NOTE: Goodreads friends, skip down to the section beginning Social Anxiety for material additional to the goodreads review.
This fall I found a used copy of The Moonstone, a Victorian Mystery novel by Wilkie Collins, 1868. I had read it as an adolescent but I retained no memory beyond the title. I didn't remember it as a mystery because I had then no conception of "mysteries" as a genre, nor had I heard of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers or Arthur Conan Doyle. Neither did I have enough sense of history to remember it as "Victorian." At that age—twelve and thirteen—all time was still eternal despite whatever history might have been taught in grade school.
Reading it again, I was at first disappointed because the opening seemed "hoaky" if I can use that word to label a story replete with evil relatives, stolen and cursed diamonds, a beautiful young (and rich) heroine, handsome suitors and humorous servants. The frame work was a clutch of cliches which, of course, are now familiar to me as they weren't at my first reading. But The Moonstone is far more than a "mere" Victorian Mystery, and it is worth considering at some length. The mystery concerns a valuable "yellow" diamond from India, called The Moonstone, which is reputed to be cursed, and which a British officer in India illegally and immorally steals. Later, in England, he bequeaths the stone to his niece and the night it is given to her, it is stolen from the country house, from her own sitting room.
Standard requisites of the nineteenth-century novel in general overlap with those of the mystery, and The Moonstone is well supplied with the necessities: in addition to heroine, suitors, and servants, these include a famous detective, a no-nonsense solicitor, and additional satirical comic relief. Three other characters surprised me: two are hardly introduced until late in the book, but the character Rosanna Spearman figures importantly in early parts of the plot. She is a novelty in a Victorian book, and lends a curious tone to the story. Rosanna is a criminal, born into urban poverty and early prison, whom Lady Verinder (Rachel's mother) hires as a house-servant because a Matron there thought her rehabilitated. Rosanna has never before been exposed to "fine people" and her expectations mislead her. One of Rachel's suitors, handsome Franklin Blake, treats Rosanna with politeness and kindness, with the result that Rosanna falls in love with him, and Blake is completely unaware of it. Soon after the diamond's disappearance, Rosanna commits suicide in a gruesome manner, of grief for being beneath Blake's notice.
I don't know what structural functionality such a character and background would ordinarily serve in the Victorian era, or if it's as unusual as it seems to me, but it is a unique twist to the story and oddly unsettling. Perhaps I am mistaken to find everything about the depiction of Rosanna Spearman unusual, and almost modern. In 1868, however, Ibsen was writing in Europe, Balzac had written, Flaubert and Zola were raising eyebrows, and Thomas Hardy, of course, was hardly Victorian. Even Victor Hugo treated seriously the theme of the daughter of criminals loving a young nobleman (Eponine and Marius).
In his "Preface" Collins avers that one object of his writing was to reveal "the influence of circumstances on character," definitely a trait of some modernity. In The Moonstone, however, he purports conversely to trace the "influence of character on circumstances," aiming to show how the unexpected firmness of intention of an eighteen-year-old girl influenced events so strongly because no one could have guessed her discernment of alternatives. I had not thought about how "modern" Rachel's behavior is, but certainly the cunning of the plot of The Moonstone does owe much to the fact that Rosanna Spearman's character is misinterpreted, in the story and by readers as well.
What makes the story rise even more markedly above a normal "good" mystery, I think, is the device of having it told by four different characters who witnessed events at different stages. How much the structure was influenced by its initial appearances in three serial segments I can't say, but certainly the stylistic variety in itself enhanced my pleasure in its reading.
The first section, by far the longest, is told by Gabriel Betteredge, the steward, a man seventy years old who knew Lady Verinder before she was married. His is the voice of the loyal retainer: prosaic, undignified, and sometimes a little crusty—especially when his stubborn faith in the young Mistress Rachel is questioned--but shrewd and practical nonetheless. Most of all, he is amusing in the stereotypical way that a good country serving man is "supposed" to entertain us cosmopolitan literary types.
In the meantime, here is another false start and more waste of good
writing paper. What's to be done now? Nothing that I know of, except
for you to keep your temper, and for me to begin it all over again for
the third time.
