon. And there, in the forehead of the deity, gleamed the yellow Diamond, whose splendour had last shone on me in England, from the bosom of a woman’s dress!”
Recommended edition : Penguin, 1966 edition with intro and preface by J.I.M Stewart (aka Michael Innes, originator of another favourite detective, Appleby)
Recommended companion reading: The Suspicions of Mr Wicher by Kate Summerscale: researched with meticulous detail that would have made Sergeant Cuff weep, before moving on to whistle lullabies at the roses. (‘Bless the little dears,’ I hear him say, as if consigning another cartload of street urchins to the tender mercies of an orphanage…)