Wilkie Collins: The Moonstone (Second Period)

sgt-cuff_1The Moonstone
Wilkie Collins
First published 1868 in All The Year Round
This edition Penguin Classics, 1998
528 pages
ISBN: 9780140434088

We left the First Period of The Moonstone by saying goodbye to Gabriel Betteredge, the stoutly loyal family retainer and narrator of the first part of the story. Rachel Verinder, hiding some dreadful secret after the theft of her exotic diamond the Moonstone, has removed herself from Yorkshire to London. Her suitor Mr Franklin Blake has gone into slightly suspicious voluntary exile. The celebrated detective Sergeant Cuff has retired to tend his roses in obscurity.

Gabriel Betteredge is such a likeable character to have as a narrator that he would be difficult to top. So the author goes for unlikeable instead. Miss Clack is another immense creation. She is a poor relative of the Verinder household, a self-pitying religious bigot:

When we are isolated and poor, we are not infrequently forgotten. I am now living, for economy’s sake, in a little town in Brittany, inhabited by a select circle of serious English friends, and possessed of the inestimable advantages of a Protestant clergyman and a cheap market.

Her narrative is based on her diary entries during the events of 1848 and 1849 and is unwittingly hilarious. The Clack response to almost any situation is to scatter a few pamphlets around.

The person who answered the door, took my message in insolent silence, and left me standing in the hall […] I sat down in the hall to wait for my answer—and, having always a few tracts in my bag, I selected one which proved to be quite providentially applicable to the person who answered the door […] “A Word With You On Your Cap-Ribbons.”

Miss Clack helps the smiling do-gooder Godfrey Ablewhite in a number of his philanthropic enterprises. But I’m afraid she gets a bit of a let-down when he proposes to Rachel Verinder:

Would he abandon us at the Mothers’-Small-Clothes? Had we seen the last of his angelic smile in the committee-room? Had we heard the last of his unrivalled eloquence at Exeter Hall?

Miss Clack covers events in London and Brighton as Rachel and Ablewhite get engaged and almost immediately break apart, events which Mr Bruff the family lawyer then explains. Then Mr Franklin Blake returns from his travels to have one last go at unraveling the mystery, picking up the narrative duties himself. But how will he react when he discovers who really took the Moonstone?

After a resounding opening book, Collins manages to maintain a solid pace for part two. To be honest there are a few points where the narrative device of handing the story from one character to another doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny, but the different voices all add something to the mix.

For me, part two is notable for the glimpses it provides of the Victorian underclass. The much-maligned and hopelessly-in-love Rosanna Spearman finally explaining her behaviour in a letter which throws a kindly light on the life of this reformatory girl. Meanwhile, the saintly Ezra Jennings, an opium-addicted doctor atoning for some past shame in the obscurity of a Yorkshire village, lends a hand in a reconstruction of the events of Rachel’s birthday. Both characters demonstrate Collins’ social conscience. He even displays a most unpatriotic feeling that perhaps rare Indian gemstones belong in India rather than in the hands of the British aristocracy.

All told, a great book which I heartily recommend.


See also:

RogerBW’s BlogUnlike many later books, this one was written by a social reformer, so we get plenty of voices from the servants’ hall as well as from above stairs. Nobody’s explicitly crying for revolution, but there’s an echo of the Dickensian tendency simply to portray a horrible situation and leave the reader to work out for himself that reform is needed. And while every narrator is biased and inclined to put his or her interpretation on things, we are fortunately free of any actual falsehoods addressed to the reader.

Robert McCrum in the GuardianHowever, although this is classic detective fiction, its greatness really lies in its qualities as a novel […] it’s the enthralling interplay of character (Rachel Verinder, the hunchbacked servant girl Rosanna Spearman, Sergeant Cuff, the great detective, and compelling Franklin Blake, Rachel Verinder’s cousin) that will hook the interest of most readers. Rosanna’s tragic obsession with the adventurer Franklin Blake is among the most poignant renderings of thwarted love in Victorian literature. The fascinating and eccentric figure of Cuff (based on Scotland Yard’s real life Inspector Whicher) introduces a figure central to the unravelling of the mystery on whom most readers come to dote.

About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
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One Response to Wilkie Collins: The Moonstone (Second Period)

  1. I loved this book, and have fond memories of both Miss Clack and her pamphlets, and Betteredge and his fascination with Robinson Crusoe. You make me want to read it again..

    Like

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