Betteredge treats a volume of Robinson Crusoe the way some people superstitiously treat the Tao Te Ching or the Bible, as a kind of fortune-telling talisman. Whatever page he opens it to, he finds solutions to riddles, answers to questions he didn't realize he had; sometimes even the foretelling of events. So between his dithering about the difficulty of having to write, his recourse to Robinson Crusoe, his frequent naps in a chair in the sun, his attention to details of the household, his long history with the family, and his sentimental warmth, the first half (40%) of the book which introduces all the major characters, including the noted Sergeant Cuff, flows briskly along through family history, the arrival of the diamond and discovery of its theft, subsequent suspicions and uproar, and initial investigations, with the clarity of the below-stairs view.
The narrator of the second segment is the most caricatured portrait in the book, and other than the ostracized uncle who bequeaths the diamond to Rachel, she is one of only two mean-spirited characters, both of them proselytizing Christians. Miss Clack is an eager bearer of tracts of "good works" such as "The Devil in the Hairbrush" (about women's vanity). Among Miss Clack's misguided spiritual companions there are men and married women available for this role, so I frowned a little at the presumed prior inferiority of the "spinster," which I felt verged on the heavy-handed. But the ridicule is funny and this particular kind of smug proselytizing well deserves savage mockery. Like Gabriel Betteredge, Miss Clack constantly comments on her writing style too, but without his humility, a trait Miss Clack lacks absolutely:
Oh, be morally tidy! Let your faith be as your stockings, and your
stockings as your faith. Both ever spotless, and ready to be put on
at a moment's notice!
I beg a thousand pardons. I have fallen insensibly into my Sunday-
school style. Most inappropriate in such a record as this. Let me try
to be worldly. . . .
The charities of these devout Christians are also ridiculed: the best one being the
"British-Ladies-Servants'-Sunday-Sweetheart-Supervision-Society." But the "Mothers'-Small-Clothes-Conversion-Society" also has its charms: this committee buys in trousers that have been pawned and converts them to children's clothes, primarily to punish the profligate fathers who will not get their pants back!
Before I leave Miss Clack, there is one passage that well be the creed of some of our own twenty-first-century know-nothings:
"Taxation may be the consequence of a mission; riots may be the
consequence of a mission; wars may be the consequence of a mission:
we go on with our work, irrespective of every human consideration
which moves the world outside us. We are above reason; we are beyond
ridicule; we see with nobody's eyes, we hear with nobody's ears, we feel
with nobody's hearts, but our own. Glorious, glorious privilege! And
how is it earned? Ah, my friends, you may spare yourselves the useless
inquiry! We are the only people who can earn it—for we are the only people
who are always right[emph. mine].
The final segment of the book is written primarily by the rejected suitor Franklin Blake. Two minor characters play decisive roles here. First, there is a crippled, embittered girl of "low rank" who holds a clue almost completely unexpected although it was foreshadowed in Gabriel Betteredge's part of the tale. After everyone but the servants had left the estate, Lucy Yolland appeared, a nearby fisherman's daughter, both lamed enough to use a crutch and desperately lean and haggard. She hails Gabriel "as if she could have eaten me alive," looking for Franklin Blake, "the murderer"! Lucy has a letter for him from Rosanna, written before her death. "Murderer," she calls him because he ought to have seen Rosanna was in love, he ought to have taken pity of her, he ought to have noticed when someone was suffering. He therefore caused her death.. She even argues in general:
"Where is this gentleman that I mustn't speak of, except with respect?
Ha, Mr. Betteredge, the day is not far off when the poor will rise
against the rich. I pray Heaven they may begin with him. I pray
Heaven they may begin with him."
Ezra Jennings is another disabled 'freak,' a parallel to Lucy Yolland and to Rosanna Spearman: someone out of place, someone unacceptable to society, whom, however, Collins treats with empathy and in a realistic manner, and who I expected to be somehow culpable, because of the stereotypes I've encountered in the three British mystery authors I know: Conan Doyle, Sayers, and Christie. Jennings has three afflictions. First he had a mother of an "other" race, which partly explains why his appearance is unusual in Victorian England. "I was born, and partly brought up in one of our colonies. My father was an Englishman; but my mother was –."
Second, perhaps as a corollary, he has suffered an unjust accusation which destroyed his reputation and prevents him from having a profitable practice of his own. His third affliction he does not disclose to Blake, but Collins 'omnisciently' imparts the knowledge by including pages from Jennings' journal: Ezra Jennings suffers from a terrible crippling disease which accounts for his gaunt skeletal look, and the pied black and white of his hair.
