Sunday 15 January 2023

Nuggets Of Moonstone

Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone, 1868

Ah, the Victorian novel. It can really divide the masses. Mr P is reading Middlemarch for the first time and attends it with lots of oh dear, oh dear!-s and hearty guffawing & cannot help delightedly reading me passages, for it is a cracking good read. Ol' George Eliot really had her finger on the pulse with what made people tick. And the language! Right up Your Correspondent's alley*. And which has reminded me to finally crack on with some choice nuggets from last year's reading of Wilkie Collins's contribution to the early detective novel genre, The Moonstone

Nota bene: Ever the professional, WC wrote much of the book as a serial whilst delirious with opium for his gout pain and dealing with the death of his mother. What ho, Dear Reader, it's a recipe for fun!

This Victorian stalwart is told through first-hand reminiscences, epistolary-wise, of those on the scene of the Mystery of the Stolen Moonstone, a famous cursed diamond of Indian origin bequeathed to an heiress. A proselytising spinster and a household steward who confers soothsaying abilities upon Robinson Crusoe are the inadvertent comics among the narrators whose recollections form the book. A police detective, a louche gentleman, a dying opium-addict, a lawyer and a couple of others add their two-bob's worth, littering clues, red herrings and further suspects liberally about the pages while revealing more about themselves than their brief required. 

Viz. Drusilla Clack, our Proselytising Spinster:

 Here was a golden opportunity! I seized it on the spot. In other words, I instantly opened my bag, and took out the top publication ... 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 all in 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.

  'Give your attention, dear aunt, to this precious book - and you will give me all I ask.' With those words, I handed it to her open, at a marked passage - one continuous burst of burning eloquence! Subject: Satan among the Sofa Cushions.

 Poor Lady Verinder (reclining thoughtlessly on her own sofa cushions) glanced at the book, and handed it back to me looking more confused than ever.

The book ranges widely (& wildly) from the scientific experiment of administering laudanum to novel police work (whereupon a famous detective dreaming of retirement and growing roses is paid to consult in the mystery); from the exotique of avenging Hindoos (sic) to do-goodery and charity work amongst the spinster class and religious evangelism. There's even deadly quicksand to contend with!

But a Romance, as it was once sub-titled? Well, Rachel Verinder the Dreary Heroine who is robbed of the Moonstone does have a couple of vying Suitors amongst the cast and a fair amount of tears, door-slamming and attendant petulant silence might indicate passions running high. There's also a housemaid Rosanna Spearman employed from the reform house who becomes an obsessive stalker of Franklin Blake, Rachel's louche suitor. Rosanna is generally meant to be a tragic, pathetic creature to be pitied for her misdirected unrequited love but I'm calling this out for what it is.

Love object Franklin Blake is himself also a prime suspect and enlists all the narrators to pen their observations to clear his name. He strikes me as an English take on the Russian Superfluous Man, his own narratives showing his Cosmopolitan Sensibilities at odds with the petty confines of his world:

 Trumpery little scandals and quarrels in the town, some of them as much as a month old, appeared to recur to his memory readily. He chattered on, with something of the smooth fluency of former times ... I submitted patiently to my martyrdom (it is surely nothing less than martyrdom to a man of cosmopolitan sympathies, to absorb in silent resignation the news of a country town?) until the clock on the chimney-piece told me that my visit had been prolonged beyond half an hour. Having now some right to consider the sacrifice as complete, I rose to take leave.

Much priceless Victorian wisdom, however, is dispensed from the loyal retainer, 70-something butler (house steward) Gabriel Betteredge, and far and away my favourite character. Blessedly, he gets around half the book. Feast your eyes upon some of our man Betteredge's nuggets of Moonstone:

On Traditional Enmities:

  'Let us finish the story of the Colonel first,' says Mr Franklin. ' There is a curious want of system, Betteredge, in the English mind; and your question, my old friend, is an instance of it. When we are not occupied in making machinery, we are (mentally speaking) the most slovenly people in the universe.'

  'So much,' I thought to myself, ' for a foreign education! He has learned that way of girding at us in France, I suppose.'

