The Limits of Sensation

by Arthur B

Wilkie Collins invented the sensation novel and he can destroy it whenever he likes.
After kicking off the "sensation novel" fad with The Woman In White and producing a couple of additional contributions to the genre - No Name and Armadale - Wilkie Collins produced The Moonstone, which if he'd been working in the 1960s instead of the 1860s he might well have referred to as a deconstruction of the genre. Whilst The Woman In White is a gleeful foray into criminality, betrayal, manipulation and blatantly evil people getting away with being blatantly evil, with a story that ultimately hinges on uncovering objective clues which can resolve the matter once and for all, The Moonstone is about what happens if people make the mistake of treating real life as though it were a narrative (and specifically, the sort of narrative you get in a sensation novel). The ultimate resolution of the story depends not on uncovering a suppressed document or obtaining the right confession, but on people honestly declaring their feelings about each other, and in particular on a highly subjective test which in the end only works to reconcile the parties in conflict because both of them want it to work.

After a prologue explaining how the Moonstone, a sacred Hindu relic, was plundered from India by the murderous Colonel John Herncastle in the course of one of the Anglo-Mysore wars, the first half of the novel is narrated by Gabriel Betteredge, the most senior servant of Lady Julia Verinder - one of Harncastle's sisters. Betteredge is eccentric - he's convinced that Robinson Crusoe, his favourite novel, reveals omens of the future - and pragmatic to the point of occasionally being outright cold cold (he married his late wife because that was cheaper than hiring her to be his housekeeper). He's also getting on in years - although in theory he's in charge of the household servants, in practice Lady Verinder has given him a cushy position where he can spend his semi-retirement snoozing in the sunshine whilst his underlings do all the hard work.

His laid-back routine, however, is shattered with the grand birthday celebration of Rachel, Lady Verinder's daughter. Franklin Blake, a cousin of Rachel's who's enjoyed a varied education on the Continent, arrives bearing the Moonstone, which his father has been keeping in trust for the now deceased Colonel Herncastle. Herncastle gave strict instructions that the Moonstone should be presented to Rachel on her birthday - an apparent reference to a perceived slight suffered when he attempted to gatecrash a previous birthday party of Rachel's. It seems likely that Herncastle wanted to spook Lady Verinder by bringing to mind the reputed curse surrounding the Moonstone, and the appearance of three mysterious Indian jugglers in the local area who show an undue interest in Blake's movements suggests that its former owners are intent on reclaiming it.

Sure enough, immediately after Rachel's birthday dinner the Moonstone is stolen from her room in the middle of the night. After a botched investigation by the local police, the renowned Sergeant Cuff is summoned; Betteredge finds himself afflicted with what he calls the "detective fever" as he energetically throws himself into supporting Cuff's investigation - but to his horror, the investigation not only eliminates the obvious suspects (the three Indian gentlemen), but begins to suggest that a family member is guilty of the theft. The investigation comes to an unsatisfactory end when household servant Roseanna Spearman, who has been behaving in an incredibly suspicious manner ever since the theft, kills herself in an infamous patch of quicksand on the nearby beach and the primary movers in the case scatter to the four winds. Cuff presents an extremely plausible theory to Lady Verinder, but since this wasn't really an age when a cop could haul a member of the gentry into the station and put them to the third degree there's little he can do to advance the investigation. The second half of the novel, which returns to the multiple narrator style of The Woman In White, both explores the effect of the lingering suspicions on the major characters and unravels the mysteries set up in the first half to reveal who took the Moonstone, why they took it, and where it is now.

My experience of reading The Moonstone was kind of marred by having previously read Drood, which (amongst its many, many other sins) includes a honking great spoiler for The Moonstone, but that didn't throw me as much as it might have for The Woman In White because here the resolution of the mystery is of second importance to the strife caused by the ongoing doubt. The question of who stole the Moonstone, and whether or not a particular character should be regarded as a thief, is resolved by an experiment that is posed in objective terms but is really enormously, overwhelmingly subjective; it requires the human participant to essentially act like machines, when in fact it would be trivially easy for the participant in question to just fake the result that they want to achieve. But it doesn't actually matter because Rachel has already made a decision to forgive the individual under suspicion regardless of what the experiment says: merely hearing the theory behind the experiment gives her something to latch onto which allows her to drop the barrier she had thrown up between herself and the individual in question. Anyone who actually wanted to discount the result of the experiment could raise perfectly good objections to it, but they don't, and I can only conclude that that's because even though earlier on in the day they are sceptical about it, by the time it actually happens they realise that they want it to succeed after all.

