Study Guide; the Moonstone, Wilkie Collins

I’ve already published a review of this book here, but, having studied it in university last week, I thought I’d do a full study guide.


Plot

The Moonstone begins with a kind of preface, an account written about the Moonstone and where it came from. The Moonstone is a diamond that is extremely sacred to Hindus. It is always guarded by three priests, but these are all killed by a British Army soldier, John Herncastle, in 1799 and he brings the diamond to England. This information is important to the plot; remember that the diamond was first the property of India, and then the property of Britain.

The novel moves forward to the 1850s. Gabriel Betteridge, a steward to Lady Verinder, maiden name Julia Herncastle, begins the narrative. He claims he has been asked to begin the narrative by Franklin Blake, who wants a full account of events to be noted. Sir John Herncastle, you’ll remember him from the paragraph above, has bequeathed his precious diamond to Lady Verinder’s daughter, Rachel, and it is to be given to her on her eighteenth birthday (are you keeping up with all the characters?!). It is Franklin Blake that delivers the diamond to the Verinder household, warning Rachel that he believes John Herncastle’s life was in danger because of the Moonstone. Blake makes a comment to Rachel that the reason she received the diamond was a gesture of malice from Herncastle to Rachel’s mother, Lady Verinder. Franklin’s point is proven when he is followed by three Indian men in London and again at Lady Verinder’s house.

Keeley Hawes as Rachel, in
the 1997 TV Film, wearing
the Moonstone.
Superintendent Seegrave is called upon to find it. Rachel refuses to help with the investigation, which pins her as a suspect. A doorway has recently been painted, and Seegrave notices a mark in the paint that looks like fabric could have brushed against it, causing it to smudge. He asks Rachel and her maids if the mark was there when she went to bed, and she claims not to remember seeing it. Seegrave is determined to find the item of clothing that could have caused the smudge, because then the thief would be found. Seegrave offends all of the servants in the household by demanding to have their quarters searched for said clothing. He is let go from the case, and is replaced with Sergeant Cuff. Cuff suspects Lady Verinder’s house maid, Rosanna Spearman, because she has a history as a thief. Cuff believes Spearman helped Rachel to steal her own diamond in order to pay off debts.
A few days after the theft, Cuff tracks Rosanna and discovers she has hidden a secret package in the “shivering sands”, a place known to be dreary, depressing, and dangerous. Shortly after stowing the package, she drowns herself in the sinking sand. Cuff is also dismissed from the case when Lady Verinder discovers he suspects Rachel. Lady Verinder moves her household to London in order to distract Rachel, who still won’t negotiate with the detectives.
Miss Clack continues the narrative, and describes how Rachel agreed to marry Godfrey Ablewhite, before breaking off the engagement. Mr Bruff provides the next narrative. He’s the family lawyer, and explains that Rachel broke off the engagement because she had heard Godfrey intended to marry her for her money. Lady Verinder has died at this point and Rachel is therefore an heiress to the family fortune. Mr. Bruff also notes the presence of the Indians again, who have tracked the diamond to the bank of a moneylender, Septimus Luker.

Franklin Blake now continues the narrative. He discovers Rosanna Spearman left him a letter explaining her suicide. She was so in love with him and had evidence that he was the perpetrator who had stolen the diamond. Franklin has no evidence of taking the Moonstone, but after speaking with Rachel, she confirms that she saw him take it.

Franklin continues the investigation anyway, hoping to wrong Rachel. Ezra Jennings is the next narrator, a doctor’s assistant and tells of the doctor falling ill the night of Rachel’s birthday. The Doctor has become nearly unintelligible, but Jennings believes Franklin was given a dose of opium by the doctor as an experiment for modern science. Franklin accidently took the drug, that had been in his drink, which caused him to sleepwalk and steal the diamond. This is proven when Ezra and Franklin reenact the night of the diamond theft. Franklin repeats exactly his actions he undertook when the diamond was originally stolen. Franklin and Rachel become engaged.

Back in London, the diamond has been tracked from Septimus Luker to a sailor with a dark complexion. Franklin and Sergeant Cuff, who has been reinstated, locate the sailor, however he has been murdered. Under a deep disguise, the sailor is Godfrey Ablewhite. Franklin, while under opium, had given the diamond to Godfrey and asked Godfrey to store it safely in a bank. Godfrey had planned to take the diamond to Europe, to be cut up into smaller pieces and sold for money. However, he was killed by the mysterious Indians before he could do this. They returned to India with a diamond that was rightfully theirs.