On Downstairs Duty:

'Speaking as a servant, I am indebted to you. Speaking as a man, I consider you to be a person whose head is full of maggots, and I take up my testimony against your experiment as a delusion and a snare. Don't be afraid, on that account, on my feelings as a man getting in the way of the duties as a servant! You shall be obeyed. The maggots notwithstanding, sir, you shall be obeyed. If it ends in your setting the house on fire, Damne if I send for the engines, unless you ring the bell and order them first!'

On the Iniquity of White-Collar Crime:

The upshot of it was, that Rosanna Spearman had been a thief, and not being of the sort that get up Companies in the City, and rob from thousands, instead of only robbing from one, the law laid hold of her, and the prison and the reformatory followed the lead of the law.

On Easy Governance:

 We, in the servants' hall, began this happy anniversary, as usual, by offering our little presents to Miss Rachel, with the regular speech delivered annually by me as the chief. I follow the plan adopted by the Queen in opening Parliament - namely, the plan of saying much the same thing regularly every year. Before it is delivered, my speech (like the Queen's) is looked for as eagerly as if nothing of the kind had ever been heard before. When it is delivered, and turns out not to be the novelty anticipated, though they grumble a little, they look forward hopefully to something newer next year. An easy people to govern, in the Parliament and in the Kitchen - that's the moral of it.

Finally, Betteredge on Women:

 On hearing those dreadful words, my daughter Penelope said she didn't know what prevented her heart from flying straight out of her. I thought privately that it might have been her stays. All I said, however, was, 'You make my flesh creep.' (Nota bene: Women like these little compliments.)

* And why I've read it twice just in the past several years.

Image credits: 1: Biblio; 2: Antique Maps and Prints; 3: Wilkie Collins Information Pages


  1. Oh dear, those Victorians were something else. I find them rather patronising at times. It seems they always have to write pages on pages about their preferred ideology to the extent that I feel like they're forcing it down my throat. Rather annoying, at the best of times. But perhaps my patience runs short these days.

    1. Yes, dear Loree, the masses divide! I'm not sure I can read much ideology in the fiction of the time but pamphleteers were aplenty (not that I've sat down to work my way through many), suggesting it was a pretty persuasive form in those days. But I do happily profess to enjoying 200 words when twenty would suffice :)

  2. Thanks for the nuggets, Lady Pipistrello.
    My top of the pops: 'On the Iniquity of White-Collar Crime'.

  3. I love his words on 'Easy Governance'. So true today as it was then.

    1. Betteredge was a veritable font of profundities, dear Cro!

  4. Hello Pipistrello, I looked for my own copy of The Moonstone in order to compare my notes to yours (I don't deface the text of books, but am willing to make notations on the back flyleaf) but the volume has apparently retired from society. The closest I came was Trollope's The Eustace Diamonds, also a good read. By the type of coincidence that always happens, it was right next to Middlemarch.
    So good to be reading your blog again! --Jim

    1. Hello Jim, how utterly delightful to see you again! Coincidences are one of life's little marvels, no? And by a small return happenchance, The Eustace Diamonds is on my List :)

    2. Oh, I need to know all about Duke Omnium. ;-)

    3. That little nugget shall have to wait for another day ...

    4. Well then, I shall be burning with patience.

  5. oh but I enjoy reading 'old type' books, not only for the content but the style/form of writing. They can be difficult for me, but sometimes they are quite the find.

    1. Yes, dear Urspo, they can be quite the bonanza! I do find the sometimes obscure text clarifies upon a slow and considered read rather than the breezy read that allows many a modern book to be consumed almost effortlessly. Indeed many lend themselves to reading out loud, as they probably were, back in the day.

  6. I love a period piece, be it in book form or on the screen .... I seek them out.
    Also, and I am being very shallow and not very intellectual at all, aren't old books aesthetically beautiful ? I have a few and they give so much pleasure just to look at the hard cover. XXXX

    1. Oh, I do agree, dear Jackie! The bindings, the marbled endpapers, the creamy page colour, olde fonts, smell ... so delicious. I must tell you, too, we found "Marie Antoinette" on the telly and tonight just finished our bingeing - so lush!! Thank you for the heads up! xx

    2. Oh Pip ..... I thought about asking if you had found Marie Antoinette but thought it was a bit too soon but you can get it ! You are further ahead than me ...... I have got a bit behind so must catch up ! I shall let you know if I find any other series that might be of interest. XXXX


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