Likewise, the most dubious character in the book turns out not to be a villainous mastermind but someone who simply happened to take advantage of circumstances when luck put the Moonstone in their path. The story ultimately is not a narrative of heroes and villains, unlike The Woman In White; just as the obvious villain turns out to be a mere con artists, the obvious hero turns out to be not entirely blameless in the whole affair. There's no Count Fosco character here, though in general Collins' knack for creating vivid characters is in full force. Cuff and Betteredge are both well-definined individuals, the former of which becoming the model for every detective in every country house mystery written subsequently, and more or less all of the viewpoint characters are interesting in one way or another, but my favourite segment of the book has to be the narrative of Miss Clack.

Clack is Rachel's evangelical cousin and her appearance in the novel seems to have mainly arisen from Collins wanting to do a character assassination on a similar zealot who made an absolute nuisance of herself during his mother's terminal illness. Whilst Miss Clack makes herself out to be the perfect Christian, taking on enormous amounts of charitable work and meekly attempting to guide her relatives to a better relationship with God, her own actions - as narrated by her - put this to the lie. The charities she works for represent some of the most ridiculous and useless causes imaginable - there's one that buys men's trousers from second-hand shops and turns them into children's shorts, so the men can't buy their trousers back when their paycheck comes in and then pawn them again to buy booze - and it seems that much of her charity work is taken on for the sake of being close to Godfrey Ablewhite, one of Rachel's other cousins and Franklin Blake's romantic rival, whom she seems positively obsessed with. On meeting Penelope, Betteredge's daughter, her first impulse is to try and give her a tract about the sinful nature of her cap-ribbons; Clack's attempts to force trashy tracts on utterly irrelevant subjects on everyone she meets becomes a theme of her narrative. On learning that Lady Verinder is terminally ill, her first thought is to badger her into converting to her own brand of Christianity; when Lady Verinder won't hear of it, Clack takes to hiding tracts around the house in places where she will find them.

Clack spies on Rachel and Godfrey when they are meeting up, whines after narrating Lady Verinder's death that Lady Verinder never gave her the inheritance she had hinted at, and finally ends up blotting her reputation utterly with the main players when, during a tense confrontation between Rachel and Godfrey's father after Rachel breaks off her engagement with Godfrey, she makes a disastrous intervention in which she wails about Lady Verinder going to Hell and how Rachel will go to Hell unless she reads those stupid tracts. There's a fantastic chapter at one point in her narrative which consists of a series of letters between Miss Clack and Franklin Blake (who is compiling the narratives for publication), in which Franklin keeps having to tell her that he's not going to copy-paste her tracts into the narrative itself and she eventually agrees to stop hassling him about it on the condition that the correspondence is included in the book. Clack's narrative is of interest to the modern reader for two reasons. The first is that it establishes that even at the height of the Victorian era there were still moral crusaders yelling that society wasn't uptight and repressed enough, and there were still people willing to point out how ridiculous they were being. The second is that it's completely hilarious.

You've got interesting characters, you've got a clever plot which is ahead of its time, and you've got Wilkie Collins' usual wit. What's the downside? Well, for one thing, there's the whole Indian thing. It is tempting to say that Collins' treatment of the Indian characters is an attempt to deal even-handedly with characters of other races in a time when it wasn't usual for novelists to even attempt to do that which has, unfortunately, ended up looking just racist when viewed from our perspective - they are, at least, supposed to be cultured, educated (if superstitious) and capable individuals who act according to their own agenda, and the Colonel's initial theft of the Moonstone is depicted as a brutal and unworthy act. (The term "war crime" was not in currency at that point, but had it been Collins might have been tempted to use it.) Unfortunately, that argument wouldn't hold water. There's documentary evidence that in writing the Indian stuff Collins had wanted to include wild orgies in honour of their sinister foreign gods. Granted, he does not include these because he talked to an expert on the subject that told him that such things didn't really happen, but he still wanted to include them in the first place. And the fact is that the Indians are still regarded as suspicious, dangerous individuals - they are responsible for a major character's murder at one point - who are supported in their conspiracy to acquire the Moonstone by a whole host of other immigrants and ne'er-do-wells. Collins implicitly assumes that foreigners will tend to work together in conspiracies against nice English people who belong in this country, even when those foreigners don't even come from the same continent.

As far as more minor quibbles go, I felt that the family tree is kind of hard to keep straight, not least because of the incredible proliferation of cousins. Modern readers might mock the characters for being so keen on making out with their flesh and blood, but in their social world it seems like everyone is everyone else's cousin, so incest seems kind of unavoidable. And the experiment that I have been alluding to in an extremely spoilery way is, I feel, badly mishandled; the mechanism by which it works and the theory behind it are laid out too far in advance, and the result is obtained is precisely the result that we have been led to expect, so you end up knowing how it's going to pan out well before it is attempted. Furthermore, Ezra Jennings, the opium-addicted foreign doctor who proposes the test, accidentally upstages the main mystery with his occasional allusions to his own mysterious past, which I found so tantalising I wished that Collins would narrate that instead.