Analysis

Collins definitely adheres to the ‘rules’ of detective fiction, although he was the first one to set such rules, with the Moonstone being one of the first of its kind. It has a mysterious crime, not in the shape of a murder, but of a theft. There are a large number of suspects, Moonstoneeach with large motives for acting out the crime. An incompetent officer, Detective Seegrave is employed, before being fired and this is when they bring in “the big boys”, with Sergeant Cuff, the “best detective in England”. What makes this novel so great is the techniques Collins employs to make it so. On many occasions, the reader is directly addressed, making the plot much more believable and it helps us to interact and connect with the story a bit better. Betteredge often speaks to the reader, apologising if he has deterred from the manner at hand, or spoken out of term, etc. He says in Chapter 1 that he does not “wish to raise your expectations and then disappoint them, I will take leave to warn you here”. Betteredge is constantly concerned about boring the reader, but includes all kinds of unimportant information because he wants to put down things exactly as they happened: “A sleepy old man, in a sunny backyard, is not an interesting object, I am well aware. But things must be put down in their places, as things actually happened…” However, he consoles us, claiming: ”Cheer up! I’ll ease you with another new chapter here – and that chapter shall take you straight into the thick of the story.” He also warns us when an important tidbit of information is being presented to us. Most of the time in these sort of crime fictions, I gloss over various characters and facts that I think aren’t important, but turn out to be vital as evidence. Luckily, I had Betteredge to highlight these bits for me: “There are reasons for taking particular notice here of the occupation that amused [Miss Rachel and Mr Franklin]. You will find it has a bearing on something that is still to come”.

The form of the novel is very interesting, switching points of view and characters, but what I found REALLY interesting, was Betteredge actually warns us, before Miss Clack’s narrative takes over: “I hear you are likely to be turned over to Miss Clack after parting with me. In that case just do me the favour of not believing a word she says, if she speaks of your humble servant”. I have never before known of an author to use this technique of forewarning in such a way. Miss Clack, as warned by Betteredge, is frustratingly Christian and instead of talking of the theft and her part of the narrative involved there, she goes on about hiding her religious ‘publications’ around Lady Verinder’s London house, hoping she will read them. Can we really believe any character? Gabriel Betteredge is biased because he has worked with the Verinder family for fifty years, and is very protective of them. He also does not like Franklin Blake, which portrays Franklin wrongly from the start. As we are warned by Betteredge, we are not to trust Miss Clack either. Can we really trust Franklin? Although he had no idea he was the one who committed the crime, he still stole the diamond. A form that comes towards the end of the novel includes letter writing but also the diary entries of Dr Candy’s assistant, Ezra Jennings, which prove to be very interesting in finding out who really stole the Moonstone.

Context

The Moonstone is such an important classic text that everyone should read. The Guardian have listed it at number 19 out of ‘The 100 Best Novels’ stating that it is said to be the “godfather of the classic English detective story”. The Moonstone was originally serialised by Charles Dickens in his magazine All the Year Round, between the 4th of January and the 8th of August 1868. After this, it was published in three hardback volumes on 16th July, 1868, before the final installations had been released as a serial. Collins, following the obvious success of his novel, adapted it for the stage, but it only ran for around two months, proving to be not as successful on the stage.

The Moonstone is often read as two types of fiction; sensational and detective. It can be difficult to tell which of the two the novel comes under, but it can be argued for both. Sensation fiction is taken from Gothic fiction and is usually made to frighten, with scenes of graphic violence. Sensation novels more often than not take place in country homes in rural England. Dickens actually accused Collins of his tendency to be “unnecessarily offensive to the middle class” (Free, 348). Collins had the idea for the Moonstone after hearing about the Road Murder Case, 1860, in which sixteen-year-old Constance Kent murdered her baby brother, and the evidence was a smear of blood left behind on a stained dress.

Key Themes

The Moonstone: the Moonstone itself is a symbol of exoticness and of the East. Gabriel says that the stone “”seemed unfathomable as the heavens themselves” and “shone awfully out of the depths of its own brightness, with a moony gleam, in the dark.” The Moonstone is also associated with femininity and virginity, because of its associations to the moon and pricelessness. Franklin enters Rachel’s room in the middle of the night, unannounced, and this is described as “sexual violation”, therefore can be construed as a metaphor for her loss of virginity.

Empire: although this is definitely not explicit, it is clear that there is some form of contention between British and India, and who truly owns the Moonstone. The diamond belongs to India; it was stolen from them originally by John Herncastle who passed it on to Rachel, knowing it would bring her family danger (he sounds like a nice man). In Free’s essay, entitled “Dirty Linen”, she claims “it is the thick overlay of empire and home that we are truly examining, (a portrayal) of which home is not merely affected by, but effecting empire”. The Indian jewel is not cursed, as Rachel believes, but has simply been stolen, which therefore makes empire the curse, and not the diamond itself. The idea of the jewel being cursed is an Eastern stereotype that Rachel assumes; because it comes from India, she believes some magical spell has been put upon it.

Addictionthe Moonstone is a novel that uses opium as a main plot line. Franklin is given opium without his knowing, which causes him to steal the diamond. Collins was also a known opium-addict himself. It is also hinted at that John Herncastle and Ezra Jennings are opium addicts too. Franklin Blake and Gabriel Betteredge are both tobacco addicts, smoking at various points throughout the narrative. Miss Clack is a devout Catholic, and it could also be stated she has an addiction to her faith. The religious actions she takes are required to make her feel normal and satisfied that she has pleased God.


Free, Melissa. “Dirty Linen”: Legacies of Empire in Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone. JSTOR, 2006. Web.

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