Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

“In this matter of the Diamond”, he said, “the characters of innocent people have suffered under suspicion already - as you know. The memories of innocent people may suffer, hereafter, for want… of a record of the facts to which those who come after us can appeal.  There can be no doubt that this strange family history of ours ought to be told.”

The Moonstone is a diamond with a history.  

It received its mysterious name from an association with the Hindu god of the moon, Shiva. Originally set in the forehead of a sacred statue of the god at Somnath on the western coast of India, and later at Benares, an Indian city on the banks of the Ganga south-east of the state capital, Lucknow, it was said to be protected by hereditary guardians on the orders of Vishnu and to wax and wane in brilliance along with the light of the moon.

Originally published in serial form in 1868 in Dickens’ magazine, All The Year Round, The Moonstone is an epistolary or multi-narration novel and is generally considered one of the first and best detective novels in the English language. A precursor of the mystery and suspense novel form, it was greatly successful in its first publication and each installment release was marked by crowds of anxious readers waiting expectantly outside the publisher’s offices in Wellington Street.  Collins’ enlightened social attitudes became apparent in The Moonstone in his honest depiction of servants in the novel, for his respectful treatment of Indians and their religious motivations and the sympathetic characterizations of reformed criminals. 

But it is first and foremost a detective novel and established certain features that became thereafter expected in the genre.  Facts and details most certainly were central and contributed to the well-developed plot, where the storyline moved and how the novel was ingeniously wrapped up at the close.  It has been suggested that some incidents from The Moonstone were taken from the real life historical Constance Kent Road Case and that the plot for this novel is certainly Wilkie Collins at his most detailed and intricate best.

Wilkie Collins was born William Wilkie Collins on January 8, 1824 in Marylebone, London - an area where he resided for most of his life. During his lifetime he wrote over thirty major books, a dozen or more plays, and over a hundred articles, short stories and essays.  His best known and most popular works, however, are assuredly The Woman In White (1860) and The Moonstone (1868).

Collins lived within the very heart of British Victorian society but rarely conformed to its rigid strictures on conduct and lifestyle.  He lived to the excess in almost everything he enjoyed; food, wine, flamboyant clothes, his relationships with women and his growing dependence on opium as he dealt with issues of ill health.

The eldest son of a popular and celebrated landscape artist and portrait painter, he spent much of his childhood traveling to such places as France and Italy and received an education at Maida Hill Academy and later Cole’s boarding school. But Wilkie Collins felt that his travels provided him with more of the information and experience that promoted his imagination and development towards the art of avid story telling than his school attendance.  Never completely in good health, Collins’ condition had already begun to decline when he produced The Moonstone.  He suffered from “rheumatic gout” or “neuralgia” which effected his eyesight enough to have a secretary often at his disposal and various remedies were tried until he was eventually prescribed opium in the form of laudanum.

For almost 20 years Wilkie Collins remained fast friends with Charles Dickens, with whom he regularly collaborated as well as other novelists,  playwrights, theatrical personalities, musicians, publishers and other society figures of the time. In one of Collins letters he said: “We saw each other every day, and were as fond of each other as men could be. Nobody (my own dear mother excepted, of course) felt so positively of the future before me in literature, as Dickens did.”

T. S. Eliot described The Moonstone as the “first and greatest of English detective novels”. Dorothy L. Sayers - often crowned “queen of crime” in the 1930s and 40s - described the novel as “probably the finest detective story every written”. It was a landmark novel that influenced many authors who followed Collins including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and in its long existence has never been out of print.

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins is the third read in our current study of British Victorian Authors. You have plenty of time to start reading to discuss over a Winter Book Breakfast to take place on Saturday, January 24th, 2015 at 10am!

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