But either way, I don't think The Moonstone's reputation as Collins' other major classic alongside The Woman In White is undeserved. In its picking apart of the conventions of the genre its predecessor established, it is surprisingly modern, and the world that Collins takes us into is surprisingly modern as well; there's a police force which is gaining more and more power to intervene in the affairs of its betters, there's a press that reports on the events of the story (and the ensuing public scandal has an effect on the characters), and in the resolution of the experiment that I am furiously evading the details of there's something akin to the plot twists psychological thrillers are so fond of (though it is in no way as stupid as the plot twist in Shutter Island). The prose style, in particular, is such that if you stripped away the contemporary references you could mistake it for a 20th Century author writing in a slightly over-formal style rather than a 19th Century author writing in a pulpy, populist style. Pretty awesome, all considered.

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Comments (go to latest)
Sonia Mitchell at 22:28 on 2011-04-15
I didn't really get on with The Moonstone, I have to admit. I can appreciate its impact as the dawning of detective fiction, but I was pretty disappointed with its pacing. And, as you say, the Indians.

I came to it with a very high opinion of Collins, though, based on A Terribly Strange Bed, which is awesome. (Incidentally, and related to a much earlier article of yours, Wordsworth's Horror line publish a budget version of his shorter stories. It's worth checking out for ATSB alone, although I really ought to read the other at some point)
Arthur B at 23:33 on 2011-04-15
The pacing is really odd. I do think knowing the twist was actually an advantage in a weird way because it made me focus less on the detective fiction aspects as such, and helped me appreciate the way that halfway through it sort of stops and says "Hey, all this? It's kind of bullshit isn't it."

But I can't put hand on heart and say it's as well-paced as The Woman In White (and heck, even that had some pacing issues in the second half). And you can tell that Collins was totally high when he wrote it. at 20:52 on 2011-04-19
Hey... I actually loved the Moonstone more than the Woman in White... found the latter a bit too hysterical/fantastic :P

I think its interesting how all your judgement(s) of the book essentially stem from the times you are from... :P But cut him some slack - he's a writer! Its so hard not to have proper villains when you're trying to write a story; or even fake red herring-y villains like those Indians. I always thought it added something to the story to see everyone villyfing them - it was a very typical reaction of their times. And you must admit that given it was a narrative based story, it makes sense that the narrators would have that kind of inherent prejudice.. Also, as a foreigner in a western country :P sometimes, being a foreigner is a strong enough bond, even if you are from different continents - both in the same boat, so to speak.

The mishandling of the experiment, I agree, was a problem. It seemed just a little too contrived...

Miss Clack - the masterpiece of a genius! I read this book about 4-5 years ago, but I can still hear her voice and picture her in my head... always thought of her as this sickly thin little creature in too much starch. :P
Arthur B at 21:15 on 2011-04-19
The thing is, I don't think using the fact that the Indians are, well, from India as a source of exoticism and mystery and sensationalism is at all OK. It's not OK now, and it wasn't OK then, regardless of the fact that it was far more acceptable then than it is now.

Granted, I am kind of imposing my own moral views on the past there. But then again I'm not reviewing the book for the benefit of Victorians, I'm reviewing it for modern readers, at least some of whom might find the handling of the Indians sufficiently distasteful to ruin the novel for them. at 21:41 on 2011-04-19
It's great to have these sorts of reviews of lesser known victorians and others, Collins might be an interesting read based on this.

It is of course true that reviews should be made with the reviews reader in mind and of course to be honest of our own views on the subject. So addressing the unfair and untrue stereotypes of any text is admirable as such. I do wonder though, if this is a very conditional thing to do, having to do with the distance between our(or the reviewer's or the reader's)world in time from the text. I suppose this could be seen in trying to understand texts from an unfmiliar culture as well. For example, Victorian times and values are easier to criticize, because in many ways modern western culture defines itself in opposition to some victorian values. But would a similar effort even make sense in a review of an older text for example, or would it be fair to expect the reader to realize the texts more unsavoury aspects are signs of a more unenlightened time from our perspective without having to point it out.

Briefly, such things could be seen as an obvious part of reading old stuff and if the book had just been published by a contemporar author would be an entirely different matter.
Arthur B at 23:18 on 2011-04-19
It's great to have these sorts of reviews of lesser known victorians and others, Collins might be an interesting read based on this.

