2 March 2015

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

With a huge sigh of relief I am happy to report that the impromptu reading of The Moonstone with a handful of my colleagues was a terrific success!  Our private nook at The Purple Heather, a local pub, was cosy and allowed us to be as vocal as necessary without risking any steely glances from other customers trying to enjoy their night out.  Twelve people signed on to read the book - two threw in the towel early on, and one didn't want the ending ruined because she hadn't finished it, but a decent group of seven were able to make it for the discussion.  I brought my laptop and played a scene from the Masterpiece Theatre adaptation starring Greg Wise, Keeley Hawes, and a pleasant surprise for me was Lesley Sharp!

For those readers yet to discover this wonderful piece of Victorian literature (1868) it's the story of a priceless diamond, stolen from the forehead of Vishnu, a sacred statue, and the endless efforts by three Hindu priests to see it returned.  Bequeathed to Rachel Verinder on the event of her eighteenth birthday by her uncle, it is hand-delivered by a handsome Franklin Blake.  The gem is priceless to the Hindu priests but market value in the mid-1800s would be somewhere in the range of £20,000.  For perspective, that translates into something close to £2,000,000 today.  Rachel's mother, Lady Verinder, wants to hold the diamond for safekeeping but her headstrong daughter chooses to display it on the front of her dress at her birthday party.  Later that night, Rachel places the diamond in an Indian cabinet.  The following morning Penelope, Rachel's maid, reports in a state of panic that the gem has disappeared.

So begins the investigation in which Collins brilliantly presents several characters to narrate their version of the latest events.  First person narratives often prove to be unreliable so you are never quite sure if your instincts are taking you in the right direction.

I read The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale when it first came out, a fascinating non-fiction book detailing the horrific murder of a child in Wiltshire, England in 1860.  This was a case that gripped the masses far and wide, in fact, Charles Dickens interviewed the lead investigator, Jack Whicher, from Scotland Yard.  The events certainly made an impression on Wilkie Collins as Sergeant Cuff in The Moonstone is reportedly based on Mr. Whicher.  Another crucial piece of evidence that potentially reveals the perpetrator in both cases is a nightgown.

The Moonstone is also dotted with comedic scenes that made me laugh out loud, many of them concerning Miss Drusilla Clack and her obsession with saving people from the devil and ungodly ways...

'Here was my opportunity!  I seized it on the spot.  In other words, I instantly opened by bag, and took out the top publication.  It proved to be an early edition - only the twenty-fifth - of the entitled The Serpent at Home.  The design of the book - with which the worldly reader may not be acquainted - is to show how the Evil One lies in wait for us in all the most apparently innocent actions of our daily lives.  The chapters best adapted to female perusal are 'Satan in the Hair Brush'; 'Satan behind the Looking Glass'; 'Satan under the Tea Table; 'Satan out of the Window' - and many others.'

Equally wonderful characters are Mr Betteredge, the house steward, who relies on his pipe and a copy of Robinson Crusoe to reduce his anxious state when in the grip of 'detective-fever', Septimus Luker is the lucrative pawnbroker caught in the middle, Ezra Jennings is an opium addict described as a 'piebald' for his black and white striped hair.  He also assists Dr. Candy, an interesting moniker for one who prescribes addictive medicines such as laudanum.

Wilkie Collins excels at characterization but if I had any sort of negative comment to make it's that I wished he described the surroundings in slightly more detail.  George Gissing puts the dust of the street in your mouth and blinds the reader in billowing pea-soup fog.  Other than the frightening image of The Shivering Sands, a pit of quicksand, I didn't visualize the houses, leafy squares of London, or dress to the extent I usually like to.  But this is being persnickity...The Moonstone is a stunning read and my appreciation for what Collins has so intricately achieved continues days after I have finished the book.

None of the other women in the group had ever read anything by Wilkie Collins so it was rewarding to expand his fan base and everyone said they look forward to reading something else by him.  My next venture with Collins will be Armadale, it's about a flame-haired laudanum addict, bigamist, and husband-poisoner...irresistible!  Have you read it?


6 comments:

  1. Lucy Worsley just did a 3 piece series on BBC TV
    this episode is is interesting in regard to the Moonstone

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/search?q=A%20Very%20British%20Murder%20with%20Lucy%20Worsley

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    1. I watched that series but it was awhile ago so I must go back and watch this segment...thanks, Kate! There is no such thing as too much of Lucy in our house.

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  2. I love Wilkie but if you can keep all the Allan Allandales straight in your mind while reading Armadale, you'll be doing well! The Moonstone is one of my favourites. Well done for introducing a whole new group of people to the delights of sensation fiction.
    On a completely different topic, what do you think of the new series of Home Front? I'm afraid I'm losing interest. I don't care about the Chadwicks & the Marshalls like I did about the Wilsons, the Grahams & the Winwoods.

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    1. Oh dear, if you had a slight muddle with Armadale then there is little hope for me but I will try. A couple of years ago I read Beautiful for Ever about Madam Rachel and her powers of extortion with poisonous cosmetics. Apparently, there's a reference to her, or someone like her, in Armadale so I'm excited about that.
      Re: Home Front...me too! I'm hanging in there but there is lots of glazing over, I'm afraid.

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  3. Love this book! It is just pure entertainment - so gripping, suspenseful and twisty. I love the idea of a staff readalong!

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    1. If you haven't read No Name...that's a fun one too! The staff read-along was also a great way to get to know a colleague who recently transferred from another location...an excellent team building opportunity without involving zip lines and mud!

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