The entire mystery is bookended by two stories witnessed in India: the initial theft of the Diamond in 1799 and a later post-script sent by a traveler in India. The prologue tells of an assault by British Colonial forces on a town in India. The postscript is a report from India which closes the story. For what I've omitted is the Orientalist twist to the story—the "Curse of the Moonstone" and the eerie presence of three "dark" men, Brahmin descendants of descendants of descendants, who have pursued the diamond since "the lawless Mohammedans" first stole it from the temple of the "Hindoo god of the moon"—"whose seat is on the antelope," and whose four arms "embrace the four corners of the earth."
In my reading, the Hindu deity associated with the moon is Chandra who has only two arms and usually rides in a chariot carrying the lunar disk across the sky, although it is possible to associate him with being seated on an antelope. The four-armed gods, however, are the great Trinity, Vishnu, Brahma and Shiva, and they are not associated with either the moon or the antelope. Imagine reading a story about Americans who worship a Great Christ that holds the graven tablets of the Ten Commandments. That's what I call irresponsible representation. And this kind of irresponsible appropriation and invention of symbols, themes, and stories from "the East" is what is meant by "Orientalism" in Postcolonial Theorizing.
Social Anxiety, Orientalism, and the Mystery Genre: Ambivalence in "The Moonstone."
It has been argued that the mystery genre came into being with industrialization and urbanization, that is, when nineteenth-century life was becoming urbanized--full of strangers, chaotic and unpredictable, and stories of "the Other worlds" abounded. Urban danger and chaos reached out to destabilize even the familiar and inviolate hierarchies of the country. And what could be more sinister, lurking in the city of lost innocence, than delegates from the lands of "our" inferiors? Dark people. Dark dangers. Sayers with all her 20s feminist savvy still uses the N-word quite casually, at least once specifically of native of India who had studied at Oxbridge.
Several historical events occur together in the 1840s. The first detective story is generally considered to be Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," (1841) in which the mysterious violent culprit is an "ourang-outang" escaped into a city, a "danger from the East." Poe had recently seen an "orang-utan" (current English) exhibited in Philadelphia, and the coincidence of the exhibit and the Orientalist shape of the story brings together all the tropes of colonial trophies, exoticism, fascination and dangers. The 1840s also saw the establishment of the first professional police forces in a number of cities, American and European. Poe's "little story" set a template for Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and others, but also for the role of "the Orient" and Colonialism in mysteries, including The Moonstone. Conan Doyle's Professor Moriarty figure, and such Christie stories of global criminal conspiracies as her repellent racist and reactionary book The Big Four, point to a perceived social hunger for the reassuring rationality of the detective or mystery story: to set time back, to reestablish a safe and stable social hierarchy in the books, and to end change which threatens those hierarchies: revolutions, uprisings, mutinies, resistance, labor struggles and strikes, feminism and the danger—moral as well as physical-- of cities.
The Mystery or Detective genre of literature soothed the "white" urban psyche in several ways: it identified and arrested the guilty, it cut through the disorder with a supremely intelligent, observant, rational investigator—the unique power of the European, and until well into the twentieth century, the European male!—and, finally, it acknowledged the social anxiety
According to some psychological theory, victimizers often hate and fear their victims because they project the suspicion that their victims must hate them and crave revenge. Slavery advocates used to claim that their "blacks" were happy and childlike and would not be able to take care of themselves if emancipated, but on the other hand, and at the same time they maintained that "blacks" were savage, dangerous, lustful, unruly, bloodthirsty. In the nineteenth century in Europe, the great fear was from the East (which included the Arab countries, or the "Middle East" and sometimes, unwittingly, Africa and South America)—as if Europe were half the world and the 75% of the world Europe dominated were a roughly equivalent sphere, an opposite, in fact.
For nineteenth-century Britons, and Europeans generally, the Asian colonies were an increasing source of national power, pride, and profit: a place to build careers and acquire wealth. Above all, the East was a topic to discuss, to lecture about, to gossip about, to fantasize over, to "own." Ideological references run a gamut of types and sources, from political speeches and legislation, explorers' tales, advice for investors and administrators about how to rule "the Orient" and why it was incumbent on modern civilizations to provide rational and enlightened supervision to these sadly decadent dens of iniquity, sensuality and chaos—"the white man's burden"—to the taking and displaying of trophies and cultural icons: ivory, beaten brass tables, elephant-foot umbrella holders, tiger and snow leopard rugs, an endless list. The East was repellent and fascinating, dangerous and inviting. Novelists, painters, musicians, poets ("In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree"), and dancers all as readily rendered "Oriental" themes as we children of the 40s used to do "Indian dances" and go "on the warpath" with chicken feathers tied to our heads, a kitchen pot as "tom-tom," bows and arrows with suction cups, and toy tomahawks. Crude and now-embarrassing though it is if looked at clearly, such appropriation of the vanquished has proved a common historical thread.