Collins isn't really that "lesser known" to be honest... I mean I'm not exactly dredging up anything especially forgotten or obscure here, I'm just inflicting my opinion of this book on the world because I've got a soapbox to do so from. :P at 00:23 on 2011-04-20
Well, I'm speaking from my own, very unorganized perspective on english literature. As a Finn for whom the english canon is taught by what is deemed essential literature on an european or a finnish scale and where even slightly more obscure writers are left for us to discover on our own.
Robinson L at 10:00 on 2012-12-31
I listened to this over the summer, after reading your review, and it's weird what I retained and what I didn't. I remembered a lot about the experiment ("okay, it's all going to come down to a subjective experiment which even the perpetrator wants to succeed, I wonder how that comes about") and the Indians causing the death of a major character, which for anyone who hasn't already read the book takes place towards the very end, and so I was waiting and waiting for it to happen and wondering "they didn't cause Roseanna Spearman's death somehow, did they?"

On the other hand, I forgot that you'd said the experiment's conclusion was anticlimactic, so I spent much of the build-up to the experiment and the thing itself half-expecting some sort of twist or disaster to arise (another interesting thing is that while I knew a highly subjective test of some sort would effectively bring about the resolution, I didn't know absolutely for sure that Jennings' experiment was that test until after it was over).

Another thing I completely forgot was everything you said about Ms. Clack, and actually, I found her section of the story by far the hardest to get through. There were times during the very beginning in the build up to the theft that I wanted to stop (and sometimes did stop for a while) because I was bored, but Ms. Clack's narration was the only part where I stopped because I couldn't stand to keep listening. Sure, she was funny for a while, but her section just dragged on and on and she kept being both awful and thoroughly smug about her own virtuosity that I just found it sickening. I suppose the narrator for that section should be applauded for playing her character so well, but for me it was just done too well, and I was greatly relieved when Ms. Clack's part in the narrative was finally over.

Jennings, though, was great, and his sections of the audiobook are read by the guy who provided the supplemental narration to the old Recorded Books recordings of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, and also recorded a couple of Jeeves stories for them. I too found that he far overshadowed Franklin Blake with his quirks, his mysterious backstory, and his driving motivation in the story being to help others rather than sort out his own problems.

I did find the pacing pretty rocky at times. It took me a really long time to get into the story proper, and even after that my attention sometimes just wandered.

Interesting that you bring up deconstruction, as one of the strongest impressions which I got from the book was (in reference to Sergeant Cuff) "Wow, in one book Wilkie deconstructed and then reconstructed the brilliant detective archetype before said archetype had even gotten off the ground." I mean, in the first part, he talks very knowledgably about stuff he's only guessing at, and makes several predictions which pan out precisely as he states them, and basically acts a lot like a Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot, always ten steps ahead of everyone else - only in the end, it turns out his core hypothesis was completely wrong, and there was, in fact, an equally plausible explanation for everything that went down which he completely missed. On the other hand, once he's appraised of the error, he successfully predicts the true culprit's identity. Again, not bad for an archetype that barely even existed at the time. at 00:44 on 2013-01-06
I think The Moonstone has been my least favorite Collins so far. . .definitely a sort of "I see what is important/relevant here, but it leaves me cold." I've read, let's see, The Woman in White (love!), Armadale (ridiculous, with an evil redhead! Love!), The Law and the Lady (on one hand, arguably creepy and ageist, on the other SO RIDICULOUS with the manic muscular dwarf!), and Man and Wife (huge digressions into how too much athletics are ruining British young men! And the terror of Scottish marriage laws! Love!). It might be, though, that I just found Rachel to be much less fun than the heroines in most of the other books. I want my ridiculous sensation plots with awesome Marian Halcombe types, plz. And less opportunities for racefail, although Armadale has some pretty sketchy morality-via-genetics, too. But Miss Clack is pretty funny, and I remember being terribly worried about Dr. Jennings and disappointed that he just kind of trails off.
Robinson L at 10:00 on 2013-01-24
I've only read (listened to) three Wilkie Collins books so far, but The Moonstone was loads better than The Evil Genius: this orphan woman goes to work as governess for the adolescent daughter of a young couple, and there's an attraction between her and the husband. Cue eight or nine disks of somewhat original but still not terribly interesting Love Triangle, and that's 80-90% of the book, with the remaining 10-20% given over to only marginally more engaging subplots. Oh, and it's written in straightforward third person narration rather than first person manuscripts, so no delightfully quirky narrators, either.

Also less race-fail than The Moonstone though.
Arthur B at 10:17 on 2013-01-24
I'm disappointed that The Evil Genius isn't an autobiography of Count Fosco.
Robinson L at 10:36 on 2013-01-24
Just so. Even Fosco-like antics would've been quite a treat. Instead, it's just how one of the characters in the love triangle (or perhaps it was her mother) refers to her romantic rival.
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