The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

I am loving reading Sensation novels at the moment. I just can’t get enough! I love the mystery, the suspense, and the fact that I feel really clever every time I finish them because I haven’t failed to guess the guilty party yet!

I’ll start by saying that I didn’t find The Moonstone as good as The Woman in White. It lacked the compelling, all consuming central mystery of the latter; it also wasn’t particularly menacing in the way that I found TWIW to be.It was a tad unconvincing too, and rather easy to guess who the guilty party was, but even with all these things considered, it was still a gripping and very entertaining read.

As with all novels of this type it’s hard to give a proper synopsis without ruining the plot for those who haven’t read it, but I shall try my best. The book opens with a transcript of a ‘family paper’ detailing the stealing of a famous Indian diamond, known as the Moonstone, from a ransacked temple during a battle between the English and the Indians in the late 18th century. Fast forward to the ‘present’ day (the mid 1800s) and we have Gabriel Betteredge, the faithful retainer of the good Lady Verinder and her beautiful teenage daughter Rachel, narrating the story of how the said Moonstone comes into the Verinder household.

It is important to know that the Moonstone was stolen from a Hindu temple; it is sacred and was always guarded by three Hindus who would fight to the death to protect it. They are supposed to follow it everywhere, and this duty is passed down the generations. Wherever the Moonstone goes, the guards follow. Now, Lady Verinder’s brother was part of the group of officers ransacking the temple, and he brought the Moonstone back with him after stealing it. There is a vague fear of curses etc associated with the diamond and so it is kept locked away during Lady Verinder’s brother’s lifetime. When he dies it emerges he has left it to his niece Rachel to be given on her 18th birthday; is this as a revenge to his sister who refused to acknowledge him because of his dastardly ways or an atonement (the diamond is worth £20,000, a collossal amount at the time)? No one is sure. But, Franklin Blake, Rachel’s cousin and Lady Verinder’s nephew, is trusted by the family solicitor to deliver the Moonstone to Rachel on her 18th birthday, as instructed, and this is where the problems begin.

Rachel is duly given the Moonstone, but not without plenty of misgivings on Lady Verinder, Franklin Blake and Gabriel Betteredge’s parts; three Indian conjurors have been hanging about the house since Franklin arrived, and knowing Lady Verinder’s brother’s hatred of her, everyone is concerned that the Moonstone is indeed cursed, and could bring harm to the lovely Rachel. On the morning after her birthday, Rachel wakes to find the diamond gone, but after preliminary investigations it emerges that the suspicious looking Indians have an alibi, and there is no sign of a break in; the theft had to be an inside job. Inside the house at the time were Rachel, Lady Verinder, Franklin, another cousin, Godfrey Ablewhite, an upstanding do gooder who longs for Rachel’s hand in marriage (as does Franklin), plus a large crowd of servants, some of whom have plenty of secrets of their own. Who could have done it? And why? And if it has been stolen by a member of the household, where has it gone? A famous detective from London, Sergeant Cuff, is called up to give his assistance, but there is great resistance from Rachel, who doesn’t seem to want the identity of the thief to be discovered, and is acting very strangely. As the mystery grows deeper, even the Sergeant is left baffled, and with various changes of narrator down the line, we are left hanging almost to the very end, a year later in the story, until all of the clues are unravelled to find out who stole the Moonstone, and why.

It’s a gripping read, with plenty of twists and turns, and some very interesting characters. I liked the way the narrator kept changing; it was interesting to see how different a take the various story tellers had on the events and the people involved. The most exciting thing for me though was that Wilkie Collins took part of his inspiration from the murder described in The Suspicions of Mr Whicher; Sergeant Cuff is based on Mr Whicher, and the idea of the perpetrator of the crime being within the household was taken from the same situation in the Road Hill House murder. This aspect is fascinating; the idea that you can have people you trust living under your roof without really knowing them at all is something that must have sent a chill down contemporary readers’ spines, especially with the saga of the Road Hill House murder being all over the papers at the time, and with most households employing at least one servant, whose private life was usually an enigma to its employers.

All in all, I greatly enjoyed The Moonstone, but I did find in places it betrayed its serial origins; inconsistencies abound where Collins clearly changed his mind about people half way through, plot lines are tidied up too hastily and in places too much is given away too early. It certainly wasn’t as slick as The Woman in White. Even so, this is still a brilliant, suspenseful and marvellously wintry read; perfect to curl up in front of the fire with on a dark and dreary November afternoon. It’s left me with a longing for even MORE sensation novels, too; my next is going to be No Name.

p.s. The image I’ve used is by an artist called Alfred Stevens, who painted the picture OUP have used for their Oxford World’s Classics edition. Personally I think the painting of his I have used is far more appropriate!