The best primary source for a thorough understanding of the phenomenon is the detailed and masterly examination of the function of Eurocentric representations of 'the East' over a five hundred year period: Edward W. Said's seminal primer in Post-Colonial Studies, entitled simply Orientalism, a model of deconstructing social fantasies and also of a meticulous and overt avoidance of re-constructing a counter-fantasy.
Said, a classics professor at Columbia, examines how the first European images and ideas about a definable construct called "The Orient" coincide precisely with important political and military interactions of Europe and some object imagined to be Europe's opposite—i.e., the world was essentially divided into two spheres—the West and the East. These 'Eastern' empires were now deemed decadent, sick, turgid, stagnant and backward, in the ideology, and it was up to Europe to rule them and bring them into contemporary civilization (Europe's domain). No distinction is made between Arab, Berber, Afghani, Indian, Pakistani, Malaysian, Chinese, Siberian, Japanese, etc. and in fact many of the national borders were created by Europe. But still one would think that Daoism, Shinto, Confucianism, Hindu, Buddhism and Islam would be seen as quite distinct. No, 'the East"is mystical. "We" in 'the West' are not.
Of special interest to me in The Moonstone is the ambivalence shown by Collins toward "the East". In 1868, when Collins published the book, a notorious Indian Mutiny was just over ten years in the past (1857). The Mutiny's reported atrocities inflamed English popular opinion, and during the aftermath no less a personage than Charles Dickens had advised exterminating the Indians across the board. Yet Collins, Dickens's protege and friend, only a decade later, sets The Moonstone in the past without reference to tensions in India, and the final entry in the book, a peaceful resolution, takes place in India in 1850. So Collins is particularly interesting not just because of the marked Orientalist tone and theme of his book, but in the ambivalence he displays. Yes, there is cast over the whole story the suspense of the "dark" Brahmins from India and their mysterious behavior and "mien," but alongside the danger theme is a counter-theme of noble bearing, of restraint—i.e., they do not harm the men they kidnap, except in the end the villainous thief. Yes, the diamond may be cursed, but in the end it finally does not harm those who, though they had no moral right to it, came by its possession innocently. The curse serves to enable the Brahmins to return the Moonstone to its Hindu culture and in the end leaves no lasting harm.
The Brahmins, like Rosanna Spearman, Lucy Yolland and Ezra Jennings, all are presented to the reader as somehow distinguished by the phrase Collins uses to describe Ezra Jennings, as having an "unsought self-possession." Perhaps Jennings can be seen as a particular embodiment of Collins's ambivalence. Like the crippled bad-tempered and bitter young Lucy, and the non-comprehending Rosanna Spearman, Ezra Jennings is someone that earlier sleuthing could not have foreseen, nor can the reader turn to typical construction to interpret. I cannot say much, without perhaps spoiling the end, about how he functions in the plot, except to say that his insight is not that of the detective, but of the scientist (another nineteenth-century trope, certainly, in 1868), and the object which allows his insight is a tricky import, again, from the Orient.
I have pointed out that Jennings suffers from two apparent misfortunes: he has been followed by an undeserved bad reputation which has haunted his fortunes, and his appearance is partly due to a mother of "some other race" (i.e., "other" than British). So here we have the supremely rational man being invested with a dual nature: West and East, Ruler and Colony. His skeletal appearance is also related to a condition that makes him dependent upon opium, a fateful drug, and a medicinally useful drug: again the book's ambivalence toward a token of 'the East.'
Thus a weapon in service of the unfortunate victims of the "curse" from the east is in fact also a hybrid of the east. Collins' depiction of Jennings resembles the development of the three "Brahmins": 'other'-ness makes him, and them, seem sinister; they are all three outside the normal social lives and they represent both an attraction and a repulsion felt toward the "other." It is Blake's freedom from suspicious prejudices which endears him to Jennings, and thereby clears the way to the solution of the mystery of the diamond's theft. Who took it? Well, quite literally, 'something from the east' -- so – no one. No one at all. How's that for mystery?