It’s Rachel Verinder’s birthday, and the young lady has every reason to be delighted. It’s very likely that her quirky cousin Franklin Blake, who’s been staying for the last month, returns her newfound love for him and might soon propose to her. She has also inherited a pretty toy from her late, estranged uncle: an immense Indian diamond that he acquired on campaign by killing a great quantity of innocent people. What Rachel doesn’t know is that Franklin has been pursued from one end of England to the other by three Brahmin guardians of the stone who justifiably wish to restore the diamond to its spiritual home in India and who will waste no time in committing any amount of stalking and murder to see that their goal is realised.
A detective classic so character-driven that you sometimes forget that there’s a missing diamond hankering to be found, Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone more than fulfills its objective of examining the effects of character on plot. Collins is a master of the modern multiple-person-narrative technique and gives us an impressive, intensely realistic ensemble cast of characters ranging from those you want to hug comfortingly to those you just want to punch. This mastery of character is doubly brilliant in that both the character currently narrating the story and the characters described by that narrator are one hundred percent convincing: in voice, in behavior, in personal mannerisms and in their interactions with other characters. As in life, you meet people who are instantly likeable and instantly despicable, and you meet those that are on the fence, and that you can never quite make your mind up about.
This post is a review that somehow turned into a discussion of Collins’ brilliant characterisation in The Moonstone and how it leads to the creation of a few great characters that should be mentioned more often. You may notice that most of the main characters, i.e. Franklin and Rachel, are somewhat glaringly absent from the proceedings. This is primarily because most people don’t talk about anybody but them, and secondly because my emotions were significantly more roused by the people that we’re about to meet than by any of Rachel and Franklin’s shenanigans.
Among the instantly likeable of the novel’s characters is aging butler Gabriel Betteredge, an utterly charming, dependable and simple soul who treats all those around him with moving kindness, his kindness towards his fellow servants frequently interpreted as over-softness by his mistress, Lady Verinder. The only way to get his back up is to interfere with what he considers as being normal and right, and to insult his favourite book, Robinson Crusoe, which he reads for the same reasons that other people read The Bible: peace of mind, comfort and prophecy (yes, prophecy). The theft of the diamond, however, awakens a ‘detecting fever’ in him that he is simultaneously proud and ashamed of, and his natural curiosity and perfectly simple way of looking at things clears up more than one wall of smoke in the quest for the diamond.
More than half the novel is told from Betteredge’s perspective, and it makes you decidedly sad when you have to leave him behind, particularly when you pass from his narrative to that of the detestable Miss Clack, a stereotypical radical Christian who enjoys ramming her religion down other people’s throats in the most underhanded and invasive way. She makes a raging atheist like me want to scream and commit murder, and I’m sure the stinging satire inherent in her character must have simultaneously caused great delight and great offence in more than one quarter when the novel was published.
The opposite emotions that Betteredge and Miss Clack inspire in the reader, as well as the sheer strength and power of those emotions, are evidence enough that Collins really knows what he’s doing when it comes to character, and that he applies his talent to each individual character, no matter how small, and thus strengthens the novel’s realistic and life-like qualities. The reader is thus able to form attachments to characters who don’t have much space in the actual novel, but who are so vividly presented that you can’t help liking them, and wishing you could chat to them for half an hour just to spend more time with them.
A relatively minor character that I would really like to have a serious chat with is Sergeant Cuff, the second investigator called in to investigate the disappearance of the jewel after an over-confident policeman makes a botch of it. Cuff is a brilliant creation – a highly intelligent lateral thinker, he both dresses like a corpse and looks like one, is passionately interested in the growing of roses, and possesses decidedly Holmesian charisma and magnetism (indeed, you can’t help suspecting Sir Arthur of underhanded tactics). When he’s not driving everybody mad by asking hundreds of seemingly insignificant questions regarding the state of the laundry and a smear of paint on the door, he’s out detecting with his new odd companion Betteredge and warring with the gardener as to the correct way to grow white moss roses. The strange but interesting detective is something you see often in literature and TV today, but Sergeant Cuff is what you might call ‘the original’, and remains thus despite his hundreds of successors in the genre and the fact that nobody seems to known about him.
Another fascinating Collins original is Ezra Jennings, a socially-outcast doctor’s assistant who makes most people run away from him owing to his ugliness. He doesn’t really play much of a role until the final act, when he turns out to be a terminally ill opium addict of mixed race (gasp!) on the run from a crippling scandal, whose life’s goal is to save up enough money to take care of the woman he loves before he dies. Jennings is the genuine heart-rending-tragic-hero-beauty-and-the-beast article, and to add to his interest, he also develops an attachment of unusual strength to Franklin which had me wondering, many times, if Collins is making a veiled reference to bisexuality, or simply portraying the visible intensity of male friendship that was common at the time. Either way, Jennings has a lot about him that would have made his existence a problem in the Victorian era, and I sincerely wish somebody would write a spinoff/sequel about him and leave poor Jane Austen alone for a bit.
So: The Moonstone is worth reading for its plot, but much more so for its characters: authentic, fascinating and so human that, eventually, you don’t even care whether the diamond is found or not.